There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.
Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.
Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.
Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.
Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.
The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.
This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.
Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.
The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.
In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.
Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.
Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.
The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.
Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.