Six academy players who will become valuable squad players at Manchester United

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

From the Busby babes to Fergie’s fledglings, Manchester United fans cherish their youth products, but who’s next?

From the Busby Babes to the Class of 92, Manchester United has a proud history of developing academy players, before bringing them up to the first team. In the recent FA Cup win against Watford, United fielded six players from the academy in their starting eleven. Back in December of 2019, United made it 4,000 games in succession in which at least one youth graduate has represented the Reds’ matchday squad. That record is still on-going, so who will be next to follow the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba into making their debuts?

Anthony Elanga

Anthony Elanga has made an excellent start to life in the under 23’s after a permanent move up from the under 18’s this season. Six goals and three assists in 15 games earned him a chance to train with the first team squad of Christmas and he also played in the only pre-season game against Aston Villa. That taste of the first team squad seems to have inspired his performances this season. He is very similar to Marcus Rashford, coming off the left flank with blistering pace and lots of skill. 

He won the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Award last season and after putting Salford City to the sword, scoring in a 6-1 win, Gary Neville said that he was a “nightmare to play against”. With United recently signing Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri, both right midfielders, there is a big battle to try and make it into the United first team, but Elanga has shown that his performances warrant a chance. 

Shola Shoretire

Shola Shoretire has become a regular in the under 23’s this season, making the step up from the under 18’s and has scored two goals and laid on two assists in 12 games. These stats might not seem all that impressive, considering it is the under 23’s and he’s highly hyped, but when you factor in that he is just 16, yes 16, then the mind starts to wander. If he can play in the under 23’s at just 16, then how quickly can he make that jump up to the first-team? Mason Greenwood has offered the blueprint, albeit, Greenwood bypassed the under 23’s completely, such was his talent. Shoretire is a highly technical player capable of playing on either flank and is another winger that the club seems to be churning out at a rate of knots. 

Recently under 23 manager, Neil Wood, stated that the 16 year old is already becoming the best players in his squad. High praise for someone so young, talk that was also afforded to Greenwood before his move to the first team squad. He has already trained with the first team, a sign that he is someone that Ole Gunner Solskjaer has an eye on. If he can continue his good form for the rest of the season, we may be seeing Shoretire a lot in pre-season and beyond. 

Hannibal Mejbri

Hannibal Mejbri, or just Hannibal as he is known, caused a lot of excitement when he joined United back in 2019. Another player making the full-time leap to the under 23’s this season, Hannibal is a central midfielder, who likes to get forward and create. His stats this season are impressive. Three goals and six assists in 14 appearances, but there have been times when he has struggled playing against stronger, physical players. This is the big difference stepping up from the under 18’s, especially as a 17-year-old. 

Slightly worrying is that he has the tendency to show levels of petulance when thing don’t go his way. Sent off for a silly tackle against Southampton under 23’s, former United player Ben Thornley has warned the young Frenchman to watch his body language at points this season. 

His quality is not in doubt though. His assist in that win against Salford City was sensational and United fans on social media got very excited, as was his slick finish in the 5-2 win against Brighton under 23’s earlier this season. It showed his ability in being able to take the ball running into the box, a quality that every team likes to have from their midfielders. It wouldn’t be surprised to see Hannibal make his debut in a cup game over the next year.

Joe Hugill

Joe Hugill is a born goal scorer. Signing from Sunderland this summer, the striker already stands at 6ft 2 at just 17 years old. He scored two goals in his debut under 18’s match and was immediately moved up to the under 23’s. He’s scored four goals in nine appearances, despite only starting two of those. In between he’s made another three appearances for the under 18’s, scoring four goals and creating another.

2020 had seen a large number of top young players across Europe join United, and although Hugill was believed to have a lot of potential, he wasn’t expected to make the jump up to the under 23’s quite as quickly as he had. Injuries helped his cause, but he has taken the chances and if he continues at the same rate, we could see him in the first team before too long. 

