Manchester United have a history of developing players through their academy, whether the players end up reaching the first team of the club or end up playing their football somewhere else. This is part of the clubs DNA and is something that is seen by many as special. When United faced Villarreal in the UEFA Europa League final in Gdañsk on the 26 May 2021, it was the 4,097th match in a row that had at least one academy player in the squad which has been running since October 1937 and United are very proud of that fact. Not every academy player will make it at United but they do tend to carve careers in the game elsewhere. Some supports do not understand the role of the academy at the club and assume that English players with no skill are a waste of time – if only they understood the rules and regulations of the English game.
This article talks about six academy players who will become valuable squad players in the not too distant future, although some of them may head out of the club on loan this summer in a bid to gain experience in firs team football ahead of coming back to the club to find their feet and push themselves into the first team with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keen to find the road to glory in a similar fashion as Sir Alex Ferguson. United have so many talented youngsters at the club, some of whom have not yet represented the first team. Not all the players mentioned have played for the first team yet but have been involved in matches, albeit on the bench, which will have given them the understanding of the process. All have played first team football though, with the player being loaned out to give them experience to succeed.
Will Fish – Central Defender
The 18-year-old can play in either of the central defensive positions and seems to be highly rated by United, at least in the academy sense. His contract runs until the summer of 2022, so the 2021/22 season will be a big one for him. I would expect United to offer him a new contract this summer though, so they are not in a position whereby he could leave the club on a free next summer. He made his first team debut in the final Premier League match of the season with United beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 on the final day of the season. He replaced Daniel James in the final minute of the match. Fish made a total of 31 appearances throughout the 2020/21 season, 30 of those at academy level, scoring one goal and two assists. At just over six foot, Fish could give something to this United squad in the future, especially with the problems in the defence currently.
Depending on what happens at United this summer, regarding a new central defender and the likes of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, who have been linked with exits, despite Bailly’s contract renewal, it could leave some space in the first team for a central defender. Obviously, Fish would play predominantly in the U23 side during the course of the season but could be given chances in the first team in the Carabao Cup and the Emirates FA Cup. It would seem unlikely that he may get UEFA Champions League experience, but it all depends on the teams that will face United in the group. There is also a chance for him to be loaned out to a Football League club, which might be good for him and help him find his feet for the future. He is a player that should remain at United, as long as he continues to develop in the right way.
Teden Mengi – Central Defender
The 19-year-old is also considered as a highly rated player at the club and was loaned out to Wayne Rooney’s Derby Country for the second half of last season, which will have been a good experience for the player. His current contract at United ends in the summer of 2024, which gives United a lot more time to find a plan for him as it seems certain that he is being developed to play for United’s first team at some stage in the not too distant future. It is possible that he leaves on loan again during the 2021/22 season with Derby an option but there may be a better plan for the player to be loaned out to a Premier League club, which will bring him up to speed with the pace in the league, which would be much better for United from the 2022/23 season. Mengi can play in either of the two central defensive positions, also fitting in as a makeshift right-back.
Standing at six feet, Mengi has the frame to offer something in the centre of defence for United and he has a physical build, which will only become better as he ages, which is also a good sign. Mengi made seven appearances in the Premier League 2 and and three appearances in the Papa John’s Trophy for United last season. He also appeared on the bench for the first team in the Carabao Cup. He was loaned to Derby during the January transfer window and made nine appearances in the Championship for the club. He did not score or assist any goals for either team but had a pretty positive season. He was often praised by Rooney and his Derby teammates and Solskjaer seems keen on helping hims develop so he can regularly feature for the first team in the not too distant future. His season was ended with a hamstring injury back in April.
Dylan Levitt – Central Midfield
The 20-year-old is a talent that most United supporters will have knowledge of as he has been present in the U23 and the first team for quote a few seasons now, making his only first team appearance in the UEFA Europa League against FC Astana in the 2019/20 season. His contract at United ends in the summer of 2022, so this summer should see United offer him a new contract, beneficial for his progress at the club and whilst out on loan. This will be a big summer for his as he was selected in Wales’ Euro 2020 squad, with the competition delayed from last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Levitt started the 2020/21 season on loan at League One club Charlton Athletic but ended the season at Croatian club, NK Istra 1961. It was a mainly positive season for the Welsh midfielder with a lot more to come from him.
