On a day when Manchester United commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, the tragic event that claimed the lives of 23 people – including eight of the famed ‘Busby Babes’ on a cold night in Germany, it was fitting that one of United’s latest academy products in Scott McTominay was at the centre of a routine 2-0 win. It was unspectacular for large parts, yet United capitalised on key moments – and in the end cruised to get all three points which has now cut the deficit at the top – down to 13.
What was poignant however, is the fact that how Manchester United – 60 years on from losing a core group of players that were a part of what was indisputably the best young club side in the country at the time, cementing their dominance by winning the first five youth cups on the trot and going on to win two first division titles – still uphold the values that define them as a football club, giving them their unique identity among peers and rivals.
On Saturday, Jose Mourinho – the manager who is notorious for not ‘trusting youth’ in his previous jobs, has approached Manchester United in a different way to his other ventures.
Not only has Mourinho stuck to the tradition of United including an academy graduate in the senior team squad – a habit they have practised for over 80 years now, but the Portuguese is also slowly making a significant contribution to preserving and enriching that record – which even given their accumulation of a vast number of trophies over the years, stands out as a formidable achievement.
After giving them a taste of European football in the Champions League – against CSKA Moscow and Benfica in the group stages and later a fine debut against Bournemouth in the Premier League, Mourinho started the 21-year old midfielder on Saturday where he weathered a physical Huddersfield Town, stood tall and played a key role in he home side dominating the game from start to finish with a performance that the manager described as ‘genius’.
On the performance, Mourinho said,
“I made a few changes thinking about the characteristics of this game and I think this kid [McTominay] has a great desire to recover the ball when the team is not in possession. He’s a kid that chases the ball, that tries to recover high up the pitch and when he has the ball it is always simple and against opponents like Huddersfield, so close and with so many bodies behind the ball, the simplicity sometimes is genius. You don’t have space, you have to open spaces by playing simple, so was a decision to play the kid.”
McTominay showed at Old Trafford on Saturday why Mourinho might find a valuable asset in him, particularly now that he is about to lose a 36-year old Michael Carrick and an injured Marouane Fellaini – to keep things ticking in the midfield alongside a more adventurous Paul Pogba, to enable the Frenchman, be as good as he can be further forward.
The central midfielder completed 85 passes on a busy day – only his partner in the middle – Nemanja Matic managed more. With an ever-present threat of counter-attack from an opposition camped in their own half, it was essential that McTominay and Matic controlled possession and tempo in the right areas and the 21-year old did look the part – as Mourinho had suggested in December.
Jose Mourinho also seemed to appreciate the kindred spirit that a band of homegrown talent can bring – especially at a club like Manchester United where bringing through young players is almost an unwritten rule. He said,
“I prefer to look at it in the beautiful way of a little kid that arrived here with his mum at nine-years-old for the first training session, 10 or 11 years later the kid is playing in a Manchester United shirt in an important match in the Premier League at home at Old Trafford, so I prefer to look at that perspective.”
If anything, that should bode well not just for himself as manager – who deservedly signed a contract extension in January but also for the plethora of talent in the lower age divisions at the club and out on loan in England and abroad.
From Andreas Pereira – who is gaining vital experience in La Liga at Valencia and Timothy Fosu-Mensah playing a key role at a rejuvenated Crystal Palace to the likes of Axel Tuanzebe, James Wilson and Angel Gomes – who have already had a look-in and eager to get involved more in the first team, this is a pat on the shoulder for all of them.
As the first great Scot Sir Alexander Matthew Busby once said, “if you are good enough, you are old enough” and Jose Mourinho seems to have certainly bought into that.