Manchester United's Next Generation: Who's On Track, Who's Not Making the Grade?
In a recent issue of Inside United, the club's review magazine, Sir Alex had the following to say about youth development at Manchester United:
"Over the years, we've been as good as anyone in the country, probably the best, at doing that.
You look at the way Barcelona have produced players and we're not far off that.
We've had so many players come through down the years and, more recently, we've had the likes of Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Rafael come into the first team. Then you've got players like Ryan Tunnicliffe, Jesse Lingard and Michael and Will Keane, who are all part of a successful youth team.
They're progressing very well. So we're still good at it and we enjoy seeing them come into the first-team squad."
Now there is no question that United are as committed as any club in England, and possibly Europe, to developing young talent. This is a policy that can be tracked back to Sir Matt Busby's time at the club. Sir Alex has followed and enriched the process from top to bottom.
Something is not quite right, however.
OK so the "Class of 1992" may have been born partly out of necessity. Six players were promoted at the same time, who went on to be the nucleus of the team that won the Treble in 1999:
Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt, Gary and Phil Neville.
That team had won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, as the Busby Babes had won it every year from 1953 to 1957.
But United have won the trophy three times since 1992, in 1995, 2003 and 2011 and we have not seen anything like the same amount of progression and promotion to the First Team that there was in the 1950s and 1992.
It is fair to say that Sir Alex has also recruited young players from outside, but promising players who were certain to be part of the next generation have also left the club in frustration at lack of opportunity. Most notably Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi, Ryan Shawcross, Paul Pogba and Zeki Fryers.
When you look at the FA Youth Cup winning team of 2011, there has been precious little real opportunity afforded to some talented young players in that squad:
Johnstone, Michael Keane (on loan), McGinty, Thorpe, Fornasier, Lingard, Pogba (left), Tunnicliffe, Morrison (left), van Velzen (on loan), William Keane (injured).
Now while it seems likely that at least the Keane twins have been earmarked for the Premier League squad, Pogba is now playing for Juventus's first team and Morrison has left (although his problems seem to be continuing).
Of the other seven, Tunnicliffe is the only one to even have had a substitute appearance.
Nathan Baker (21), Chris Herd (23), Barry Bannan (23), Ciaran Clark (23), Andreas Weimann (21) with Marc Albrighton (23) on the bench. In addition, Gary Gardner (20), Graham Burke (19), and NathanDelfouneso (20) have already made appearances for the first team this season.
Of United's team that played against Sunderland, only Tom Cleverley is an Academy Graduate, although Danny Welbeck was on the bench.
In addition, only Rafael, Evans, Wootton, Vermijl, Macheda and Tunnicliffe have made any appearances, although Scholes and Giggs were graduates of course, 20 years ago.
When you're a Ryan Tunnicliffe or a Scott Wootton and you can't even get onto the subs bench; or one of the four players listed in the EPL First Team squad who have never even had a game, you may be entitled to feel frustrated. Especially when you see Scholes and Giggs trot on yet again.
So is the problem Sir Alex's insistence on sticking by the tried and trusted, or is it that the quality isn't there after all?
Here we give a brief review of the players who are bubbling round the edges of the First Team squad and some of the talent who may get promoted in the next couple of years.
We've divided them into:
Those who should be let go now;
Question marks (which by definition includes anyone else not mentioned in the article);
Those on loan at present;
The ones who we think should make it, if they are given their chance.
Let Go Now
Sir Alex Ferguson always refers to him as a striker and he can score some spectacular goals, as the Under 21s win against Aston Villa showed last Monday.
The trouble is that he has become an acute embarrassment. Nobody will ever be able to understand why United paid over £7 million for him without Sir Alex ever seeing him. He may have six caps for the Portuguese U21s, but surely he will be on offer in every transfer window until he is sold.
Sadly that fate may also befall Federicho Macheda, once regarded as the best natural finisher in the club, who burst on the scene as a 17-year-old by rescuing United again against Villa (he also scored on Monday).
He has had disappointing loan moves to Italy and QPR but he seems to have slid sideways. He doesn't look as sharp as he used to, so he may be on offer in January.
Joshua King is currently on loan to Blackburn Rovers, thanks to the Henning Berg connection. Although Rovers haven't won a match since the big Norwegian arrived, he has made five appearances and scored a goal already.
