Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Manchester United’s Thriving Academy a Symbol of Club’s Recent Progress

Posted on 27 July 2021 by Ben Thompson

Manchester United are clearly in the middle of a significant rebuilding process as a club. The club’s loss in the Europa League final to Villarreal in May meant that the 2020/21 campaign was another trophyless one, with the last trophy having been won in 2017.

While they are still nowhere near where they would like to be in terms of success and silverware, there are signs that United are heading in the right direction.

THE ACADEMY

One of these signs is their thriving youth academy, which is currently full of sensational local and international talents who will be hoping to be first-team players in the near future.

Many members of the current crop of academy players were given first-team opportunities in the 2020/21 season, and there are, of course, plenty of academy graduates who are regulars within the squad.

In 2018, however, the state of United’s academy was much bleaker. The U-23 side was relegated from the PL2, which was perhaps the wakeup call that the club needed to revitalise their youth system as a whole.

Since then the academy has undergone a rebuild of a similar style to the first-team squad under the reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and now has the squads and individual talent at U-23 and U-18 levels that prove that the changes made were successful.

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These groups are full of young players who will be hoping to break through in the years to come, many of whom possessing the evident talent to do so.

United have always taken pride in their academy, consistently giving opportunities to young players who many other clubs would not. It was a saying of their legendary former manager Sir Matt Busby that “if they’re good enough, they’re old enough”, and this message clearly still rings true within the club today.

HOMEGROWN TALENT

The club have consistently been among the top teams in the Premier League in terms of giving their academy players and graduates an opportunity to play in the first team.

Mason Greenwood for example, who is now one of the most promising teenagers in world football, was given his first opportunity in the United squad at the age of 17 due to his dominant performances at youth level. He is one of the many academy products who regularly feature in the first-team squad, including Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay, Axel Tuanzebe and Brandon Williams.

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Throughout the 2020/21 season opportunities have also been given sporadically to young talents who have proven that they are ready to compete for places in the first-team side.

19-year-old Anthony Elanga made his debut in United’s defeat against Leicester City in May while 17-year-old Shola Shoretire became the seventh-youngest ever debutant for the club when he came off the bench against Newcastle.

The final game of the past Premier League season against Wolves, at which point United’s position in the league table was already settled, provided another opportunity for more youngsters to make their debuts.

Locally born centre-back Will Fish and Tunisian midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, who was reportedly signed for £9.3 million as a 16-year-old in 2019 from Monaco, both came off the bench in the second half.

With the signing of talented teenager Amad Diallo from Atalanta for over £30 million in the summer of 2020 United combined their faith in youth with their willingness to spend in the transfer market.

He immediately made an impact in the U-23 side, scoring two goals on his debut against Liverpool. His immense talent was so evident in the academy side that he soon became a regular in the first-team squad, and netted a vital header in the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 tie against AC Milan.

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There are also a number of talented young United players who made their mark while on loan in the Championship this season.

One of these youth products, 20-year-old James Garner, followed what many felt was an unsuccessful loan spell at Watford with a much more positive experience at Nottingham Forest.

Another young talent who was loaned to the second division was centre-back Teden Mengi, 19, who was a regular in Wayne Rooney’s Derby County squad last season before picking up a hamstring injury which led to him returning to his parent club.

REBUILDING PHASE

In 2020/21 Manchester United finished second in the Premier League to local rivals Manchester City in what was ultimately an uncompetitive race to the top, with City winning the league by 12 points.

United’s U-23 and U-18 squads also finished second in their division last season, the PL2 and the U18 Premier League North respectively, both also losing out to City. While this illustrates that the current dominance of blue side of Manchester remains, optimism should be the prevailing feeling about the youth system and the club as a whole during what looks to be the latter stages of their rebuilding period.

It is ultimately trophies that measure success, however, meaning United still have further steps to reach the targets that a club of their size should aspire to take. The young players in the squad and in the academy could prove crucial to achieving their goals this season and in the years to come.