Charlie McNeill

If Joe Hugill does make the jump, he will likely be competing with Charlie McNeill all the way. They effectively already are. McNeill was signed from their rivals Manchester City in 2020, after leaving the United academy in 2014, and has scored six goals in eight under 18 appearances. It is said that he has over 600 goals in youth football, and in 2018 he signed a six year deal with Adidas. For City’s under 15’s he scored 110 goals and 38 assists in 72 games. 

Those numbers are incredible and whilst it doesn’t mean it will transcend over to senior football, the signs are promising. Being a boyhood United fan will also increase the want for United fans to see him succeed. If he and Hugill both continue to develop, the United front line could be very tasty in the next five years. 

Alvaro Fernandez

Alvaro Fernandez is another 17-year-old that United recruited last summer. Signing him from Real Madrid on a free may end up being a steal in future years. He made his debut for the under 18’s scoring against Burnley, before settling in the under 23’s ever since. If you’ve had the pleasure to see him play, you will have seen a hugely technical player who despite enjoying the attacking side of the game, is more than happy defending. With Alex Telles signing this season to provide competition to Luke Shaw, Fernandez may be next to make the position his own in the next four or five years. 

When your idol is Marcelo, you know what you’re going to get with a player and United fans will be eager to see the 17-year-old in action for the first team before too long. 

Arnau Puigmal

In 2017, United beat Barcelona to the signing of Arnau Puigmal. At the time, he was seen as a one of the best Spanish players of his generation. Fast forward three years, and Puigmal is having his best season at United so far. Seven goals and two assists so in ten appearances for the under 23’s have led to high praise surrounding the teenager. The only caveat? His contract is expiring at the end of this season and Barcelona want him back

Puigmal is equally adept at playing anymore on the right flank as he is centre midfield and United will be very keen to hold onto him. They lost Angel Gomes in similar circumstances last summer and will want to avoid this situation happening again. Whether or not, Solskjaer can find a place for him in the team is another matter. With the financial situation at Barcelona worsening, the Spaniard may feel that he will find it easier to force his way into the Barcelona side then the United side. United fans will hope he doesn’t as he meshes technical quality with a physical presence, something that would suit him well in the Premier League. 

All seven of these players are highly thought of and will be determined to make it into the first team squad. Solskjaer has proven that he is more than happy to give youth players a chance. Tuanzebe has played more this season and the manager took a very youthful side to Astana, giving many first team debuts. Di’Shon Bernard and Dylan Levitt from the start – and three more in the second half, substitutes D’Mani Mellor, Largie Ramazani and Ethan Galbraith. Teden Mengi made his debut as a substitute later on in that Europe League campaign and James Garner, impressing on loan at Watford this season has made several appearances for United and is highly thought of. 

Ethan Laird, Mengi and Garner are all players that could make the breakthrough into the first team squad in the next year or so. As previously mentioned, Garner has been impressing on loan and will be 20 when he returns to the club. Seeing Scott McTominay’s pathway into the first team will give him confidence as to making the side himself and a full season in senior football will be more than beneficial for him. 

Ethan Laird has also been earmarked for the first team. He too is tasting his first action in senior football after moving to MK Dons on loan. He made his debut against Burnley in the FA Cup, playing for an hour and earning plaudits from his new manager. United had been linked to Kieran Trippier, whilst Timothy Fosu-Mensah is on his way to Bayer Leverkusen. If Laird impresses on loan, then he may be the man to fight with Aaron Wan-Bissaka next season. 

Teden Mengi is highly rated by many at the club and joined the first team squad for training in the build up to the Carabao cup game against Manchester City. He may have only managed six minutes in his solitary game for United, but he has shown himself to be a leader and is the current under 23 captain. He also showed his will to win, criticising teammate Hannibal after the Frenchman posted a picture of himself and Chelsea youngster Pierre Ekwah on Instagram. The post came shortly after the 6-1 defeat to the Blues and Mengi was quick to highlight that the reason they lost was down to ‘too many friends and not enough enemies’. United fans will enjoy seeing a captain saying that, you’d imagine that would be Roy Keane’s opinion, and it bodes well for his future. 

Written by Huw Rawlings

copyright: JW