August 9, 2017
With the embarrassment of riches on offer in the Premier League, many fans expected this summer to be a transfer bonanza. While Neymar swapped Barcelona for Paris for a cool £198 million, Premier League clubs have struggled to use their own vast wealth to recruit their manager’s desired targets.
For every Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata or Bernardo Silva that was successfully forced over the line, there’s been an Ivan Perisic, Virgil Van Dijk, or Thomas Lemar that has, so far, slipped through the fingers of the Premier League’s top six.
With just three weeks to go until the transfer window deadline, clubs and managers are having to reassess which of their targets are attainable, accept they will miss out on certain reinforcements, target alternative options or plan for the season ahead with their squads as they are.
For years, extensive investment at the very best clubs has blocked the path to the first team for many talented youngsters. As the market goes into overdrive and many deals become financially unviable, those clubs may now have to turn to their own academies to fill important holes in their squads.
The fate of each of the top six might rest with their willingness to trust younger players to bridge the gap between academy football and the demands of the first team.
Despite having one of the most expensive squads in world football, Manchester United remain the most capable and most ready of any of the top Premier League sides to give opportunities to young footballers from their academy.
Jose Mourinho gave more minutes to players aged 23 and under last season than most teams in the division, at a combined total of 10,774 minutes of league game time across the entire season. Only Sunderland and Tottenham gave more under-23 players more of an opportunity in the Premier League in 2016-17.
What’s most interesting is the number of youngsters that played under Jose Mourinho last season and could play a role in the coming campaign. Marcus Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe, Scott McTominay, Demetri Mitchell and Joel Pereira have all been retained by Mourinho and are expected to play at least a squad role this season. Factor in the return of Andreas Pereira and Manchester United have a core of young players that have been raised by the club itself, a homegrown unit of players that understand the mentality of Manchester United and are ready to step into the first team should they be needed.
— The MUFC Academy 🐝 (@mrmujac) August 9, 2017
Mourinho is simply continuing a proud tradition at Manchester United. Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard are also prominent members of the first team, having graduated from the Academy themselves in years gone by. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is another highly rated academy player but he will spend 2017-18 away from Old Trafford after he signed a season-long loan deal with Crystal Palace.
Manchester United have featured an academy graduate in every single matchday squad since October 1937, a record that stretches back 3,868 games to before the Second World War.
When you compare United’s academy to the other elite English clubs, no one else really gets close. Despite winning the FA Youth Cup in five of the last six seasons, there is no reasonable path to the first team for the Academy boys at Chelsea. Chelsea sanctioned the sale of Nathaniel Chalobah, Bertrand Traore, and Nathan Ake, allowed Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to leave on loan and lost Dominic Solanke to Liverpool after his contract expired. There was a nucleus of exceptional youth talent at Chelsea, ready and waiting to step into the first team and give Conte what he wanted. But that’s not how they do things at Chelsea.
Arsenal are another club with a proud tradition of producing excellent young players, but of the current crop from North London, only Reiss Nelson appears ready for first team action and even he’s still only 17.
One club that cannot escape criticism is Manchester City. Despite excellent facilities and scouting networks, despite a history of producing the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland, all players who had successful careers in Manchester City’s first team and elsewhere, there doesn’t seem to be a path to the first team at the Etihad Campus either. The exceptional talents of Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho might still go to waste at City after Guardiola sanctioned a spending spree to acquire some of the most talented players in Europe. The City manager even admitted that City’s youngsters would not see much action in the first team in his second season in charge.
As for Manchester United, everything is in place to allow young talents to succeed. Taking the opportunity to blood this latest group of youngsters last season, Mourinho gave himself the option of relying on these boys in the coming months and years. After playing together at youth level, the likes of Rashford, Tuanzebe, and McTominay have now experienced first team football together and will be stronger for that exposure.
Every big club spends big money. Every big club has pressure. Every big club has expectations that demand success every single year. Funnily enough, each of those things is more intense at Manchester United than any other English club, and yet it is Manchester United that leads the way in player development. Ivan Perisic might escape Jose Mourinho’s grasp. Gareth Bale might prove too elusive to capture in this window. Mourinho might even complain his squad doesn’t have the right balance. For all the excuses and problems facing the manager in this window, Manchester United will never be afraid to look to one of their own and trust the young players.
If they are good enough, they are old enough.