So it has finally happened and we can dispense with the “blah, blah, blah,” because Manchester United has signed a marquee player on Ed Woodward’s watch. Old Trafford awaits the return of the prodigal Paul, Monsieur Pogba.
For the first time in what feels like a generation there are plenty of options in Manchester United’s attack. Such was the depth of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal’s mediocrity that each was an architect of some of the most boring football seen at Old Trafford in decades. It is now José Mourinho’s time and the impression is already strong that he will not stand for it. Fun is returning to the red side of Manchester.
It’s a simple equation: Manchester United needs Paul Pogba more than Paul Pogba needs to be with the Reds. Sign o’ the times. It’s little wonder that Juventus has backed Ed Woodward into a corner over the mooted £100 million transfer fee, with agent Mino Raiola battering the executive vice chairman into submission over his commission. Despite reports of a ‘stalled bid’ and renewed Real Madrid interest the Reds will probably end up paying all of it. It’ll still be a bargain if it helps bring the Premier League trophy back to Old Trafford.
So there it is, confirmation bar wet ink on a contract, that Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba will move to Italian champions Juventus this summer. United will receive compensation in the region of £300,000, while Pogba will enjoy a huge salary bump to more than €1 million per season on a four-year contract with the Turin-based club.
Yet, with the Reds have willingly sold Ravel Morrison to West Ham United last January, Pogba becomes the second player in the 2011 FA Youth Cup winning team to depart Old Trafford. The departures of two highly talented players in a short space of time may be coincidence, and each for different reasons, but fans will ask questions of the club’s planning and strategy.
Confirmation of Pogba’s move was sent earlier this month by letter from the French midfielder’s agent, Mino Raiola, to United chief executive David Gill. Yet, it is only in the past week that Juve executives have gone public, secure in the knowledge that a deal has been agreed for the talented youngster. Pogba’s contract with Vecchia Signora will kick in on 1 July, the day after his Old Trafford deal runs out.
“We have lured Pogba away from Manchester United, we respected the rules,” Juventus general director Giuseppe Marotta told Corriere dello Sport.
“Pogba, for his own reasons, didn’t intend to renew his contract with United. So we informed the club and we are now waiting for an answer. Talks are well advanced.”
There is no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson will be disappointed though – if not embarrassed – by United’s failure to hang on to a leading youth talent, having invested publicly in backing the player over the past year. While Pogba’s form has been intermittent for United’s all-conquering reserves this season, Ferguson has been fulsome in his praise of the teenager’s potential.
Meanwhile, the deal represents a major coup for Juve, tempting away one of Europe’s most sought-after young players for a minimal fee, with virtually no risk attached. While the Old Lady has constructed its first championship winning side since Calciopoli, and moved into a brand new stadium, Juventus’ budget is just a fraction of United’s at £167.8 million to the Reds’ £331.4 million. Juve should not be able compete with United on wages.
Yet, Juventus seemingly offers a more attractive proposition, both financially, with the Italians presumably offering more than United was prepared to countenance for a reserve player, and perhaps in terms of football too. After all, while much talk has centred on United’s central midfield over the past year, Pogba started no games for the first team in the season just finished. This despite long-term injuries and illness affecting Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverley.
The Frenchman may find it challenging to break into Antonio Conte’s side where Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal have formed an effective central midfield triumvirate, but this will presumably mean a loan spell at a Serie B club next season. Ferguson, presumably, could not guarantee that Pogba will play any more games at United.
Back at Old Trafford there remains the question of how Sir Alex failed to persuade Pogba that United is the youngster’s best option. After all, while Juve’s offer is attractive it is not life-changing, especially for a player many believe will make it to the very top. While United is no longer the best paying club in England, the old adage that players don’t need to chase money at Old Trafford, it will find them, remains true. However, United, it appears, was indeed outbid for the player’s services.
Moreover, Ferguson’s while reputation for developing youth is unparalleled, the 70-year-old Scot’s pleas for Pogba to sign a new deal in Manchester fell on very deaf ears.
In context of selling Morrison, who was willingly forced out by Ferguson, United have now lost two of the finest players from last season’s Youth Cup winning side. Losing one was a shame; two begs some very real questions. Moreover, years of work helping Pogba to develop greater range in his game since the player joined in controversial circumstances from Le Harve in 2009 have effectively been wasted – a player polished for Juve to enjoy.
