When Manchester United’s class of 92 was honored with the ‘Special Merit Award’ a few years ago, for their footballing achievements in the 90’s, a video was made in tribute to those involved, composed of interesting interviews from coach Eric Harrison, the players themselves and Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Scotsman who has overseen a steady influx of young homegrown players making an indelible impression on Manchester United’s history, said something very simple yet deeply profound, which funnily enough, does not hold as much significance now, especially in the modern climate.
“I always feel about young players, when you give them an opportunity, they surprise you”
Manchester United have always prided themselves in not only producing a wealth of talent from their renowned academy but also paving a platform for them to get involved with the first team and give them a chance to show what they can do at the highest level. Besides the fifty-something years of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex running a successful model with a nucleus of young players, the Red Devils have had a few other managers who have continued the tradition of blooding the academy products in the first team squad, when the time was right.
Recently, David Moyes did it with Adnan Januzaj. Louis van Gaal managed to do it with more success and now Jose Mourinho has been handed the baton. And the Portuguese has run his race admirably with it, in his first season with the more sustained utilization of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and the raft of memorable debuts he’s given to the likes of Tuanzebe, Harrop, McTominay, Mitchell and the 16-year old Angel Gomes. Having had time on the sidelines post his sacking, it’s evident that Mourinho had done the groundwork even before getting the eventual call from Woodward to take over the reins after the Dutchman. A groundwork that has involved addressing the key areas and strengthening the spine, which he has done, albeit with room for further additions for improvement.
But then again, Jose Mourinho has done this at every club he’s been at. What he’s not done and what does seem to pose the biggest threat to the suitability of his role as far as he is concerned is the fact that Manchester United do things differently, like the famous, tight-knit city they represent.
At United, it’s important to keep homegrown players at the core – be it in the squad, coaching staff or in the board at an advisory capacity – there’s always someone steeped in the culture of that football club, taking care of the daily proceedings.
While that has not changed to a large degree, the demands of instant success, particularly in the league where they have failed to finish in the top three for four years in succession, Mourinho faces an important task of balancing his squad with the right mix of age and experience; local and foreign players. So this piece will look at some of the returning members of the first-team squad and assess who could have a future under the manager.
Johnstone has had a good season for Aston Villa and the midlands club are looking to sign the Man United youngster on a permanent deal worth £5-million. If there’s one position where United are at their the strongest, it’s probably the goalkeepers.
With David De Gea in his ranks guarding the posts, arguably the best in the world alongside the German Manuel Neuer, Mourinho also has the luxury to call upon the services of Argentine international Sergio Romero to fill in the boots of the Spaniard, as second-choice. Joel Pereira, who is next in line, as someone that Mourinho has described as ‘the best goalkeeper of the next generation’, it’s hard to imagine a future at Old Trafford for the 24-year old.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was one of the many young players to make his debut under Louis van Gaal. The full-back turned several heads in 2015/16 with his casual approach and inch-perfect crosses from the left flank in his 14 appearances with the first team.
The 20-year old even signed a 4-year deal to keep him at the club till 2020 and left for more playing time to Wolverhampton in the Championship. But the loan move has not worked as well as he would have thought as the youngster struggled to impress the then manager Paul Lambert and returned in February with only 7 appearances under his belt (532 minutes). Given the time remaining on his current contract with the parent club and his obvious talent, another loan move is likely to be in the pipeline.
The debut of James Wilson in the tail-end of 2013/14 campaign was one of the standout moments of that season. Wilson had scored in various age groups for United up until that point and continued the hot streak for the senior team in his first full appearance against Hull City at Old Trafford. He would go on to make 13 more appearances for the first team in the following season (2 starts) in which he scored a vital away goal against Queen’s Park Rangers in the second half of the season.
Much like Rashford, Wilson was tipped to make it to the higher echelons of the game, blessed with a similar innate ability to terrorize defences with his directness, unpredictability and pace. He was also one of the best finishers in youth level. But unsuccessful and injury-ridden loan spells at Brighton and more recently Derby have put his chances of becoming a Man United regular into serious doubt. He is currently recovering from an ACL injury, with his loan cut short, after he suffered in October last year.
Guillermo Varela also returned to Manchester United ahead of schedule, after facing a suspension by Eintracht Frankfurt, for the most bizarre of reasons. The 24-year old full-back has been one of the better performers out on loan, but the Uruguayan has been accused of being ‘unprofessional and embarrassing’ by manager Rudi Bommer after the player hurt his arm ahead of a cup final, on the back of a failed tattoo experiment.
Varela was David Moyes’ first signing at United back in 2013 and the youngster was immediately sent out on loan to Real Madrid’s B team managed by two-time Champions League winner Zinedine Zidane, at the time. Under Louis van Gaal however, he had an eventful 2015/16, scoring the title-winning goal for the reserve team and making full debuts in the Champions League, and later in the Europa League.
In his loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt where he made 10 appearances in domestic competitions, the defender did catch the eye enough to secure himself an extension with the German club, a move which will not proceed further, following the aforementioned unsavoury incident.
Adnan Januzaj had a barnstorming debut under David Moyes – to an extent where when the season ended, he was their best outfield player by quite a stretch. After choosing to represent Belgium and doing so in the World Cup in Brazil, the attacking midfielder suffered a dip in form and consistency in 2014/15, but still managed to secure a loan move to Borussia Dortmund which was ultimately his undoing. Without adequate playing time to progress, Janujaz wilted at the German giants, so much so that his attitude was questioned by the end of his spell by manager Thomas Tuchel.
Further acquisitions in the summer of 2016 saw the Belgian seek a loan move away from United, and it was David Moyes again who attempted to resurrect a career he had helped build. The efforts were proved to be futile in the end as Januzaj, who still has a contract at United till 2018, struggled to pull his weight at a Sunderland team that were headed towards disaster from day dot.
Andreas Pereira is the standout performer out on loan from United. The Brazilian/Belgian 21-year old has had a prolific individual campaign at the now relegated Spanish side Granada CF. With the versatility to be able to play in either central or one of the attacking midfield roles, Pereira is one of the players to watch in the future.
After seeing him impress in pre-season under Louis van Gaal and in every sporadic appearance he made under the Dutch boss, Jose Mourinho made the right decision to send him out on loan at a club where playing time is guaranteed.
With close to 3000 first team minutes in Spain, in a league that values possession and the technical facets of the game more than any other, Pereira has managed a prolific return of 5 goals and 3 assists ending the season as the best player of the worst side in the country.
Out of all the returning members of the squad, it is a no-brainer that Pereira has the made the most of his time away from United, and should be rightly rewarded with more first team opportunities under Mourinho.