Manchester United Season Preview: chances for youth

When we think of Manchester United, the two principles that stand out are that they consistently compete for major honours and develop youth. Is the challenge for the club now to reconcile those two ideals in football’s modern era? The Football Lab speaks to supporter Tony Park, a Red Devils youth historian from Sons of United, ahead of the new season.

I don’t think so… we didn’t win the league last season but still won three trophies including a European one and won the FA Cup the season before. That’s two seasons and four trophies with the likes of Lingard, Rashford, McNair, Pogba, Borthwick-Jackson and Varela all making major contributions. That’s also during major transitions of new managers and new styles. If a young player is good enough he will get in the team. Rashford has shown that. Some players develop faster than others and in different ways. You have to have a fluid approach to their development as there is not one right way.

Clearly it is tougher than it used to be but that is more down to foreign players coming into our game and taking up places. However, we will always give kids a chance and everyone in the game knows that. If you want a chance then City and Chelsea aren’t good clubs to play at if you’re a youngster.

You qualified for the Champions League last year, which clearly helps the club attract players. Would some of the youngsters who played so well against Crystal Palace have a better chance though, if you had another season in the Europa League? 

I don’t think so. The manager wants to win every game and will pick a team he feels can do that. If the players like Gomes, Mitchell and others continue to work hard and develop they will get games, even in the Champions League. I don’t see how playing in a perceived weaker competition makes anything easier or offers more chances. Our club doesn’t think that way.

You drew 10 of your 19 Premier League home games, due to a combination of good goalkeeping and wasteful finishing. Will Romelu Lukaku give you a bit of ruthlessness in front of goal?

I think everyone wants more goals. But Ibrahimovic scored nearly 30 last season and so if Lukaku can replace him then that’s great. But it is a straight swap in my opinion. Our issue is getting other players to chip in. In seasons past the midfield often scored quite a few. In many of Fergie’s seasons he had 3/4 strikers who all contributed. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney were all average in front of goal last season. I expect the younger players to get better so that is a timing issue. The real difference will be to replace Rooney with a proven goalscorer.

Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard proved against Chelsea that their tenacity and tactical awareness could be valuable in big games. Is there a place for them?

Without a doubt. It’s a team game and always will be. Lot’s of plastic fans want to see big name signings and lot’s of hype. I remember when Nicky Butt first came into the team he was criticised… Darren Fletcher was slaughtered by some idiot section of our fanbase. Even Ryan Giggs had plenty of detractors but they all came through the system so were easy targets. If you ask the players they love playing with Lingard and Rashford etc…they do things that players appreciate but some fans don’t see. The fact that the manager keeps playing them is all that matters.

I understand Axel Tuanzebe and Demetri Mitchell developed in different positions to the ones they’ve taken up in the first team – and yet they’ve stood out. Is it their willingness to muck in and do any job asked of them that has appealed to Mourinho?

Tuanzebe has been a centre-half and asked to play at fullback for the first team. That is quite common in football as you need good maturity to play centre-half in the top flight. Gary Neville, Jonny Evans, John O’Shea, Wes Brown and others all were centre-halves as kids but played a lot of football at full-back. So I think that is quite a natural switch.

Mitchell was/is a natural attacking wide player and he has been converted to a fullback and done really well. He was one of our most improved performers last year. Clearly he lacks size and strength but that will come. Lee Sharpe was an example of a winger playing full-back for a couple of seasons before moving back to a wide player again. So I’m not sure about ‘mucking in’ as they are playing in comfortable positions. I think Mourinho likes the fact that they will listen to him, are tactically disciplined and work hard.

You had the division’s second best defensive record last year with 29 goals conceded. Are you excited by the potential centre-back pairing of Eric Bailly and new signing Victor Lindelof?

We have always had good centre-half pairings so I hope they make a good partnership. Smiling, Rojo and Jones have their critics and they can be very inconsistent. I think supporters get frustrated with the lack of ambition at the back. Confidence, injuries and not getting regular games doesn’t help. But most people don’t think Smalling is good enough.

Midfield was probably your strongest area last year, given the performances of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera. Is there a possibility Scott McTominay could take up the Michael Carrick role somewhere down the line?

It depends on how you define strongest area. Certainly Pogba and Herrera were two of our most consistent performers and gave us stability which was really important but we need goals from midfield and we didn’t get it.

Scott McTominay is not a goalscorer either and is a very different player to Carrick so I wouldn’t compare them in any way. Carrick is an exceptional footballer and incredibly underrated in my opinion, especially by England. McTominay still has a long way to go to develop into a Premier League footballer but players surprise you. He has a great work ethic, is very mature and not untalented… but I don’t think his passing is good enough to replace Carrick in a similar role.

Angel Gomes broke all sorts of records last season. Do you expect him to be in the development squad this year – and at what point could he start to make inroads into the first team?

This boy is a real talent so therefore nothing would surprise me. My guess is he will start with U/18’s and play a handful of games and then get called into the U/23’s… he will probably get a few cameo’s in the first team depending on how the season develops and maybe in certain matches that are less critical. However, most people I talk to would like to see youngsters get a late ten minutes here and there once the game is sewn up… not sure Mourinho will do that. He tends to get defensive much earlier in games.

Antonio Valencia had an excellent season last year. Do you think it’s inspiring for young players to see a 31-year-old stay in such a strong physical condition?

To be fair to many of our players… Rooney, Valencia, Carrick and others, they all look after themselves in a very professional way…otherwise they get moved on really quickly at our club. But yes… Valencia is a great role-model to many both kids.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? Which team or two are you most worried about as title rivals?

I think it will be the usual suspects… Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, City and us. Very few clubs seem to be able to get consistency over 4-5 seasons so maybe 1/2 of those will have a poor season like Chelsea did two years ago. That will give the likes of Liverpool and maybe Everton who have spent well a chance. I think it’s very open… Chelsea didn’t have European football last year so will find it harder. I actually think Spurs will struggle a bit and Manchester City could be the ones to watch.

Where will you finish?

If we buy another proven goalscorer (or Rashford/Martial have blinders) then we can win it. We have a good defence so will be hard to beat. I don’t see us drawing so many games at home next season either so that will translate into more points. If we won five of those 15 drawn games that would have put us in third and that’s just five goals. That is not a stretch at all in my opinion. But in reality I still think we are another season away so I will say 2nd or 3rd.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Lukaku gives Manchester United predatory ruthlessness, the one quality lacking last season. He will benefit from Pogba’s creativity as Herrera continues to patrol matters ahead of last season’s second best defence. With a more streamlined focus, the Red Devils look ready for their first title in the post-Fergie era. 1st

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