There is no guarantee of successful development of any of United’s other young stars either. While the club’s reserves won the FA Premier Reserve League North, Play-off, and the Manchester Senior Cup in the campaign just finished, it is unlikely any of Warren Joyce’s side will break into the’ first team next season. Many will play in the Championship on loan, but history tells us that Ferguson will be thankful if just one makes it at United as a regular first team player. Morrison and Pogba were seen by many, at differing times, as ‘sure things’.
Then there is the question of where, exactly, United now ranks in the market for football talent. If the club is unable, or unwilling, to sanction fees and wages for the very best players, and cannot hold onto youth, there is a real possibility of United being squeezed out of the market at both ends.
After all this isn’t an esoteric question. Financial fair play, market economics, and United’s huge debt, each mean that identifying, developing and polishing young talent is a major priority for Ferguson and his coaching team. Losing one of the best prospects to a European rival makes for a very uncomfortable view of the future.
There was much gnashing of collective Tweets on social media channels Tuesday night as news filtered through that vaunted teenage midfielder Paul Pogba has agreed to join Juventus next season. Pogba will reportedly sign a four-year contract worth €1 million per season, with the Frenchman’s agent picking up some €2 million for brokering the deal. The deal, when officially confirmed, will leave Manchester United’s management frustrated, and fans confused why a second talented youngster has left the club in a matter of months.
Pogba, whose United contract expires in June, will reportedly join the Italian giants next season after agent Mino Raiola negotiated a deal with the 27-times Serie A winners; an offer on the table from United was ultimately rejected by the Pogba, or his people. Indeed, the size of the Raiola’s demands to secure a new deal with United was reportedly a major sticking point in negotiations, which effectively brok down a fortnight ago. Pogba has reportedly been training with the reserve team since.
Meanwhile, another emerging talent, Ravel Morrison, departed the club for West Ham United in January. Morrison’s departure was, perhaps, inevitable with the club finally realising that all the euphemistic baggage could not be shed while the player remained in Manchester. The teenager, frustrated at a lack of senior opportunities, simply wanted to be in the first team. Anywhere.
Pogba’s departure is entirely different to Morrison’s of course, with the transfer driven – depending on which side of the story is most prominent – by a naïve, possibly greedy player, manipulative agent and a club unwilling to scale new pay heights for an unproven player.
But with two leading stars of last season’s FA Youth Cup winning side now departed, or on the way out, fans are given pause to wonder just how careless United has been. After all, to have lost one supreme talent was unfortunate. Two departing Old Trafford in quick succession begs a whole new level of questions.
Naturally there will now be a significant amount of revisionism. Pogba, once seen as the new bright young thing in United’s academy, has now become the ‘unproven kid’, with just four first team appearances to his name. Fans are, as the cliché goes, fickle – and there is no greater pain than being rejected by the one you love.
As ever the nuances of truth lie somewhere in between. After all, this is a player with all the raw ingredients to make a midfielder of the very highest class, but one who was not yet ready for regular first team action. Pogaba’s performances at reserve level this season have rarely impressed, too often giving the impression of a player in a hurry without the patience to develop in his own time.
Meanwhile, Italian ‘super agent’ Raiola joined the scene last year, provoking a flurry of stories that Pogba was in talks with a range of Serie A clubs, together with Manchester City and Chelsea. While the domestic links were not solidified, Raiola has seemingly worked his home turf hard to come up with a deal that suits all parties – except United that is.
Indeed, the risk is minimal for the Old Lady, with Juve’s maximum outlay around €6 million over four years. The player receives a hefty bump in salary, while the agent commands a huge fee. United will be left with around £300,000 in FIFA mandated ‘training compensation’.
Accusations of greed abound, of course. Pogba’s salary hike is generous, netting the 18-year-old around £16,000 per week; coincidentally, only marginally more than Morrison will initially earn at West Ham. Certainly, Pogba’s agent has done very well out of the deal, leading to a charge that he put himself and not the player’s interests first.
Time will tell whether the move is as good for Pogba’s playing chances as the youngster’s bank account, with Juve already boasting plenty of central midfield resources. After all, in addition to veteran Andrea Pirlo, the bianconeri boasts Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Luca Marrone competing for spots in Antonio Conte’s side. The young Frenchman way well find himself out on loan next season – as is the Italian way.
