The Manchester United academy. A famed and hollowed institution which has churned out club legends and other talents. When you think of the United academy you think of the likes of the Busby Babes, the Class of 92, and the most expensive player in the world – Paul Pogba. Developing and blooding in talents is what academy is all about. Last season United fans got to see the likes of Axel Tuanzebe break into the first-team. And who can forget the final game of the domestic campaign? Josh Harrop had a day to remember scoring in his first-team debut, and Angel Gomes – the academy’s crown jewel – came on late to make his debut at the age of just 16.
Under the guidance of Nicky Butt, the academy has been busy over the last couple of seasons. The United board has authorised a root-and-branch overhaul of the academy structure after assertions were made that the United academy was falling behind the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea when it came to recruitment and results.
To get some insight into the state of the academy, this year’s summer signings, and what the future holds for some of our talents we sat down with Manchester United academy expert Khoa Zany for a little chat. Enjoy!
UR: Hey Khoa! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
KZ: Not much to introduce about myself I guess. I’m just a normal United fan with a strong interest in the academy and youth football in general. I’ve been following the U18s/Reserves as well as other age groups in the academy for about 10 years.
UR: Manchester United’s academy is one of the most successful academies in world football when it comes to developing players who go on to have long and fruitful careers. In this sense, the United academy is considered to be ‘unrivalled’ in all of England. In recent years; however, many are led to believe that United’s academy has started to fall behind the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea. First, what do you make of these assertions, and second, where would you rank United’s academy relative to the rest of the Premier League?
KZ: There have been many reports from the media from the last few years about how United’s academy has “fallen” behind its rivals. First, I must admit that I found some of these reports to be hilarious because they are very misleading and clearly have some agenda behind them. For instance, one of their favourite arguments is about how some of United’s former players apparently “sent their sons” to City’s academy instead of United’s. I’ve watched a little of Heskey’s son, van Persie’s son, as well as Butt and Giggs’ sons at underage tournaments. Without making any prediction about the future of those lads who are very young, I’d say most of them wouldn’t be at City or United’s academy or any “top” academy if not for who their father is. We used to have Van der Sar’s son in the academy but he moved to Ajax as soon as his father moved there. Was there much benefit for us having him in the academy? The fuss about how the youth results indicate the quality of the academies are extremely misleading as well since different academies have different approaches. United’s academy in particular is much more focused on individuality than teamwork at those very young levels, and we never tend to have a “balanced” team as well. So naturally results would not always be ideal.
Saying that, there has been some very strong investment from Chelsea and City’s hierarchy recently into their academies. While Chelsea has top class coaching, City has spent money left and right with their aggressive recruitment strategy to make sure that they get their hands on most of the best talents in the area, which results in very high turnover rate of players in the lower age groups. This has clearly helped them to have a good depth of talent in almost every age group. I think it’s fair to say that both of these academies have a higher quantity of quality within their ranks at the moment compared to United’s (Spurs is another one). However, with the recent improvement in United’s scouting network, as well as more aggressive recruitment both locally and overseas, clearly Nicky Butt is trying to match up with our rivals.
Personally I haven’t been concerned much about these “issues”. There has been a better depth of talent in England recently as the results in the U20s World Cup, U19s Euro, U17s Euro, and etc have indicated. United as well as other top clubs have enough talent in their hands to develop, and whilst we seem to be better than Chelsea and City when it comes to really playing them in the first-team, we have struggled to find a consistent “pathway” to introduce a promising youngster into the first-team. There have been players like Josh Harrop, Ben Pearson, and Michael Keane who despite not having been considered “first-tier talents” in their youth career, all have enough talent to become at the very least first-team rotation options with the right development. If we could do better with those youngsters (i.e., without them having to move on permanently in order to get first-team action) we would have a wealthy pool of academy graduates in our first-team without sacrificing quality. It is really unacceptable for a player of Harrop’s talent to only have 1 senior appearance at the age of 21 compared to many players at his age who have made 100+, on loan or with their parent clubs. We have similar players still at the club like Matty Willock who have played zero senior football at 21. Now that is really an issue that we should focus on more, especially considering U23s football isn’t that useful in preparing youngsters for the Premier League.
