Manchester United’s Youth Revolution

Man United's Nick Powell

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I think that the ideal scenario for introducing youth players into an elite level team would be to give them brief cameos in games that have already been won, or give them meaningful minutes in a game that lacks importance. This season for Manchester United, however, a surplus of injuries has forced Louis Van Gaal to call up his youngsters and immediately throw them into the first team rotation. The Red Devils have a history of producing some world-class talent through their academy system (e.g. Class of 92 and the Busby Babes), but this new crop of talent faces an entirely different challenge than generations past.

Barely even into their 20s in most cases, these young players are now being tasked with helping United battle in the league every week, while also dealing with the added fixtures of the Europa League. Van Gaal has a reputation for involving academy players wherever he has managed, but I don’t think that even he was prepared to involve them so heavily at this point in the season. The average age of United’s starting 11 their last three fixtures has been just over 24.

This unplanned youth revolution at Old Trafford has given unknown names and once forgotten talents a chance to make a name for themselves at this massive club. Three players in particular have been given an amazing opportunity to either revitalize their careers at United, or to make a push out of the academy system once and for all.

Nick Powell

When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Powell from Crewe Alexandria back in 2012, the young midfielder was being touted as one of the brightest talents in England. His goal in the 2012 Playoff Final had fans dreaming of the teenager one day controlling United’s midfield and pushing them on to Premier League glory. However, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan as of late.

After a relatively successful loan stint at Wigan Athletic during the 2013/14 campaign, Powell was again sent on loan to freshly promoted Leicester City. The 20-year-old would make just three appearances for the Foxes before being shipped back to Manchester for his poor work ethic at the club. Things went from bad to worse after that as injuries pushed the midfielder onto the sideline for nearly a year, and reports started to surface that he had become disillusioned with professional soccer.

Recently, Powell has found himself amongst the United first team, and has been earning rave reviews for his performances with the club’s reserves. Despite originally being signed as a central midfielder, the 21-year-old has now been transitioned to a more attacking role. In both of his senior appearances this year (both coming in the last two weeks), Van Gaal has deployed Powell as a central striker option, and in the U21’s match against Leicester, Powell scored twice while earning rave reviews for his performance in the number nine role. With the lack of depth that the Red Devils have up-top, it’s entirely possible that the former Crewe midfielder could see a substantial increase in playing time, but it’s unclear whether or not he will be able to carry over his amazing form for the reserves into the first team.

Guillermo Varela

The first official signing of the David Moyes Era in Manchester, many United fans had seemingly forgotten about their Uruguayan fullback going into this season. The 22-year-old spent his first year at the club playing for the reserves, and then last season he made a shocking loan move to join Real Madrid’s B-team for the season. In the Spanish capital, Varela managed to impress Zinedine Zidane with the French legend telling reporters that he had no doubt the Uruguayan would one day make it to the top.

To the surprise of some, Varela returned to the club in the summer and again started the season as a member of United’s reserve team. Now, injuries to Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, and Marcos Rojo have forced Van Gaal to call upon the 22-year-old to start nearly every game for the Red Devils. His playing style has been compared by some to that of former United fullback Gabriel Heinze. Varela is a very aggressive defender that isn’t afraid to get stuck in on challenges. This aggressiveness has also seen him caught out of position on several occasions, and it’s becoming pretty evident that this is his first action on the senior level.

The increase in playing time can only help Varela as he learns the intricacies of the English game while gaining invaluable experience along the way. It may take him some time to show the quality that had Zidane praising him last season, but in time I think he can become a dependable option for the United backline.

Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

At just 18, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson now finds himself as Manchester United’s starting left back. Just typing that sentence makes me feel old at the age of 21. The defender has been a member of United’s academy since 2003, and he’s so young that he hasn’t even had the opportunity to be sent out on loan for some senior experience.

Despite this lack of first team action leading up to his debut, Borthwick-Jackson has been surprisingly confident during his games this season. His link-up play with Memphis Depay (21) on the left hand side has seen the Dutchman improve in his attacking ability, and has also added some much needed creativity to the United attack. The 18-year-old has also been reliable in his defensive responsibilities, but there are still some instances where his youth has been exposed.

The level that he’s playing at currently should give United fans some confidence in the club’s future talent, but right now I still think he’s too young to be counted on week-to-week. However, the injuries to the United backline have left Van Gaal with no choice but to throw the teenager into the starting 11. While Borthwick-Jackson is certainly the fullback of the future at Old Trafford, it’s unlikely that he beats out Darmian or Rojo for the starting fullback position.

This injection of youth into the squad is good for future seasons at United, but right now, it’s doing little to help them remain in the title race. Young players can only be counted on for so long, before a veteran presence is needed to control the squad. Great managers like Ferguson and Arsene Wenger knew the importance of limiting the roles of youth players in order to prolong their careers and minimize the scrutiny they would face from the fans and the media. Will Van Gaal be able to properly manage his young stars in order to ensure they reach their full potential, or will the high volume of playing time see them crumble under the pressure?

 

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About the author: Collin Carpio

 

I am currently a senior at the University of Missouri in the Journalism School. I have been an avid follower of Manchester United since 2006 and of course I support the Stars and Stripes. Due to my St. Louis high school allegiances, I am a big supporter of Brad Davis and Sporting KC in MLS.

 

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