But there are also questions of United’s conduct, both financially and in managing the player. Indeed, in the summer Ferguson spoke of his need to use the club’s younger players; it was a key tenet of the manager’s argument for not spending heavily to reinforce central midfield.
“If we hold Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave. You know, in a couple of years’ time when his contract is going to finish,” claimed Sir Alex last August. “So we have to give him the opportunity to see how he can do in the first-team and he’s got great ability.”
Four substitute appearances later and Pogba’s frustration at not making a breakthrough this season may be understandable. After all, United is not over-stocked with class in central midfield, with only Michael Carrick excelling this season. Darron Gibson was always going to be sold, while Darren Fletcher’s health is a long-term concern, and Paul Scholes, initially at least, retired.
True, others have deserved the breakthrough more – Larnell Cole, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane, to name but three, have genuinely excelled at reserve level. Yet, there is no doubting Pogba’s raw talent. His was a key cog in the academy side that won last season’s Youth Cup – the most talented group, according to many observers, since the famed ‘class of 1992’. It is a group no more.
Then there is the question of money and whether United’s hardline stance on both wages and fees to agents is prudent. While Old Trafford’s bean counters are keen on reducing wage inflation at all levels this may be at the expense of retaining competitiveness at the bottom end of the market.
Of course, £16,000 per week in wages is beyond the dreams of almost all United supporters. Perhaps morally, ethically and financially bankrupt too. But if that is the level the market now dictates for talented youth then United’s position is not tenable.
Priced out of a deal for Wesley Sneijder at the very top of the market last summer, if the Reds cannot afford the best young players either then the squeeze on talent in Ferguson’s squad will be felt. Morrison and Pogba are not an island – Davide Petrucci and Ezikiel Fryers are also out of contract in the summer and seemingly likely to move on.
Yet Pogba’s deal with Juve, should it be confirmed officially, leaves a bitter after taste for many Old Trafford regulars. The hope of many that United could compete at the very top-level with talent drawn from within is on hold once again.
Instead, United has struggled to translate investment in youth over two decades to talent in the first team. John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher have been good servants, if short of the very highest class; Jonny Evans is only now beggining to demonstrate the talent that has drawn loyalty from his manager. Tom Cleverley and the da Silva brothers may well come good, although all three provoke questions over ongoing fitness.
In truth, it is almost impossibly difficult to build a team from within, unless of course, the club’s name is Barcelona. On a night when 20-year-old Cristian Tello marked his Champions League début with a brace for the Catalan giants there was another reminder that talent knows no age barrier.
Greed, manipulation or a club unwilling to financially compete? Only time will tell whether United has genuinely lost out with Pogba’s move to Italy.
In the meantime the club will move on; fans will forget. In an age of rolling social media, young players no longer develop away from the spotlight. Last season’s Morrison, Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe are easily cast aside in the collective consciousness. Roll up Gyliano van Velzen, Mats Møller Dæhli and Adnan Januzaj. They demand your adoration.
The news of Paul Scholes’ return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad shortly before the FA Cup Third Round tie against Manchester City seemingly provoked a wave of optimism among Manchester United fans, with polls across the web supporting the Salford-born midfielder’s re-integration. Manager, players, pundits and former Reds were all universally upbeat about the 36-year-old’s return to action too.
Indeed, following United’s 3-2 victory at Eastlands, former Red Nicky Butt drew attention to the psychological blow dealt by his former teammate’s return. “It was a smart move by the manager,” said Butt. “It took all the attention off [City’s] home record and switched all the attention to Paul Scholes.” In this respect, Scholes’ return certainly achieved its goal as a devastating first-half performance by United left the derby rivals looking shell-shocked before half-time.
“Paul is going to be a real positive addition to our squad,” claimed centre-back Chris Smalling, who lauded the longer-term effects of the midfielder’s return. “It gave the young lads a lift just to see him preparing for [Sunday’s] match.” These were sentiments shared by striker Danny Welbeck, who scored a smart volley to help ensure that Scholes’ return would be a happy one. “Seeing him in the dressing room just gave me a lift straight away.,” added the 20-year-old Mancunian.
