Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair: Manchester United's Defensive Hopes

Rob DawsonManchester United CorrespondentOctober 20, 2014

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Louis van Gaal's record of promoting youth-team players was one of the reasons Manchester United fans were so excited when he took over at Old Trafford in the summer.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05:  Romelu Lukaku of Everton competes with Patrick McNair of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo
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It's hard not to be when the Dutchman has been responsible for kick-starting the careers of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Thomas Muller.

But in his first press conference, Van Gaal made it clear his focus was the first team. Given the situation he inherited from David Moyes, he said, taking risks on young players was well down his list of priorities.

But circumstances have meant Van Gaal has had to take a closer look at the youth team. He didn't envisage giving first-team debuts to Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair this season. But that's what has happened.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05:  Romelu Lukaku of Everton competes with Patrick McNair of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo
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Blackett and McNair have benefited from the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, as well as injuries to Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling.

Blackett went on the summer tour of the United States as the fifth-choice centre-half, behind even Michael Keane in the pecking order. But while Keane, who already had three first-team appearances under his belt before this season, has been shipped out to Burnley on loan, Blackett has been kept at Old Trafford.

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 23:  FC Bayern Muenchen head coach Louis van Gaal (L) and Thomas Mueller celebrate their victory at the end of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Inter Milan v FC Bayern Muenchen on February 23, 2011 in M
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When injuries and suspensions gave another young player a chance against West Ham United, Tom Thorpe was next in line. But Van Gaal handed the opportunity to the younger and more inexperienced McNair. He wasn't let down.

Blackett has started five Premier League games this season while McNair has started the other two. The biggest compliment you can pay them both is that, so comfortable have they looked, you've barely noticed they were playing.

There have been flashes of naivety, but that's to be expected. What perhaps wasn't expected was McNair keeping Everton's Romelu Lukaku unusually quiet in just his second senior game.

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Neither Blackett nor McNair lack confidence on the ball. Blackett was spraying 40-yard passes out from the back on his Premier League debut against Swansea.

McNair arrived from Ballyclare Colts in 2011 as a central midfielder, used to having the ball at his feet. Some of United's academy staff still think that is his best position.

Blackett, 20, and McNair, 19, need to fill out physically. And they've both got more to learn about what can only be called the art of defending. 

The right positioning and the ability to be able to sense danger, are difficult skills to master. Some never do. But they can be learned with experience. All of United's young defenders were lucky enough to have the opportunity to watch Ferdinand and Vidic do it every day in training.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05:  Manchester United Manager Louis van Gaal (R) chats to Assistant Ryan Giggs prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Pho
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Neither Blackett nor McNair will have imagined breaking into the first team so early this season. Even now, it's likely they'll have to wait to become established. 

But young players do not get many chances in top-level senior football. And it's a credit to United's academy that two youngsters have been able to make the most of theirs.

Their development isn't over and there's a long way to go before they can be added to the star-studded list of Van Gaal's success stories. But the early signs are reason enough for United fans to be excited.