Whenever there exists a big institution in any field of life, it is associated with something. It has its own identity, its own uniqueness. Being a part of that institution means something, it holds some value in someone’s life, in someone’s heart. In football, it’s no different. Every club has its own identity, their own traditions. That’s what makes playing for a club special, maybe that’s what makes fans fall in love with a club.
Ajax and Barcelona are known for their youth development and brand of football, Borussia Dortmund’s loud and spectacular atmosphere at the stadium is revered all over the world, Athletic Bilbao pride themselves in only using Basque origin players to give a few examples. Almost every club in this world has their own identity. Manchester United are no different. Known for their ability for producing some of the finest footballers in English and world football, their youth academy is widely considered as one of the best in the world. Their continued trust in giving youth a chance hasn’t gone unnoticed either with the club having named an academy player in their matchday squad for more than 81 years.
Although, United’s academy went through a bad phase in the last decade. Having won the FA youth cup 10 times, and priding themselves in their homegrown players making the first team, United neglected the academy for a while. When Louis van Gaal came in, the academy for underfunded and more focus was shifted towards improving the first team rather than improving the academy. At the same time, 4 miles away from Old Trafford, the ones wearing blue were improving and strengthening their academy each and every day.
From guaranteed education till 18 to better and bigger training facilities, Manchester City were attracting talents from under Manchester United’s nose and United were doing nothing about it. They thought their reputation was enough to attract these players – it wasn’t. The most talented 11,12, 13 year olds were all choosing to go to blue half rather than the red. Even United’s ex players such as Robin van Persie and Phil Neville chose to put their sons in Manchester City’s academy. Manchester United were not the best academy in the city anymore, let alone the country and this was emphasised by the 9-0 loss that Manchester United’s u14s suffered at the hands of their neighbours in 2015.
That was until Nicky Butt came in as the head of academy in 2016 and the powers at the top decided to invest in the academy once again. These figures aren’t revealed but the chatter around the training complex in Manchester suggests that the investment in the academy has skyrocketed since. United’s recent recruitments do nothing but confirm that. Hannibal Mejbri, touted as one of France’s biggest prospects, was bought in from AS Monaco for 10m pounds. Charlie McNeil, who scored over 600 goals at the u16s level, was poached from the rivals Manchester City. Marc Jurado ditched the world famous La Masia to join Manchester United, same with Alvaro Fernandez and Alejandro Garnaco who came in from Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid respectively.
Even though they were announced by the club like a first team signing, the general consensus is that Facundo Pellstri and Amad Diallo would first be training with the reserves instead of the first team. Large sums of money to buy these guys as well, something which again points at how much the investment at the youth level has increased since practically being ignored at one point in the last decade.
Large part of the credit goes to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The United boss may always find himself under the microscope whenever the first team plays bad and his reign as the first team manager has been a roller coaster ride, but one thing that the Norwegian has changed since coming in is the focus put on the academy. In 2019, the Manchester United backroom staff went through a complete restructuring with Nicky Butt being made head of first team development and Nick Cox replacing him as the head of the academy. Butt reports directly to Solskjaer about which players are ready to step up into the first team and also oversees their transition.
This has already benefited two players – Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, who have gone through seemingly flawless transitions into the first team. James Garner, Tahith Chong and Teden Mengi have all been knocking on the doors of first team football as well. Marcus Rashford is already one of England’s best players, Dean Henderson has impressed whilst being on loan at Sheffield United and Axel Tuanzebe, who has captained the side at every level (including the first team) has shown that he can be a reliable option at the back. United have a lot of homegrown talent representing the first team and that’s a testament to Solskjaer’s CV of trusting youth time and again.
Nicky Butt has also been a large influence on the academy since coming back to the club in 2016 and spearheading the academy overhaul. Having been part of the famous Class of 92 and also coaching the reserve side in 2012 and a short interim spell in 2016 due to reshuffling of the staff, the former Manchester United midfielder knows what it takes to transition an academy prospect into a first team regular. Butt was quick to install a transfer strategy and a clear plan for the academy in terms of recruitment, which is still being used to this day. An extensive scouting network and cash influx helped with the Red Devils signing players from all across England and Europe.
“You can judge me and the people who develop for the first team in hopefully two or three years when we’re challenging for titles. If you’re challenging for titles and getting players in the first team, that’s when you know you’re doing an unbelievable job.”
-Nicky Butt, February 2020.
