Nicky Butt’s Youth Revolution

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. 



(VALENCIA, SPAIN – DECEMBER 12: Manager Nicky Butt of Manchester United U19s watches from the touchline during the UEFA Youth League match between Valencia U19s and Manchester United U19s at Paterna Training Centre on December 12, 2018 in Valencia, Spain.)

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. 



(MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 10: Nicky Butt, Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Coach Michael Carrick of Manchester United watch from the touchline during the U18 Premier League match between Manchester United U18s and Sunderland U18s at Aon Training Complex on August 10, 2019 in Manchester, England.)

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. 



(BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 30: The Manchester United team (Back Row L-R: Will Fish, Lukasz Bejger, Ondrej Mastny Teden Mengi, Hannibal Mejbri, Anthony Elanga. Front Row L-R: Martin Svidersky, Shola Shoretire, Charlie McCann, Mark Helm, Reece Devine) ahead of the FA Youth Cup semi-final match between Manchester United U18s and Chelsea U18s at St Georges Park on October 30, 2020 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.)

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. 

Scout report: Marc Jurado

Manchester United haven’t been very active in the business of wonderkids over the past two decades, which other top teams like Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund seem to thrive on – either in terms of performance or profitability, or both. A drastic change in United’s academy project has seen Nicky Butt lead the Devils into a new era of focus on academy youngsters and buying high potential players for the same. Coupled with manager Ole gunnar Solskjaer’s trust in youth and the academy setup, this summer has already seen the club renew contracts for Harvey Neville, Tahith Chong, Greenwood, Brandon Williams, James Garner, Ethan Laird, and Dylan Levitt while recruiting fresh talent in the forms of Isak Hansen-Aarøen from Tromso, Alvaro Rodrigues from Real Madrid’s academy, Radek Vitek from Olomouc, Joe Hugill from Sunderland and Marc Jurado from Barcelona’s famed La Masia.

Marc Jurado is only the second player in United’s history to have been signed from FC Barcelona’s youth academy and the first ended up being a decent player. Gerard Pique could not make it at the club but went on to become one of the world’s top defenders. Marc Jurado was born the same year Pique arrived at United in 2004. Now 16 years old, he arrives at Old Trafford aiming to make a bigger mark than his predecessor.  

Career History:

Jurado was born in Sabadell, a town 18 miles from Barcelona, on April 13, 2004,. He played for his local club, CF Can Rull, from the age of four to seven before impressing enough to be picked up by FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy. He has been playing for the youth team for the past nine years. In his second season for Barcelona, he recorded the fastest goal for the FCB Benjamin C side (Under-10s) as he stole the ball straight from kick-off, dribbled past two UD Viladecans defenders before coolly slotting past the keeper to score within five seconds. This is also the record for the fastest goal at any youth level at Barcelona. His crowning moment for FCB Infantil A (Under-12s) came as he scored in a 2-0 win against fierce rivals Real Madrid in the Mediterranean International Cup 2016 tournament. He has been a prominent figure in Barcelona’s Cadet A (Under-16) side and was due to be promoted to the Juvenil B (Under-17) for the 20/21 campaign.

Playing Style:
When it comes to playing style, Jurado is your quintessential modern right-back, bombing forward with speed and skill to overlap and support the attack. Most consistently associated with jersey #2, the first noticeable aspect of Jurado is his immense speed and acceleration which he uses aggressively to dribble past players and take up good attacking positions on the right side of the pitch. He has a huge reputation as a capable attacker having once scored 6 goals in a season for FCB Cadete B. Technically strong, Jurado fits the usual La Masia graduate pattern of being very adept at passing, link-up play and ball control while he is no slacker in his defensive duties utilizing intense pace and stamina to get back in position and mark wingers. Jurado loves playing 1-2s to burst past opposition often linking up with the right sided attacker or central midfielder for a classic give-and-go. Armed with a very capable left foot, Jurado also has a penchant to cut inside and release the opposite fullback or dribble in central areas himself towards the opposition box which explains the occasional goal he scores and offers a more unpredictable dynamic to his attacking play. A few of his goals have come via headers and volleys from corners indicating his value as a set-piece threat. He has been deployed mostly as a right back but has also been used as a right winger on some occasions to utilize his attacking traits.

Transfer Saga:
Barcelona had no intention of letting Jurado go as they secured Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Pablo Paez and Ilias before offering a lucrative 3-year contract, worth up to €300,000 per year, to Jurado to convince him to stay as well. They viewed Jurado as a key part of their promising generation of youngsters. But Jurado was certain he wanted to leave for better opportunities which probably says a lot about the current condition of the Blaugrana in terms of giving chances to academy graduates in the main squad. They have lost a few youngsters in recent years who have opted to try their luck abroad instead. It also says a lot about the great recent work Nicky Butt and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been doing in terms of youth promotion. Reports first emerged in April 2020 suggesting United had contacted Barcelona regarding Jurado and their pursuit worked soon after as they received the confirmation of Jurado soon after.  

“It is never easy to leave the team that has given you everything,” Jurado wrote on his official Instagram account to confirm his departure. “FC Barcelona has been my second home, my second family, where I have trained as a player but also as a person. Today I have to say goodbye but not before thanking each of the people who have helped me since I started in 2011. I have been fortunate to share my passion with a fantastic generation with whom I will always be linked. We started as children who only wanted to run after the ball and I said goodbye, nine years later, being able to call them friends. Only we know the immense luck we have had with all the coaches who have trained us and helped us to continue fulfilling our dreams.”

What next?
His contract expired on June 30, 2020 with the Red devils having to pay a compensation fee of £175,000 for the youngster. Jurado shared an image of his departure gate ahead of his flight to Manchester on 27th August with a caption “A new dream is coming.”. The pacey defender was seen strolling through Manchester in a denim jacket and jeans post which he self-isolated for 14 days before joining training. Jurado has linked up with the Manchester United Under-18 side for the 20/21 season and is already off to a bright start having scored in the 2-1 friendly win against West Brom U18 earlier this month. Jurado’s path to the main team won’t be easy with Aaron Wan Bissaka (22 years old), Fosu Mensah (22 years old), Diogo Dalot (21 years old) and Ethan Laird (19 years old) seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order. But with Dalot’s long-term future up in the balance given his recent loan to AC Milan, Fosu-Mensah’s injury concerns, Laird yet to make his senior debut and manager Ole’s heavy trust in the academy, Jurado will know he has the time and opportunity to make a mark for the reserves first and then make the step up in a few years. 

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)