For two other United hopefuls, however, the veteran midfielder’s return will have been far less encouraging. Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison displayed terrific potential when helping the Academy team to FA Youth Cup success last year, and many supporters believed that this would be the pair’s breakthrough season. It was even hoped that Ferguson’s refusal to sign a central midfielder in the summer transfer window was due to youth team talent available. Certainly, the manager intimated as much.
Following long-term injuries to midfielders Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, together with Anderson’s indifferent form, many believed that United’s young guns would be offered a chance in the first team. It was not to be, as Ferguson instead deployed 38-year old Ryan Giggs, defender Phil Jones, winger Park Ji-Sung and even Wayne Rooney in the heart of midfield.
But the final blow to Morrison and Pogba’s hopes this season has been delivered by the decision to recall veteran Paul Scholes, who despite not having played professional football for over seven months, is now firmly above the pair in Ferguson’s pecking order.
It has long been rumoured that contract talks have broken down with Pogba, who has once again been linked with a move to Manchester City or abroad in recent weeks.
“He [Pogba] has got an agent who’s obviously become a bit difficult, but we’re negotiating with this agent and we want the boy to stay,” Ferguson said recently.
“If he doesn’t want to stay, then there’s not a lot you can do about it. We have an option on his contract that takes us into a year-and-a-half away, so in that respect there’s not a great emergency about it. But we’d like the boy to sign a contract and, if he’d like to be a Manchester United player, then he knows what to do.
“You hope he gets the right advice, but it’s down to the individual also. Matt Busby summed it up perfectly, that you don’t need to chase money at a club like Manchester United, it will eventually find you. If you’re good enough, you will earn money and become rich playing for Manchester United. It’s one of these situations that they can chase the money early in their career, but at the end, it’s not the same as if they’d stayed here. He just needs to look round about him to realise that.”
Meanwhile Morrison Tweeted on Wednesday that he has not been offered a new contract to stay at Old Trafford beyond the summer. Thursday’s Telegraph reported that Morrison’s exit from Old Trafford “seems certain”. The only remaining question is seemingly whether the 18-year-old will stay until the summer, with Newcastle United reportedly having bid £500,000 this week.
“[Ravel’s] agent has been working hard to get him another club,” said Ferguson on Friday, contradicting the player’s claim.
“We’ve offered him terms which he has refused. His demands are unrealistic as far as we’re concerned. We’ve rejected an offer from Newcastle. It’s all down to how that progresses.”
Followers of United’s youth and reserve teams will have noted the exceptional talents on offer, even though reserve football is not always a reliable barometer of a player’s ability. After all, there is reason why interest in this pair of United starlets has come from across Europe. It leaves fans wondering whether Ferguson will let these talents slip between his fingers without giving them a chance in the first team.
Few will need reminding of previous departures either. Gerard Piqué, who left Old Trafford having failed to gain first-team football, has subsequently won almost everything in the game, including the World Cup, two Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles. The recently compiled FIFA World XI award saw Piqué line-up alongside former teammate Nemanja Vidić, leaving United fans pondering what could have been.
The same could be said of Giuseppe Rossi, who made it from United’s reserves to the top of the La Liga scoring charts and into the Italian national team.
To let one world-class prospect leave before his time was careless. Two was a mistake. Fans will hope that Ferguson knows something about Morrison and Pogba that they do not. For to let two central midfield stars of the future follow Piqué and Rossi out of the exit door would be unforgivable.
When Sir Alex Ferguson transplanted the ‘class of 92’ from the FA Youth Cup to a third round League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994 the Scot pioneered the concept of blooding youngsters in the competition. Ferguson was subject to severe criticism for the move, accused, effectively, of devaluing the tournament. Today, few leading clubs roll out the first team in the cup’s early rounds, paying homage to Ferguson’s vision, while the media no longer questions the policy. In that there is a compliment to the Scot’s understanding of what we now call the squad game.
Yet, perversely, Ferguson has offered last season’s winning FA Youth Cup team few chances in the current Carling Cup campaign, much against the perceived norm, with the boss instead preferring to offer minutes to fringe senior pros. The most talented group of United’s youngsters for a generation is seemingly out in the cold when it comes to the first team.