I’ve never been a fan of “ranking” the academies since it’s very hard to find the right criteria to do so. In my opinion, right now Chelsea has the best academy in England, followed by Spurs. I would put Man City below them with the likes of Everton, Man United, Liverpool, Fulham, Arsenal probably on par with each other. However, in terms of the number of academy graduates who go on to have careers at a high level, United is still by far the best currently, and with the general lack of a pathway to the first-team in the top English clubs at the moment I doubt that will change soon.
UR: The U18s have signed a number of players this summer. Two names that have piqued the interest of many are Arnau Puigmal who has signed from Espanyol, and Aliou Traore previously of Sacrelles. What can you tell us about these players?
KZ: Both Puigmal and Traore are central midfielders, though Traore seems to be more versatile and can play as an attacking midfielder or deeper. Both come to the club with huge reputations and expectations, similar to the likes of Andreas Pereira, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and Tahith Chong before them. From what I’ve seen of him, Puigmal is a very quick midfielder who’s also a good passer as you would expect from a Spanish midfielder. Traore, on the other hand, reminded a lot of people of Pogba stylistically. They have a very long way to go but it’s interesting to see a Spanish – French midfield duo reminiscent of Herrera – Pogba in the first-team. I would rate the U18s midfield next season as a group as the best we’ve had in a long time. Both of them will face strong competition from the likes of Aidan Barlow (who was the U18s’ joint top scorer last season with Gomes), Dylan Levitt – a Welsh midfielder who has a very good passing range and technique, Ethan Galbraith – a Northern Ireland midfielder who played up an age group for his country and has excellent close control, and James Garner – last season’s U16s captain who probably will play more in defence. That saying, I expect both of them to be among the first choices of the U18s when their international clearances come through.
UR: Last season Angel Gomes become the youngest player since Duncan Edwards to feature for the first-team. How do you see Gomes progressing this season? Is he ready to step up into the U23s?
KZ: Angel Gomes, for me, does not have much else to prove at the U18s level. He finished last season as the joint top goalscorer alongside Barlow despite missing the whole elite playoff stage whilst also making 6 assists. Despite playing alongside players older than him who are also good talents themselves like Buffonge, Dearnley and Boonen, he’s always the central figure of the team and the hub of creativity. I think the plan for him is to play both U18s and U23s football this season considering we’ll have many attacking players in the U23s next season. Though, if I am the one making decision, I would just promote him straight to the U23s. He’s that good. I can see him making a good impression in the U23s this season, and even making a few cameos for the first-team.
UR: Apart from Gomes, who are some academy players that you think United fans should be keeping a close eye on this season?
KZ: There is a very good depth of talent currently in and around the U18s/23s group at United. Gomes is probably as safe a bet as you can have as a future first-teamer. However, there are a few other talents who probably would have been more in the spotlight if they had came through the academy a few years ago when there were less exciting prospects.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe are two United defenders who are still teenagers but have been around the first-team. However, they are not the only youth defenders we should keep a close eye on.
RoShaun Williams, who has been out injured for most of last season but used to make the first-team bench under Van Gaal, is expected to comeback this upcoming season after missing most of the 2016/2017 campaign due to injury. He’s still only 18! I really hope his recovery has gone well as he had been very good for the U23s in Van Gaal’s last season and looked a dead certainty to make it with the first-team.
Tyrell Warren is another one of the same age who’s a high level talent and will hope to prove himself in the U23s this season. The main issue with Warren would be his position as he’s probably a bit too short to play centre back at the senior level, but not offensive enough to play right back. On his day, Warren is an extremely aggressive defender who basically can block everything that is thrown against him. Butt apparently is a huge fan of him, and whilst I don’t see him making the first-team with the current age of our other defensive prospects, he’s a very good talent of his own right.