If they make an offer, maybe he should accept and stay, because he needs to be playing games and has had only one substitute appearance in each of the last two years. Despite being a full Norwegian international, he doesn't seem to be on Fergie's radar.
Finally, Larnell Cole also seems to have gone sideways for the last year or so. While he featured on United's pre-season tour and can play on the wing or through the middle, he hasn't looked particularly impressive in the U21s. He can either stay and make up the numbers for them every week, or at least seek a loan move elsewhere.
These are listed here because we don't have enough evidence yet, to determine whether they will make it.
Luke Hendrie is the son of former Leeds United and Bradford City player John Hendrie. He looks a useful player who can play at full back or in midfield.
Like Hendrie, Luke McCullough is only 18. He was skipper of the Academy side last year and has all the credentials to develop into a fine Ryan Shawcross type defender. Finally, Reece James,younger brother of Matty, was given a full time contract this year.
For all of these it could come down to luck or being given a chance because of injuries. They have to get a regular berth in the U21s first and then we'll see what they're made of.
Robbie Brady was also on the preseason tour, where he was tried wide left and at left wing back. He is an uncompromising tackler who already has four full Irish caps, including one goal and a couple of assists.
He has been told he needs to be playing regularly to become a fixture in the Irish team. He has made 47 appearances for Hull City in the last two years, but only one substitute appearance for United. If Hull make him an offer maybe he should take it.
Michael Keane is on loan at Leicester City but has already impressed for the first team, including on tour, where he was one of only three centre backs, along with Wootton and Ferdinand. Some people were surprised to see Scott apparently promoted ahead of Michael, but the latter and his twin brother are surely a bright part of United's future.
Reece Brown is currently on loan at Coventry City, for whom he has made nine appearances this season. However, he wasn't even on the bench for their sparkling win at the weekend. He is arguably at least as good as brother Wes at the same age, but United have a bundle of centre backs coming through the ranks.
Giovanni van Velzen is on loan at Royal Antwerp. Still only 18, he is a gangly winger who also scores goals. In some ways he resembles Danny Welbeck at the same age. He may turn into a giant of a player with great finesse. Let's wait until he returns to Old Trafford before making a conclusion.
Finally, John Cofie looked if anything an even better, bigger, stronger striker than Josh King. He is still only 19 and is on loan to Sheffield United for whom he has made 14 appearances. Again we may need to wait for his return to the U21s, where he will have plenty of competition (unless Macheda, Bebe and King leave), to come to a conclusion.
There is no doubting that Petrucci is a cultured midfield player. It may be that he is waiting in the shadow of Michael Carrick, because that is the role that appears to suit him best. The Italian has had wretched luck with injuries, but is now captaining and leading the U21s, so he must be held in high regard.
One would assume that Ryan Tunnicliffe is ahead of him in the pecking order for the next midfield opportunity. He must have been disappointed to see Nick Powell come in and leapfrog him into the First Team squad.
Others who find themselves in a similar position include:
Sam Johnstone (England U21 keeper) who would have De Gea, Lindegaard and Amos ahead of him when the latter returns;
Tyler Blackett, who has been tried at left back and similarly has seen Alex Buttner come straight into the squad;
Freddy Veseli, who was released by City last year, but could yet make a statement as a utility player like John O'Shea before him;
Michele Fornasier, a fine young centre back with Wootton and Keane ahead of him;
Jesse Lingard who can't be pleased to see all the speculation about Wilfried Zaha, Tom Ince or James Rodriguez. Jesse has been a disappointment this season;
Sean McGinty is an interesting case. He is huge at 6'3" for a left back. He is strong and uncompromising but skilled enough for wing back. He came from Charlton and is highly regarded, hence his No. 23 shirt. Probably now ahead of Tyler Blackett;
Tom Thorpe also suffers from being a centre back but can at least play in midfield. He is a former Academy captain and may yet get a chance;
Tom Lawrence is one to watch out for. Undemonstrative, he is as clinical a finisher as there is in the youth ranks. Almost like an old-fashioned inside forward. He is only 18 and may yet make it;
Charni Ekangemene is a highly rated Belgian who resembles a young Cheick Tiote in his play. He also has no little skill and is still only 18.