This season’s policy must genuinely be a frustrating one for the youngster’s involved, with Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison much talked about, but rarely seen in a first team shirt. Such is the wealth of Ferguson’s squad resources perhaps. But while Ferguson’s policy is pragmatic, balancing the need to keep senior players happy and match fit, it has restricted opportunities for those whose star is on the rise, while seemingly entrenching an age-based squad hierarchy.
Indeed, Ferguson’s Carling Cup policy this season, while pragmatic, could have negative consequences for half-a-dozen youth teamers, while offering little upside to the squad’s fringe.
Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Wednesday night is a case in point, with Mame Biram Diouf and Darron Gibson starting for the home side. Neither is likely to last at Old Trafford beyond the winter transfer window, let alone expect deployment in the important games to come during the run-in. In the pair’s selection on Wednesday Ferguson opted to cover his bases should a short-term injury crisis hit, rather than blood youngsters who may become United’s future.
More dangerous still, failure to offer younger players time in the first team this season may well lead to a talent drain. Much as Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique left for greener pastures in previous years, so too could others if a path to the first team does not materialise. While Rossi and Pique have developed into stars of genuine class away from Old Trafford, Ferguson’s inability to find space in his team for the pair made the decision for both player and club seemingly straightforward. This backfired on club, not player.
Fast forward to the present day and Pogba’s frustration at a lack of progress in the past three years may yet play a part in the Frenchman’s stubborn refusal to sign a new contract with the club, even if the motivation for the currently stalled round of talks is primarily financial. When Ferguson claimed, earlier this summer, that he had not dipped into the market for fear of stalling Pogba’s development the Scot’s thoughts may have been more prescient than many first understood.
Yet did Ferguson, for example, gain more by ensuring Park Ji-Sung, Diouf and Gibson were a 90 minutes match sharper than he may have by handing Pogba his first start for the club?
Then there is Morrison, whose bright half against Palace was one of the very few positives to emerge from a disastrous result at Old Trafford. Historically the Scot gets very little of this balancing act wrong, but Ferguson will have learned little about Diouf, who will never make it at United, or Dimitar Berbatov, whose future is still the subject of speculation. Either of whom could have made way for Morrison’s first start in the first team.
Ferguson rejects this assertion, believing that the conveyor belt running from youth team, through reserves, to the Scot’s premier group, is looping at the optimal speed.
“The monitoring system here is good and there’s a lot of consistency with our Academy staff,” claimed Sir Alex in the new edition of Inside United.
“These are guys that have been here a long time and know what to look for. When somebody like Paul McGuinness comes to me and says: ‘He’s a first-team player’, then I know to keep a special eye on the player. From there, we’ll bring the boy into first-team training for a couple of sessions. That’s what we’re doing at the moment with Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, Jesse Lingard, Zeki Fryers, Larnell Cole and Michael Keane.
“That allows me to see how they cope playing against seasoned professionals, it lets me judge their temperament. It allows me to get a far better picture of how they’re progressing. And, while this is going on, you hope they’re playing well for the Reserves and displaying the right attitude and enthusiasm. Players are never simply thrown into first-team action.”
In posing the question of whether it is more valuable to play youngsters, or maintain squad morale and fitness, there should be no assumption that younger players are ready for the first team. Morrison and Pogba, for example, are not. But, with the pair retained at Old Trafford this season, there is little more either is going to learn from reserve team football alone.
There is, of course, much to learn. While Morrison’s off-the-field temperament has frequently come under question, Pogba has been singled out for a more limited range of passing than is acceptable for a first team player at United.
“He is a big, strong player. His skill is brilliant, as are his physique and speed,” adds reserve team coach Paul Scholes.
“The one thing that he probably needs to tidy up a little bit is his passing, but once that comes right, he’s potentially a top-class player. He came on against Leeds [in the Carling Cup] and did really well.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson described Morrison as a “very talented boy”. Neither is likely to see the first team again this side of Christmas. In the meantime Ferguson has bigger fish to fry in the Premier and Champions Leagues, with a run of six winnable games coming up domestically, and a crucial tie with FC Basel in Europe.
But come January and the FA Cup third round Ferguson may well again need to choose between his squad’s fringe, and his talented youngsters.
