United’s graveyard of potential

June 28, 2017 Tags: , Reads 8 comments
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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 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."

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 globalisation 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.

Class of 92

Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club no longer deserves that aura of respect. 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 last week, 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.

Adnan Januzaj

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.

Luke Shaw

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.


Nate - June 28, 2017 Reply

Great article @utdthought

Andy - June 28, 2017 Reply

Shaw is pure rubbish and needs to go, had his chance ten times over and failed to live up to any of the hype. He is one of the worse signings we have made in a long time

Denton Davey - June 28, 2017 Reply

“the list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long”

Yeah, sure.

But only Paul Pogba has gone from prospect to player; all the others have had undistinguished careers – they’ve been professional journeymen.

Even Marcus Rashford – who had an incredible start to his career – doesn’t seem to have been able to maintain an upwards trajectory. Similarly, Anthony Martial hasn’t kicked on from his terrific first season. Both are talents – both might become ‘stars’ – but right now it’s unclear how high their ceilings are. And both Axel Tuanzebe and Tim Fosu-Mensah look promising but is “promising” enough in the new, ultra-competitive EPL ?

To me, it seems that kids not only have to hit-the-ground-running but also increase their speed – to turn “promise” into professional quality. In this new environment, where six teams are vying for the top-four places, it’s not feasible to blood youngsters unless (or until) they prove themselves worthy of a place. AND, I think that that’s why Jo$e is keen on Nemanja Matic – he might not be “magic” but the manager obviously believes that he can reliably deliver 7/10 performances.

I doubt that any of you reading this comment are going to be happy with Jo$eBall but it’s a new team, with new and different challenges. So, maybe winning is the only thing that matters. And, if nothing else, Jo$e has a long (proven) record of winning.

For the new crop of “kids”, it’s shape-up-or-ship-out. This isn’t a new situation, after all, SAF wouldn’t give Paul Pogba playing time because the great man wasn’t sure that he could be trusted. Four years later, Pogba has blossomed but his career seems to be the exception to the rule. Guys like Richardson, Cleverly, and Welbeck (and FatBoyAnderson, too) seemed like they could make the step-up to the first team but all of them – and many, many others – stumbled and were shipped out.

It’s hard to get to the top but it’s even harder to stay there.

Fusilli Jerry - June 28, 2017 Reply

The alacrity with which Josh Harrop jumped at the chance to move permanently to mighty Preston North End is a damning indictment of both club and a loan system that generally doesn’t work.

Harrop saw that scoring 4 goals in your first 2 games and promptly earning full international caps is zero guarantee of your talent being nurtured properly at United. Mourinho would have hugely benefited both Rashford and Ibrahimovich had he regularly rotated both in the same centre forward position, but clearly promised the Swede he’d play every minute of every game unless crocked or suspended – and clearly gets the concept of squad rotation about as well as he gets players under the age of 28 with personality types not exactly like those of John Terry and Didier Drogba.

So we’ll get ripped in the window chasing ageing Chelsea cast-offs with a blank cheque, and balding Perisic-types perfect for blocking off proper opportunity for Martial and Pereira – when we could bring through our kids and regain our identity. The Dad’s Army being exhorbitantly assembled in our name will need to do something very major indeed next season to merit this sell out of the club’s Busby-and 90’s version-Ferguson soul.

Dane - June 30, 2017 Reply

I really hope we get rid of Fellani.
Reason for this is his opportunity cost is the realization of potential for herrara, fousa mensa and tuanzabe because the game he will play and the minutes he will take up should be distributed among these players.

Matic would be a great addition.

Also if we get a strong defensive midfielder we will able to play 2 attacking fullbacks. Mou said he will not play 2 attacking full backs. So getting matic who can drop back in the defensive line and help Bally and Victor is perfect.

Diago Costa is the next player we need. Split the minutes upfront between Martial and rashford.

We won’t win right away but I gurantee we will make semis in champions league and make top 4 while the team will be on a upward trojectory

Dump old man Rooney
Replace him with a veteran striker ( Oliver giroud)
Impact sub. Don’t kill me guys lol

Dane - June 30, 2017 Reply

My correction Douglas Costa from Munich

@FranklinGGMU - June 30, 2017 Reply

I think commitment is the most important factor. In my opinion, many of these names are good players, but they lack the drive of the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo. Players that trained tirelessly to become the best at their respective skills. I think nowadays, that once a player reaches a certain level, they are often happy with that level. Not all have the natural talent of a Giggs, Rooney or Pogba, and that isn’t to say the aforementioned players don’t work hard.

I think that by saying young players nowadays aren’t handled properly is discrediting the formation of the Class of 92: players who were the direction chosen by the manager, a project if you like, rather than a production line. But it also gives testament to them as well, what a group of players, the like will never be seen again.

James Ryddel - July 3, 2017 Reply

You are right about too much hype surrounding the vast majority of the names listed in your article. However, in TFM and Tuanzebe we *might* have two players who are cabable of reaching the level expected of the UTD first team. There’s another important aspect of what it takes to make it proper at a club like UTD and that is football intelligence and ‘know-how’ and here I’m afraid the likes Martial, Rashford and ESPECIALLY Lingard just do not cut it. If you don’t understand what I mean, when it comes to being a top striker (for example) think Drogba and or Shearer – a pair of hardened street fighters / dirty cheating bastards, as well as being very good all round strikers. Our lads just don’t have the cunning and know-how which is vital if you want to remain at the very top. Will they improve – I have my doubts. Being just quick isn’t ever going to be enough that much I know…

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