Lee O’Connor is another defensive prospect who’s younger than those two mentioned above (he will turn 17 later this month). Lee is a very composed defender and extremely good on the ball. In terms of pure talent he’s really a “world class level” talent in my opinion; however, I can see his height being an issue if he continues to be played centrally. Similar to Gomes, he’s too good for U18s football next season so I would hope for him that he makes a breakthrough to the U23s squad, especially if Tuanzebe gets some first-team football.
Ethan Laird is another defender I would suggest to keep an eye on this season. He’s probably not a familiar name with United fans just yet as he was an U16s player last season. However, from what I’ve seen of him he looks like he has everything to be a really good fullback. He has blistering pace and can cause a lot of trouble offensively whilst remaining solid defensively. He’s comfortable at both right back and left back though you would probably prefer to see him on the right considering he’s right-footed. He’s one of the players that has got me excited the most among the newcomers coming into the U18s squad this season.
Apart from the defenders, we have a wealthy pool of midfield talents at the moment. Obviously Gomes is one of them but Callum Gribbin, DJ Buffonge and Ethan Hamilton are other high level talents that I expect to take U23s football by storm next season.
Gribbin is already a regular in the U23s and whilst he has been hot and cold, his talent is undeniable and he seems to have improved his work-rate and took more defensive responsibilities than before last season. With better players around him next season I would expect him to thrive.
Buffonge is a player who’s probably a bit underrated considering he was a low-profile signing from Fulham two seasons ago and was injured as soon as he officially signed for the club. However, he has come leaps and bounds last season and started to show how good a talent he actually is. He can beat players for fun with his close control, however his best position would probably be central midfield as opposed to the wing as he’s very good at making those mazy runs from midfield into the opposition’s final third.
Ethan Hamilton is another one who’s probably a bit unfashionable but yet another talent who has come leaps and bounds last season under McKenna’s guidance. A smooth operator in midfield and also a physical presence, Hamilton has developed his shooting from outside the box last season and became very dangerous with it – which was evident by his 8 goals last season from 21 games. An interesting combination of physical and technical abilities, Hamilton will surely play an important role for the U23s next season.
Aidy Barlow is someone I would suggest everyone who will watch the U18s next season to keep a close eye on as I would expect him to be a key figure of the team. Starting the season mostly from the bench considering the other options we have, Barlow thrived during the final stage of the season in Gomes’s absence and ended up scoring 12 goals in 8 starts and 11 sub appearances – a very impressive statistic. With him being one of the first names on the team sheet this season it’s not unimaginable for him to hit 20 goals this season – an unreal number for a midfielder. Apart from the goals, Barlow’s overall gameplay is also at a high level and he should show more of that next season.
Finally, it would be a mistake if I didn’t mention Tahith Chong who was a popular name among United fans but has gone under the radar a bit after the long-term injury he suffered. I would expect him to be slowly reintegrated into the U18s team as his recovery goes on and, along with Barlow, he should be one of the first names on the U18s team sheet when fit.
UR: There are few things more exciting in football than a academy player coming up through the ranks and breaking into the first-team. Who do you think will be the next academy player(s) to follow in the steps of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard and become a first-team regular?
KZ: It is always very hard to make it at a top club like United and as excited I am about some of the names mentioned above, I would only expect 3-4 of them to become proper first-teamers in the future (including Gomes). Andreas Pereira for me is nailed on to be the next one to play regularly for the first-team. Tuanzebe has every tool to become that player as well and some from the likes of Gribbin, Buffonge, Williams, O’Connor, and Laird will hopefully push on to that level in the next 2-3 years. I personally hope Mitchell will do well in pre-season and be among Mourinho’s options for the left-back spot next season. It surely will be an exciting time over next few years with a healthy pool of talent in the setup. I think this bodes well for the future of the club as long as we have some good strategies to develop them instead of just letting them rot in the U23s for too long and stagnant their progress as footballers. It is a tough job ahead for the likes of Butt and Sbragia to make sure that these talents become something more than just talents.