In the past few weeks, despite Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertions to the contrary, it has become obvious that the club simply does not posses a central midfield pairing worth talking about. Despite the early pace set by youngsters Tom Cleverley and Anderson, United has few central midfield options that can challenge domestic rivals, let alone those of Barcelona. This is especially true since the pair’s lengthy injury absence took hold.
In contrast to Cleverley’s performances during the late summer, the growing dissatisfaction with Michael Carrick continues around Old Trafford. Although the Geordie’s performance against Swansea City 10 days ago was an improvement, it was a ‘needle in a hay-stack’ full of dismal showings. Carrick’s lack of pace and dynamism, and his predictability, remains a source of frustration for many followers of the club.
Indeed, even the once revered ‘Scottish player’, Darren Fletcher, has begun to bear the brunt of some criticism for his lack of guile and, at times, poor passing. Despite the Scot’s enduring endeavour, Fletcher has never been the most proficient player technically. Too often this has been apparent over the last two years. One can attribute Fletcher’s muted displays to a prolonged period on the sidelines, but what is now clear is that there is little more to come from the player that fans have not already seen. Fletcher’s game is no longer improving rapidly, and worse, his form has begun to stagnate.
Anderson and Cleverley started brightly this season; the pair was simply magnificent during August and early September. Cleverley was a breath of fresh air, while Anderson had seemingly found a partner who could bring out the best in the Brazilian. Since then both players have picked up long-term injuries. To many, Cleverley’s absence until Christmas could be the downfall of United’s trophy ambitions this season.
It is rare that a player is missed so much at United. Rarer still that this is true of Cleverley while he remains a rookie. After all, when Cristiano Ronaldo left the club, United survived. Ditto Cantona and a host of other stars. Yet, without the young Englishman’s presence, the Reds have seemingly very few options of quality.
Some say that Ryan Giggs return from injury could be the team’s saviour, but for many that sentiment is a sad reality for a club of United’s stature. Reliance on a 37-year-old veteran, who can barely manage two games in a week, to be the creative driving force says much.
Then there is youth, perhaps the only stone left unturned by Ferguson in the search for the right midfield balance. The Scot has forever championed the use of youngsters, yet Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison remain reserve team players at best. To many supporters the situation is increasingly frustrating, with Morrison displaying more creativity against Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup last month than many of United’s regular central midfielders have done in years.
The much-troubled midfielder has been hailed by pundits as the best in a generation, yet is still waiting in the wings for an opportunity. Granted it is still early for Morrison to be thrust into action against the very best, but it is less obvious why the 18-year-old has not yet been utilised in games against ‘lesser’ sides this season.
Likewise, the highly rated Frenchman Pogba is under-used. Indeed, the teenager is reportedly considering his options due to a lack of first-team football after three years at the club. And where the French under-19 international might see the stadium lights at Arsenal once in a while, his chances remain few and far between at Old Trafford.
What chance, then, that the pair might start against Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup this week? While Ferguson name-checked both midfielders on Monday, the Scot has tended to use the tournament to offer fringe players some game time. After all, many predicted that Morrison and Pogba would start against both Leeds United and Aldershot in earlier rounds. They did not.
“Ravel Morrison was in the squad for Wednesday’s game [against Benfica]. He’s a very, very talented boy, of course, and he’ll possibly be on the bench, at least, in midweek,” said Ferguson.
“But I’ve got other players needing a game like Mame Biram Diouf and Federico Macheda. Chris Smalling has come back and I may be able to play him on Wednesday. He’s still young and it’ll be a young squad against Palace. The only area where I’ve got problems is centre midfield. It’s possible I could play Pogba in there but we’ll wait and see. I’ve got enough players to choose from, that’s for sure.”
“I think the League Cup has turned into quite a good tournament. Clubs like United are able to introduce young players and ones who have not been playing regularly in the first team and it’s been good to us over the years. We’ve won two finals at Wembley with young players, which is good going, and I think it’s become an important tournament for us in terms of getting the youngsters an introduction into winning and having an understanding of the progress they’re making.”
The issue is hot topic for many critics. The failure to sign Wesley Sneijder, or another leading midfield name, was always going to be Ferguson’s shortcoming this season. And while this may be true, if there are no players available at a price the club is willing to spend, then somebody else must be offered the chance. Yet, for many fans the sight, for example, of Ji-sung Park chasing shadows in the centre of midfield, or Wayne Rooney’s immense talent wasted as a defensive midfielder, is beyond frustrating.