Levitt started the season with two appearances in the Premier League 2 with United, then finding himself on loan at Charlton, where he made a total of five appearances in League One, the Carabao Cup and the Emirates FA Cup. It was not good enough that he was seldom used so United recalled him from his loan spell and sought to loan him out to another club, which turned out to be NK Istra. He made a total of seven appearances in the 1.HNL and two appearances in the Hrvatski Nogometni Kup. Levitt has since confirmed that he made the move to Croatia to give him a better chance of being selected by Wales for the Euro’s this summer, which he though gave him a better chance than playing U23 football. The 2021/22 season could see him loaned out again, maybe to a Championship or a Premier League club, which will help him develop even more.
Hannibal Mejbri – Attacking Midfield
The 18-year-old is perhaps the most rated player in this article and the majority of United supporters will hold some interest in the player. When he signed from AS Monaco in the summer of 2019, he stated that he wanted to play for the United first team within two years, which he achieved on the final day of the Premier League season when United beat Wolves 2-1. Hannibal replaced Juan Mata in the 82nd minute of the match, doing well on his debut. His contract at United does not expire until the summer of 2026, so United have loads of time to get him up to the speed desired for him to become a first team regular at the club, he did renew his contract earlier this year. Hannibal made a total of 26 appearances for United this season, 25 of those at youth level. He did not end his season too highly at U23 level, finding himself send off to retaliating to a series of bad tackles.
During the course of the season, Hannibal had seen himself on the receiving end of many bad tackles by the opposition, many of which went unpunished with the player seething. In total, over the course of the season, Hannibal scored five goals and ten assists playing in the Premier League 2 and the Papa John’s Trophy. The coaches at the club will have seen a lot of ability from the youngster, who recently made his debut for Tunisia at international level, previously representing France at both U16 and U17 level. It seems clear that U23 football is a low level for Hannibal and it is too soon for him break into the first team consistently so a loan spell away from the club during the 2021/22 season would be the best option for him, as long as guarantees are made for the player regarding game time and the fact that he is still wanted at United and this is just for experience.
Shola Shoretire – Winger/Attacking Midfielder
The 17-year-old has seemingly found his feet at United and was rewarded towards the end of the 2020/21 season with some first team appearances after his good form at U23 level during the course of the season. He signed his first professional contract at United back in February. He will probably be offered a new contract soon after his 18th birthday. The player has been at the Old Trafford club since he was nine, so will be seeking to get as far as he can at the club, coming so far already. It is expected that he will be considered a first team player ahead of the 2021/22 season with with Euro 2020 playing out this summer, after being postponed last summer, the pre-season campaign will probably consist of many youth players and fringe players being part of the squad with a bit to regaining fitness ahead of the 2021/22 season.
During the course of the season, Shoretire made a total of 27 appearances, two of which came in the Premier League and one in the UEFA Europa League – the rest were made at youth level, playing in the Premier League 2, the Papa John’s Trophy and the FA Youth Cup. He scored 10 goals and five assists throughout the season, which is a great achievement for the player, which is one of the reasons why he was assed to the first team towards the end of the season at a time where Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani were injured and Marcus Rashford was carrying an injury, resulting in Solskjaer strengthening his attacking line. Shoretire could well be involved in an around the first team during the 2021/22 season or he could be loaned out in search of first team experience, which would also be good for him in the long run.
Anthony Elanga – Winger/Centre Forward
The 19-year-old is perhaps the player that has made the biggest impact recently for United. He signed a new long-term contract at United back in March, at the same time as Hannibal, although the length of the contract is not yet publicised. He was added to the first team for the UEFA Europa League pursuit this season with Martial out of action and Cavani struggling at times with injury, which will have been an achievement for him. He was recently called up for Sweden’s U21 squad, playing two matches and scoring in each of them over the past week or so, which will give him immense pride and give him the burning fires of passion to achieve at United. He made his Premier League debut this season too, starting against Leicester City and Wolves, scoring against the latter.
During the course of the 2020/21 season, Elanga made a total of 22 appearances, scoring 12 goals and four assists. Two appearances and one of the goals were for the first team and despite not actually playing in the Europa League this season, he gave United and Solskjaer further options in attack. It is early days for the player this summer but the general consensus is that he will compliment the attacking ranks at the club next season, unless purchases this summer will limit that. He won’t be happy playing U23 football, so if his first team appearances will be limited, a spell away from the club on loan might be an option. He can play on both wings and as a centre forward, so he has a lot more to offer, especially in the fact that United have Cavani, Martial Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood as strikers, with two of those often playing wide positions.
Written by John Walker