Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s situation at Old Trafford is an interesting study. The youngster made an impressive start to life at United last season, one of the few bright sparks during the Louis van Gaal era, and it seems only a matter of time before he fully develops into a top-class footballer. The Dutchman is already a fan favourite and there’s widespread clamour for the youngster to get more games under his belt. Yet, his talents have been overlooked by José Mourinho in favour of more experienced pros. Is there a route into the first team?
Under the Iron Tulip, Fosu-Mensah made eight appearances in the Premier League and four in the FA Cup, but the 19-year-old has found that Mourinho is not quite ready to let him loose. In fact Fosu-Mensah has rarely enjoyed any game time this season, clocking up 74 minutes against Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford last September in one of only six games this season. Other appearances have been restricted to short cameos, the EFL third round match against Northampton Town aside, and it’s hard to see him getting much more first-team action before the campaign is out.
Make no mistake, the talent is there for all to see, but the former Ajax player is jostling for places in some fairly well stocked areas. In midfield the teenager has to compete for a place with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and even Bastian Schweinsteiger. At right-back José’s first choice is Antonio Valencia, with Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young the go to deputies. In central defence, the club is already well stocked.
"Make no mistake, the talent is there for all to see, but the former Ajax player is jostling for places in some well stocked areas. Fosu-Mensah must also nail down a specific role. Mourinho couldn’t have been clearer that he’s looking for specialists and not utility players."
The other problem Fosu-Mensah faces is to nail down a specific role. Indeed, Mourinho couldn’t have been clearer on his appointment that he’s looking for specialists and not utility players. It imposes an immediate dilemma for the youngster to tackle, does he define himself as a central midfielder, or as a full-back, or something else?
The player may get a clearer picture of where he stands this season once the January transfer window closes, but from there Fosu-Mensah needs to convince his manager that he is worthy of being in first team contention – and this with the knowledge that United will certainly strengthen key areas in the summer.
After all, both Nélson Semedo and Kyle Walker have been mentioned as potential candidates for United’s right-back slot, while Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko is on the proverbial radar to strengthen in central midfield. Granted it is paper talk at the moment, but that shouldn’t detract from the message that Fosu-Mensah has much work to do.
For all the player’s struggles there are signs that a pathway to the first team could become clearer. Morgan Schneiderlin’s departure to Everton enables Fosu-Mensah to move up the midfield pecking order, Carrick can’t last forever, while only so much faith can be invested in converted full-backs Valencia and Young, not to mention the continuing speculation surrounding Darmian’s future.
Despite Mourinho being acutely aware of the club’s history with respect to promoting youth prospects there is, just as pertinently, a tradition of success and if given it comes to a choice between one or the other there’s no question for which option the Portuguese will plump. After a slow start this season, Mourinho is under pressure to secure a Champions League position and there will be little appetite for experimentation with youth when his primary brief is to make United a winning machine again.
There are recent cases that could give the Dutchman some cause for hope though. Kurt Zouma’s development at Chelsea during Mourinho’s time is a positive frame of reference. The former Saint-Étienne man won the trust of Mourinho and was eased into the side playing primarily as a central defender, though he was utilized as a defensive midfielder to neutralize Marouane Fellaini when the Blues defeated United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in April 2015. The comparison is instructive insofar as the pair share similar skill-sets, with Fosu-Mensah possessing the added attribute of being a good distributor of the ball. The key differences are that Zouma has experience of competitive league football under his belt and was first in line to freshen an aged Chelsea defense. Fosu-Mensah, by contrast, is still an inexperienced player competing against contemporaries who have a fair bit of football ahead of them, with the notable exception of Carrick.
This is, no doubt, a test of Fosu-Mensah’s mentality as well as his quality. Mourinho will be taking careful notes on how the United youngster responds to being on the fringes. Despite his positive impression one cannot shake off the meltdown Fosu-Mensah suffered after giving away a penalty against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, which led to Van Gaal quickly substituting the teenager. It is an episode that must be chalked up to experience. After all, it shouldn’t be easy at a top club, but the carrot to succeed is tangibly there for one of United’s most talented youngsters.
Fosu-Mensah signed a new five-year contract at the club last October, committing his future to United until 2021. Mourinho couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, claiming that “Tim is young player with great potential. I am delighted at the progress he has made so far. He is learning every day in training and there will be plenty of opportunities for him as the season continues.”
Those opportunities have been fleeting thus far. Now it is time for the 19-year old to battle hard and prove that he’s a key building block in United’s brave new future. The one mitigating factor is the context in which the player must make his breakthrough: a season where failure cannot be accepted. Given the task of reestablishing United as one of England’s, let alone Europe’s, preeminent powers it is too much pressure to expect too much from the youngster so quickly.
The coming pre-season is another question, and Fosu-Mensah should get a chance to impress. The thinking this season is about the short-term, and if the targets are met then it’ll allow more breathing room to integrate talented young players like Fosu-Mensah more completely. It’s a testing period, but one that could still mark a key step as the Dutchman blossoms at Old Trafford.