Is United’s Youth System & Policy Still in a League of its Own?

Manchester United are renowned for providing some of the game’s best new talents over the years. It’s central to the almost mythical makeup of the club. But a closer look suggests that all may not be well…

All eyes were fixed on two names as the Manchester United squad travelling to Seattle was unveiled. Excitement reached boiling point in the last half hour ahead of the announcement. Following the news that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin had been given the nod to join the flight, we’ve already had the chance to see all four new signings in action.

The inclusion of David De Gea, whilst Valdes was left at home, added spice to the debate over the future of the two Spanish keepers. But amid a storm of speculations, one player received little, if any, attention. His name is Sean Goss and he is one of seven junior players picked by Louis Van Gaal for the US tour.

The German-born midfielder (and sometimes full back) has been compared to Michael Carrick in terms of style and composure. In 2014/15, he made ten appearances and scored once for the reserves.

Over the same period, 11 youngsters were selected for at least one game in the first team. This, however, belies the fact that they managed a total of only 39 starts, with Paddy McNair starting 14 games.

But whilst he has awarded a debut to seven apprentices since his arrival at Old Trafford, Van Gaal has also released or sold nine Academy graduates, with the likes of Rafael Da Silva, Johnny Evans and Will Keane facing an uncertain future too.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United took pride in giving its youngsters a chance to flourish. In his 27 years at the club, the Scot handed a first team debut to no less than 96 budding talents – an average of more than three players each season. He made sure a conveyor belt of local production supplied his starting line-up in the 1,500 games he managed. He believed that Manchester United was a club that will always give a chance to promising talents:

“We’ve got a good nucleus of young players in the club which gives you the foundation to be able to protect the future and know it’s going to be alright,” he said.

A recent study by the CIES Football Observatory has found that Manchester United is the best club in England at giving youngsters a chance to play in the first team, with the average age on debut of 22.9.

At least one Academy graduate in every game since 1937! There is nothing to suggest this record is at risk under the Dutch. But there is every reason to believe that faith in the youth system overall is becoming less unshakable.

The foundation has always been solid at the club – United’s second-string side has just won the Barclays Under-21 Premier League for a second time in three years.

Against that backdrop, U21 captain Tom Thorpe’s exit was an abrupt and inexplicable move. More shocking was the way it was handled by the club. He had been earmarked to be the next rising star at Old Trafford. He was also praised by the manager Warren Joyce for his versatility and decision-making capabilities.

And most recently, 21-year-old defender Reece James has moved to Wigan on a permanent deal for an undisclosed fee after renewing his contract at United just 5 months ago.

Yet, there is no doubt that Van Gaal believes that the tradition should live on. He has reiterated on several occasions that the Aon Training Complex will always provide the first team with quality players:

“It should deliver talents for the first team because the youth education is built for that reason. I hope that I can take benefit of it as a manager.

“I think we have shown at Manchester United that we have belief in young talent and we give them also the chance to show themselves in the first team.”

However, there is a growing concern that United are in fact being left behind when it comes to youth development, as Andy Mitten recently argued.

We might not see the next Busby Babes or Fergie Fledglings for some time yet, especially considering that LVG wants instant success. But what is certain is that United’s faithful will be waiting to see the next Mancunian emerge and continue the Man Utd myth.