It is clear that Cleverley has the potential to be one of the world’s best players in the years to come. The player’s handful of games for the club has already demonstrated all the qualities that Ferguson needs, even if the youngster has too often been injured in his short career. But as Cleverley’s rise illustrates, sometimes Ferguson simply must take a chance on the players at his disposal. Certain youngsters will hope the Scot heeds the advice this week.
Amid all the talk of Manchester United’s youth this season it is easy to be drawn into the hyperbole. Phil Jones cast as Duncan Edwards; Chris Smalling the new Rio Ferdinand; Tom Cleverley as Paul Scholes’ protegé. Yet below the layer of hype and over-expectation those cast into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team have consistently performed this season.
Then there are the stars of last campaign’s FA Youth Cup winning side, in particular Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe, of whom much is hoped in the coming years. United’s fixture with Leeds United in the Carling Cup on Tuesday offered a glimpse beyond the obvious, and confirmation that the Carrington well does indeed run deep.
In addition to French midfielder Pogba, who made his first team début as a second half substitute on Tuesday, a new star emerged as the Reds cruised to a comfortable win at Leeds United in the Carling Cup. Indeed, one man, defender Ezekiel Fryers, caught the eye with a performance of genuine composure that belied the 19-year-old’s immature status. Fryers, who has often appeared at left-back for United’s Academy and Reserve sides, commanded central defence alongside Michael Carrick. Fryers’ pace and distribution, although sometimes over-ambitious, offered a genuine touch of class that reserve and academy watchers will have recognised.
Fryers was a key member of the Academy side’s run in last season’s FA Youth Cup before injury robbed the defender of a place in the latter stages of the competition. But if personal disappointment market the end of a campaign, the 18-year-old has begun the new season in splendid form.
An England Under-19 international ‘Zeki’ has performed both in central defence and at left-back for United, with arguably even greater versatility with international age group teams. Indeed, the Manchester-born player has performed in a number of midfield positions at England Under-16, 17 and 19 levels.
But it is the youngster’s performance against Leeds – along with Pogba and fellow débutant Larnell Cole – that has brought Fryers to national attention, drawing praise from Ferguson in the process.
“I thought young Fryers did very well,” confirmed the United boss.
“He showed good composure, wasn’t fazed by it which is really good because you always want to see what their temperaments are like because the atmosphere here, as you know, is hostile and he coped with it very well. Paul got a good 45 and young Larnell Cole came on at the end – it’s good for them to get taste of the atmosphere and what the first team is like.”
Yet Fryers’ potential has long been recognised by Old Trafford insiders, with the teenager one of four name-checked by Rio Ferdinand – along with Josh McEachran, Ross Barkley and John Bostock – as England stars of the future. For now the youngster is simply enjoying the first step on what many hope is a long and successful United career.
“It was a massive night for me. It was quality and a massive step up, so I was happy to get 80 minutes in,” he told ManUtd.com.
“I had to come off with a bit of cramp so now it’s all about working hard with the reserves and getting fitter so that I’m ready for whenever these chances might come again. It was good to have Larnell and Pogba alongside me when they came on. We have been playing together for a long time, so this was massive for all of us.”
Meanwhile, the much-lauded Pogba enjoyed a 45 minute run out against Leeds, demonstrating the assurance on the ball that has become a hallmark of the teenager’s play. Yet there was also a conservatism in Pogba’s performance. Gone were the driving runs, long-range shots and silky skills that lit up United’s academy side last season. That matters little of course, with Ferguson keen to let the teenager develop both physically and mentally over the course of the season before allowing the Frenchman out on loan in 2012/13.
Cole’s talents are perhaps less obvious. The chalk-on-his-heels winger offers a genuine old-fashioned approach to the game, with real pace and balance. But the 18-year-old England Under-19 international’s rise has been steady, rather than spectacular, with reserves’ watchers noting the player’s growing consistency. And in the physically demanding English game Cole will suffer for his diminutive stature. Physical development is likely to hold the key to the Manchester-born midfielder’s destiny.
