Louis van Gaal is reminded of Manchester United’s history in talent production every time he arrives at Old Trafford.
There’s the statue of the "Holy Trinity"—Denis Law, Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best, the latter two of whom came through the club’s youth academy—opposite the main entrance. There’s also the Munich Clock close to the players’ entrance, commemorating the loss of the Busby Babes—English football’s most fabled side of youthful exuberance and verve.
United might now be a club like any other, but they were once very different. Even under Sir Alex Ferguson, they were an anomaly in a modern landscape of immediacy and rapid turnover. For the most part, that aspect of their identity has vanished, but on Sunday it returned—even if only for one match.
The 3-2 win over Arsenal was the most exhilarating United have been all season, with Van Gaal’s side showing the kind of vigour and drive that has been lacking from their play for quite some time. And such a display was pulled off with three teenagers (two of them debutants) making the Old Trafford pitch.
Their team might have been unrecognisable, but this was the most typically Manchester United performance of the season. Their attacks turned into goals, exuberance became swagger and indifference was replaced with enthusiasm. It was the kind of result and display that could transform the club’s campaign.
However, Sunday’s success prompts even deeper questions of United’s identity as a club.
With Ferguson now nothing more than a cheerleader in the stands, the pathway between the youth ranks and the first team was assumed to have been scrubbed away. But should that really be the case given what was demonstrated against Arsenal?
In recent years, the number of homegrown players in the United first team has diminished, with Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher—to name a few such figures—all sold by Van Gaal since his appointment 18 months ago.
Meanwhile, only Jesse Lingard has broken all the way into the club’s starting lineup in such a time. Van Gaal might have garnered a reputation for rearing youth over the course of his career, but in truth, he has failed to vindicate that in his time at United—with the exception of Sunday’s match.
Van Gaal has since been widely hailed for placing faith in United’s youth ranks, but the Dutchman has only done so through sheer circumstance. His squad has been hit by no less than 14 injuries to different players, with his defensive ranks in particular decimated.
It’s only because he simply has nowhere else to turn that Van Gaal has given youth a chance. There is no other option.
But regardless of how the opportunity has arisen, United’s youth crop have shown that they deserve better than what they have received in recent years. Is the verdict regarding the club’s diminishing academy return somewhat unfair? Has United’s youth academy simply been suppressed by a lack of first-team chances?
Of course, it’s not as if United have missed out on another Class of ’92. They can only reap what has been sown, and the crop hasn’t been so good in recent years. But without the prospect of fulfilment, there’s only so far the club’s young talent can progress. Without sight of purpose and realistic ambition, even the very best can fall away.
A study conducted by the CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland concluded that United boast the most productive youth academy in England, with 41 graduates playing across Europe’s top 31 leagues. However, only six of those were still at the club of their graduation.
The Old Trafford club simply aren't making use of their own produce.
The astonishing rise of Marcus Rashford over the past week best embodies how United have lost what was once a fundamental part of their identity.
By all accounts, the 18-year-old striker was not regarded a prospect of any great talent before he was drafted in as an emergency option for the UEFA Europa League clash against FC Midtjylland, but in two first-team starts, he has bagged four goals. All he needed was an opportunity.
Per Jamie Jackson of the Guardian, Van Gaal said about Rashford after his double-scoring outing against Arsenal:
He was training with the second team. Sometimes he could play the part in 11-against-11 and then I saw him. You can see him with the second team but he was fast and playing on the right and left side. I put him in the striker’s position. You never know if a player can cope with the rhythm of your team. He did it very well.
The first time it is not so difficult because the player is so focused. Now the pressure shall rise for him because all the people shall look at him in another way. After four goals, the fans are expecting the fifth. But he has certain qualities. He can score in his way and that’s because he sniffs the situation in advance of other players.
Van Gaal is right to temper expectations of Rashford, given his still tender age, but the question persists—why did the Dutchman draft the striker in so quickly to his first team, without so much as an induction, if his potential was obvious to him in a training session? His failings are reflective of United’s as a club over the past few years.
Nonetheless, Sunday might prove something of a watershed moment for United. Van Gaal is widely expected to leave Old Trafford at the end of the season after enduring a dismal campaign on the whole, as noted by Jonathan Green of the Daily Star, but he might have stoked the fires of the club's youth academy once more.
His side have struggled for character on the pitch this season, but he might have inadvertently rediscovered a part of United’s identity.