Following Jesse Lingard’s spectacular second strike against the A-League All Stars on Saturday the youngster was embraced by three other products of Manchester United’s Academy: Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs. Each of the quartet in the huddle represents a different era in a famous production line – and the latest graduates could make it into David Moyes’ first team.
Ryan Giggs is the club’s greatest achiever, having earned 13 top flight league winners’ medals and amassed almost as many personal records in two decades at the club. He isn’t finished either, playing into his 40th year and beginning a new career as a coach.
Giggs graduated into the first team picture just as Alex Ferguson was forging the club in his image during the early 1990s – rebuilding the foundations of youth that Sir Matt Busby first laid down with Jimmy Murphy four decades earlier.
The Welshman was the first of Eric Harrison’s spectacular crop, but a decade later the production line had seemingly slowed, with Wes Brown and John O’Shea the only first team regulars to have graduated from United’s academy in the early 2000s. Each had high levels of talent and enthusiasm, but neither was as outstanding as Ferguson’s first set of ‘fledglings’.
Indeed, it took Dutchman Rene Meulensteen – a disciple of Wiel Coerver’s coaching philosophy – to inject new life into the academy, producing a crop of hyper-technical players over the next decade and revolutionising training methods at every level of the club.
Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are the most notable graduates of Meulensteen time at United. Each was schooled in the importance of first touch, technique, close control and teamwork from a young age.
The Basingstoke-born player joined United at 13 while Welbeck was just eight. In fact there is a sense when watching the pair play that those skills learned over hours on the training pitch might outweigh natural talent – certainly in Cleverley’s case.
And the next graduate could be Lingard, who was part of the cohort that won the 2011 FA Youth Cup and then four trophies when promoted to Warren Joyce’s reserve squad in the next season.
There were several ‘stars’ in that Under-18 team managed by Paul McGuinness, most notably Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba, but they were well aided by Larnel Cole, Zeki Fryers, Ryan Tunnicliffe, brothers Michael and Will Keane, and of course Lingard. This was a highly technical young team, which looked every inch as if Meulensteen’s coaching methods had been put into practice by McGuinness.
Over the next two years several youngsters left the club, but the current crop of young players pushing for a place in Moyes’ first team must be taken seriously.
Michael Keane handled the pressure of playing against Newcastle United at Old Trafford last season, and a strong Chelsea line-up at Stamford Bridge with surprising confidence. Keane went on to play a significant role in the second half of the season at Leicester City in the Championship.
Keane could make it into the first team picture this season. After all, Nemenja Vidic’s triple knee injury leaves the Serbian susceptible to forwards who attack at speed, while some clumsy performances have come at David de Gea’s cost.
True, Rio Ferdinand’s reemergence as one of the world’s finest defenders, Jonny Evans’ progression and Chris Smalling’s promise leave United’s well stocked at centre-half.
But add Phil Jones’ obvious abilities into the mix and there is even an argument that Vidić should be sold while the veteran retains some value. This would allow Keane to join a strong group of central defenders at the club, even if the youngster heads out on loan for part of the season, while Smalling and Jones deputise for Ferdinand and Evans.
Yet, it is the club’s young attacking midfielders that are perhaps the most exciting reference point on this summer’s money-making tour of the universe. The entertaining performances by Lingard and Adnan Januzaj to date have been highly impressive. Each operates with maturity when making decisions – certainly more so than the 26-year-old Nani – and each has more natural talent than Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia.
Include Larnel Cole, who missed the tour due to Under 20 international duties, together with new acquisition Wilfried Zaha, and United’s problem on the wings last season could be solved by youth.
If the aforementioned quartet is promoted this season, with the incumbents offloaded, United will rapidly acquire an upgrade on the wings. Zaha, Januzaj, Lingard, Cole, together with Giggs and sporadic appearances in wide areas from Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Fabio da Silva and even Alexander Buttner should suffice Moyes in the season ahead.
It is a strategy for the future rather than one that is ready to take on European champions Bayern Munich, of course, but it is also a group that is not far off being collectively superior to United’s current resources.
There is an argument that Lingard and Cole should be afforded loan spells this season, but the new crop’s professionalism is a breath of fresh air when compared to the frustration that Morrison and Pogba caused, not to mention Nani’s decision making or Young’s mediocrity.
It is a far fetched hope perhaps. Yet, when Moyes first joined the club in July the Scot made a point of declaring his belief in United’s tradition of producing young players that perform at the highest level. It may even work in the manager’s favour – introducing youth now is both in that tradition and popular with supporters. After all, it might even appease demanding fans when Moyes’ United team loses its first games, as it inevitably will.