While the effort that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is putting it to return to the Manchester United tradition of youth development is admirable, the manner it is done is proving counterproductive.
It was nearly 25 years ago that Alex Hansen dared to say “You can’t win anything with kids,” a statement that Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to take personally as United pipped Newcastle United to the title by four points. The squad contained David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and the Nevilles, Gary and Phil. Famously, the Class of ’92.
Before that, the Busby Babes exemplified United’s policy of youth, winning the 1955/56 and 1956/57 seasons with an average of 21 and 22 respectively. Youth is a tradition deeply ingrained in the psyche of Manchester United and to ignore the academy would be disrespectful to all aspects of the club.
Tahith Chong, Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe, Angel Gomes, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, James Garner. All youth products in that are part of Solskjaer’s squad this year. They have all made their senior debuts, some before Solskjaer, although Garner and Fosu-Mensah are yet to feature this season.
It would be harsh to say that they’ve performed poorly, often proving to be the better players in many of the games so far. Chong was a brilliant injection during United’s 1-0 victory over Leicester City, Tuanzebe was a standout against Astana and Rochdale, Williams was one of the minimal highlights against Alkmaar, and Greenwood needs no introduction.
But as much as Solskjaer is trying to replicate his own manager’s success at Old Trafford, he has to realise the situations are drastically different.
When the Class of ’92 came to flourish, Ferguson’s squad was given a new profile by a talented group of youngsters in Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt, and the Nevilles. However, it was the quality surrounding these players which enabled such success – Brian McClair, Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Andrew Cole, Lee Sharpe and Gary Pallister.
Simply, Ferguson had the luxury of blending his upcoming talent with experienced heads, ensuring the talent would be nurtured in the best way possible.
It’s something which Solskjaer doesn’t have and that’s something he has to accept. Frankly, it’s not close to what it was once.
While that’s a slightly reductive, Michael Owen-esque statement, it’s none the less true. Solskjaer has a squad with players capable of world-class ability, such as David de Gea and Paul Pogba. Some who have shown glimpses of fantastic ability, namely Daniel James and Anthony Martial. That’s about where the buck stops though, which is where the issue lies.
Granted, an injury list full of strikers hasn’t helped, but shipping Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, without signing anyone to replace them was always going to be an issue. Furthermore, United yet again failing to sign a right-wing is proving to be damaging to their season. Playing Daniel James on the left and Juan Mata on the right is a huge tactical imbalance, the two couldn’t be more opposite in their approach.
If United are going to recover anything of a good season, they need experienced heads to come in. Fast.
Mario Mandzukic was thought to come in this summer to fill the void left by the departing Lukaku, while speculation once again surrounded the Gareth Bale saga, whose move to China fell through late in the window. United can’t afford to let both of them pass again in January.
Mandzukic offers something that is clearly missing at Old Trafford, an aerial threat. There’s not a problem getting a ball into the box, but far too often nobody is there to greet it. Mandzukic is also an excellent finisher, somebody whose tutelage Marcus Rashford is currently in huge need of. For whatever reasons, Solskjaer’s promised lessons aren’t quite doing it for United’s number ten.
Bale, meanwhile, offers the outlet that Aaron Wan-Bissaka is clearly searching for every time he makes a run forward. Mata hovering inside isn’t what the right back wants, while Daniel James’s style of cutting in is counterproductive. United’s attack is so focused down the left it’s so easy to predict for teams. There needs to be another dimension to it.
Mandzukic and Bale are both players with a wealth of experience, the latter was once one of the best in the Premier League. Their additions to the team will take a huge amount of pressure on the upcoming youth products who are currently bearing the burden of being a glimmering light in an otherwise dull season. It will allow United to diversify their approach to games and ensure there are more than just two channels of attack and a few focus areas of possession.
The young players need time to be as good as it looks they will be. But they also can’t be forced into it, the tale of the rushed-and-failed talent is as old as time. Solskjaer needs to add experience desperately if he wants to establish a moniker of Solskjaer’s Sons.