Manchester United have signed 19 players between the ages of 15 and 18 since 2019. Many of them leaving a few of Europe’s best academies while others snubbing United’s main rivals and joining the red devils.
“I have made the decision to leave this great club – I wanted to thank all my teammates, and the coaching staff at Real Madrid for making me a better person and footballer,”
-Alvaro Fernandez on leaving Real Madrid.
All the 19 players weren’t cheap. Marc Jurado cost 400,000 pounds from Barcelona. Charlie McNeil cost 600,000 pounds from Manchester City. Logan Pye and Joe Hugill cost a combined 300,000 pounds from Sunderland. Wily Kambwala, the latest recruit from France, cost upwards of 3m pounds and Hannibal Mejbri was brought in for approximately 8m pounds to be made as the poster boy of the academy. Pellestri and Diallo who were both brought in at a combined cost of roughly 40m pounds.
Since 2019, Manchester United have spent large sums of money on securing the signatures of some of the finest prospects in Europe. This is a testament to the scouting and recruitment strategy mapped out by Nicky Butt and how much Solskjaer is trusting the youth academy of this club. Hardballing negotiations and the supposedly smaller clubs refusing to be bullied by the financial muscle of the bigger clubs has meant that Solskjaer may turn to youth prospects sooner rather than later.
Let’s have a look at the u23s and u18s academy players who we might be seeing play for the first team in the near future.
Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have followed in the footsteps of Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe in establishing themselves as first team regulars. Tahith Chong and James Garner have made a few first team appearances but have been loaned out to Werder Bremen and Watford respectively this season to gather more first team experience. And Even though these are early stages of the season, both have been excelling whilst on loan.
Looking at the u23s led by Neil Wood, Hannibal Mejbri is the player that stands out. Still only 17 years old and Mejbri is one of the most important players for the u23s and is regarded as the next big thing by many French scouts and journalists. His signature made a lot of headlines in the last year and he might be on the verge of playing for the first team this season.
Ethan Laird, Teden Mengi and Ethan Galbraith have all impressed at the u23s level as well. Laird and Mengi have already made their debuts for the first team with Laird featuring in the 2-1 loss to Astana in the Europa League last season while Mengi came on to play a little cameo against LASK last season. Brandon Williams had to change positions in order to accommodate Ethan Laird at right back and it was said that Laird would have even made his debut before Williams before suffering a horrible injury sidelining him for almost a year. Mengi has really impressed Solskjaer and there is a high possibility that we might see him play in a few cup games this season. Ethan Galbraith recently signed a new long term contract with the club and has made steady strides in his development.
Looking further into the reserve teams, Dilon Hoogewerf is another foreign talent poached by United in the last year – this time from Ajax. Ajax were unhappy that he left but the 17 year old said United’s vision and plan for him did the trick in convincing him to move. Anthony Elanga and Noam Emeran are two 17 year old wingers who have shown promise. 16 year old Zidane Iqbal is another talented attacking midfielder who has roots in England and Pakistan. Alvaro Fernandez and Joe Hugill, who were acquired this summer have hit the ground running and are already playing for the u23s. Hugill was brought in from Sunderland and the 17 year old has already netted 4 times in 5 games. Pellestri had a promising debut and there is a lot of excitement among the Red Devils faithful about the arrival of Amad Diallo who is touted to be one of the biggest prospects coming out of Italy.
Signings of midfielder Isak Hansen-Aaroen from Norwegian second tier club Tromso and goalkeeper Radek Vitek from Czech club Olomouc show exactly how vast United’s scouting network is. Manchester United have totally revamped their academy in the last few years and have laid a solid foundation for the first team manager to build upon. If a situation arrives for the first team manager to turn to academy, he has a vast array of promising players to choose from.
Manchester United have always held the reputation of giving youth players a chance to play in the first team but in the recent past, it has taken a bit of a hit. Young players didn’t find the Manchester United academy attractive enough and would consider their other options. The total revamp of the academy has meant that promising young players may turn to Manchester United to learn, grow and develop.
“Youth. Courage. Success” is the Manchester United motto, the Manchester United way. From the ‘Busby Babes’ to the ‘Class of 92’ and their stunning record of having at least one homegrown player in their matchday squad for 81 consecutive years is what the club is all about. This is their identity, their philosophy, something which was lost for a while. For all their other struggles, they are getting their identity, their philosophy back. Playing for the Manchester United academy has again started to mean something.