Luke Giverin has already caught the Boss's eye and featured in the Harry Gregg testimonial. He is only 19 and this is a big season for him.
Surely its only a matter of time before Ryan gets his chance, although he might be knocked back if United actually sign Kevin Strootman.
Some people have likened him to a young Roy Keane and you have to admire the fact that his performance level hasn't dropped at all in the U21s, unlike one or two others, even though he hasn't yet made the breakthrough.
United have a difficult FA Cup tie against West Ham coming up. Could that be the match where Ryan makes his breakthrough?
Scott Wootton, Will Keane, Nick Powell and Ben Amos have already done enough in our opinion to expect to be First Team squad regulars for years to come (if Amos stays after his loan spell). We have discussed them at length in previous articles.
Marnick Vermijl looks like he has the makings of understudy to Rafael at right back. He has pace, skill, scores goals and his tackling is improving steadily. He is surely a future Belgian international in a country brimming with young talent.
One assumes that Sir Alex wouldn't have added Angel Henriquez to his collection of strikers without believing that he is a star of the future. He fought off other Premier League clubs for the 18-year-old's signature at just under £4 million.
Angel has adjusted to English conditions and is looking much more professional and impressive in the U21s than Macheda, who he may well displace this January.
So these are seven young players who we are confident Sir Alex has earmarked for the future. That doesn't mean that some of the others we have mentioned won't make it as well. If we have missed anyone it is because they probably won't.
When you look at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Chicharito, who were apparently plucked from nowhere, there is sometimes no saying who will be a future star. Ravel Morrison was supposed to be the next Paul Scholes, with outrageous talent, but he appears to be imploding even after being sold.
On the other hand, Tom Cleverley is a shining example of what can be achieved. He was tiny until he was 16 and still isn't huge. The coaches were worried he was too frail to make it but, like David Beckham, he stuck at it and worked his socks off. Saturday's goal announced his arrival for certain.
And before you fret about some of the younger players we haven't mentioned, the last section is a selection of Academy players who will, or might, in our opinion make it to stardom in the best football club in the world.
Son of failed Manchester United manager, Wilf McGuinness, Paul is entrusted with bringing the best out of the cream of United's Academy, the U18 side.
The philosophy in the Academy has three important elements among others:
Develop every skill possible for each player.
Rotate players to try every position on the pitch before they are 16 to find where they are best, but give defenders a taste of attack and vice versa.
Playing as a team the Manchester United way is more important than winning for winning's sake.
However, of course all teams love to win and McGuinness's teams are always at the forefront of U18 competition.
Sad at losing the likes of Pogba and Morrison, he is no doubt licking his lips at some of the prospects he has access to for his squad, some of whom are underage because they are so good.
Dutch born Kenji Gorre, Sean Goss (signed from Exeter against stiff competition), James Rothwell and Luke Grimshaw are all players to watch out for if you have MUTV or manage to otherwise catch the Academy.
The cream of the crop, however, include several underage players:
Mats Daehli will surely replace Ryan Giggs in due course. He can tear a defence to shreds, is very intelligent and can play on either wing or through the middle. Sir Alex has probably taken the phone off the hook to stop calls from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for this talented young Norwegian.
Adam Januzaj is so highly rated that he played in the preseason friendly against Aberdeen and didn't look remotely out of place. First spotted doing tricks at half time in the Anderlecht stadium, he is yet another outrageously talented Belgian.
Jack Barmby is the son of former England international and Hull City manager, Nick. Jack is a precocious talent who already looks ahead of Tom Cleverley at the same age. He can be played through the middle or up front and scores goals for fun.
Talking of scoring for fun, James Wilson is so good that he might even beat Will Keane to become first choice United striker, despite being still only 16. Where Will reminds of Dennis Bergkamp, James is like a young Duncan Ferguson and that will appeal to Sir Alex.
He has already set a United record by scoring five goals in an Academy match. He makes it look so easy. Surely he will become a fixture in the U21 squad very soon?
Finally, keep an eye out for Anders Pereira. He may be the most talented midfielder United have had at the tender age of 16. Yet another Belgian youth international, he was born in Brazil. He has exquisite skill, scores goals, is intelligent and is excellent at free-kicks. Not bad really.