That is for the future. The right-now, flush in the glow of victory over local and often hated rivals, United supporters can feel confident that youth is not only leading the club to the top of this season’s Premier League table but those of the future too. It is the reason Manchester City is spending more than £100 million of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth on transforming run-down Clayton in order to catch up.
Manchester United’s failure to land a central midfielder this summer is with scepticism in many quarters, with the club’s inability to meet the wage demands of Wesley Sneijder and Samir Nasri pointing many critics towards a charge of Glazernomics. Yet, while United’s poor record the road last season was almost entirely down to a paucity of options in central midfield, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen not to acquire new talent for the role this summer.
Far from meeting the challenge of Barcelona’s dominance in Europe, and Manchester City’s lavish spending domestically, some pundits believe that United may well have run simply to stand still this summer. Indeed, while Ashley Young offers a new flexible attacking option, David de Gea and Phil Jones are new-for-old replacements in Ferguson’s squad. The question of whether United is ‘net better’ from this summer’s transfer activity is yet to be answered.
Yet the 69-year-old Scot believes – critics might add he has little choice – that emerging youngsters can fill the void left by Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves this summer. Tom Cleverley’s positive 45 minute display against City in the Community Shield offers reason for supporter optimism. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Frenchman Paul Pogba is singled out by Ferguson as a real hope not only for the future but the coming season as well.
“We’re quite positive about him,” Ferguson said.
“If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”
That athletic frame has drawn comparisons with Patric Vieira, a lazy analogy born seemingly of players’ similar French-African roots and height. Indeed, those who have watched Pogba’s progress in United’s FA Youth Cup winning side last season witnessed a player of significant finesse, quick feet and attacking prowess. The comparison with former Arsenal midfielder Vieira is one that Ferguson rightly rejects.
“He could be a surprise for us. I took him to the charity game in Monaco and he played 25 minutes in the second half against Marseille’s first team and he did very well. He got involved right away and I said to myself, he’s not bad,” added Ferguson.
“He’s a big physical boy. He has a great physique, 6ft 2in, athletic. The new Patrick Vieira? That’s just because of his height and build. Patrick was a great player but this boy is only 18. Look at Patrick when he was 18, he was playing centre half for Cannes. He only emerged as a midfield player at AC Milan.
“But I believe Pogba has the equipment to be successful. Seeing youngsters like him come through helps me, it helps us all. It’s still one of my biggest thrills to see a youngster coming up through the ranks. The kids are the foundation of the club. I think the foundations are looking good at the moment. This helps to drive me.”
Yet there is much work to be done if Ferguson is to fast-track Pogba into the first team picture. Despite his potential Pogba would surely struggle in the Premier League’s more physical encounters. Meanwhile, Ferguson believes that the former Le Harve midfielder must develop a greater range of passing if he is to make it to the very top.
“You don’t want to be putting the lad under pressure yet, but he’s got all the equipment all right,” added the United boss.
“He’s strong and athletic and he’s almost ready to be considered. We are just trying to work on his distribution. He has been playing a short passing game and we think he could do with a bit more range. We will be giving him opportunities this season because if you don’t use good players you end up losing them. We can’t hold him back, and wouldn’t want to do anyway.”
Along with United’s other great midfield talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side, Ravel Morrison, Pogba can expect games in the Carling and FA Cups in the coming season. Ferguson is almost certain to pick fringe sides in the early rounds of both competitions, with United entering the Carling Cup at the third round stage in September.
Morrison, meanwhile, is unlikely to be fast-tracked into the first team picture until the youngster’s many off-the-field distractions have cleared. The club’s willingness to protect the 18-year-old Wythenshawe-born player, despite multiple court appearances over the past 18 months, says much for the talent on offer; arguably the most fluid English central midfielder with the ball at his feet since Paul Gascoigne.
In Morrison, Pogba, Cleverley and perhaps Anderson – if the €30 million Brazilian can ever find some consistency – Ferguson has built with the future very much in mind. The players represent an exciting quartet of midfield talent very much in the United tradition.
Yet, for all that future promise the feeling that United has sacrificed short-term progress at the Glazer’s financial altar is inescapable. Despite Barcelona’s utter destruction of the Reds’ midfield at Wembley in May the Catalan club has acquired in Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez two talents of the highest order. That – Nani aside – no United midfielder would make Barca’s squad, let alone first team, is telling.