Progress Report on Angel Gomes: The Shining Star of Manchester United's Academy

Paul AnsorgeFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2017

Gomes celebrates England's Under-17s World Cup win.
Gomes celebrates England's Under-17s World Cup win.Anupam Nath/Associated Press

At the beginning of last season, we wrote a profile of a then-16-year-old by the name of Angel Gomes who was attracting a great deal of positive attention in Manchester United's youth ranks. 

A little over a year later, we thought it was time to check back in with Gomes' development and have a chat with some people who have been keeping a close eye on how things have been going.

But first, it seems like a good time to look back at how the last year has gone for Gomes. We will start with some numbers. In the 2016/17 season, he made 19 starts and two substitute appearances for United's under-18s. In those games, he scored 12 goals—impressive given he is not an out-and-out striker—and provided two assists.

The most notable statistic, though, is the number of first-team appearances. The smart money at this time last year would probably have been on none, but, in fact, Gomes achieved something that many United academy graduates only get to dream about. In the last league game of the 2016/17 season, with the Red Devils 2-0 up against Crystal Palace, having rested a lot of senior players ahead of the Europa League final, Jose Mourinho opted for a highly symbolic substitution.

Gomes replaces Rooney against Crystal Palace last May.
Gomes replaces Rooney against Crystal Palace last May.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

In the 88th minute, Wayne Rooney left the field to a rapturous response from the crowd. His name had been sung almost constantly from that moment until it was time to go home because the United faithful were savvy enough to realise that would be the last time he took the field at Old Trafford in their colours.

The choice of Gomes as the player to replace Rooney was drenched in historical significance. Rooney had, of course, made his initial impact on the Premier League as a 16-year old, and Gomes' arrival made him the youngest player to have made a first-team appearance for United for more than 60 years. Duncan Edwards had been the last player younger than him to get a game for the senior side, in April 1953, per Sky Sports

The current-day youngster had a few days earlier received the award for Academy Player of the Year at the club's end-of-season awards, a well-deserved reward for an impressive campaign.

So last season, then, was a phenomenal success. But how are things going at the moment? We spoke with Stephen Howson of Full Time Devils, who follows the youth team closely.

"We've barely seen him this season," said Howson. "With the [FIFA Under-17s] World Cup and the knocks he's had. I think he's on three goals in four for the Under-18s [he is] and two in two in Europe [Under-19s UEFA Champions League—again, he is, as well as an assist]."

"He looks good when he's playing, as usual. He played against Benfica the day after returning from India and, with virtually his first touch, beats his man and plays an outside-of-the-boot pass in behind. He's an absolute magician. His composure in possession, quality with the ball, vision, decision-making and agility needs witnessing to believe. He never runs. He needs challenging and he'll be incredible."

United's academy coach Kieran McKenna clearly agrees with the need for Gomes to be challenged. Speaking to MUTV in October (h/t the club's website), he explained why the youngster had been tasked with penalty duties:

"It's something we've been speaking to him about, his penalty taking, Because he missed a couple last season.

"We just encourage him to say: 'When you're the No. 10 and a creative player in the team, the onus is always going to be on you to take penalties'. We encourage him to thrive on that and want him to step up.

"We want him to take the pressure and, thankfully he did so in the UEFA Youth League game earlier that week and then, at the weekend, twice against Arsenal. So he is able to deal with and enjoy that pressure."

Ryan Baldi of Football Whispers recently wrote a profile of Gomes. He rates him highly, writing:

"Stylistically, Gomes is a dynamic and explosive dribbler, able to burst away from opponents and weave between defenders thanks to his immaculate close control. He is also a goal threat with either foot, and has the vision and execution to carve opposition backlines apart with incisive through-balls."

I spoke with Baldi to get his latest take. 

"I've only seen him in action for England so far this season, at the Under-17 World Cup and before that in person in a warm-up friendly vs Brazil," he said.

"He captained the side in the Brazil friendly at Shrewsbury's New Meadow. It was officially his Under-18s debut, I think, although it was a side comprised of players heading to the Under-17s World Cup the following month. The game ended 0-0 and there wasn't a great deal to report, but Gomes started as a No. 10 and buzzed around the attacking third, looking to make one-twos and link play, very much as he did in his brief senior United debut back in May.

"Although it wasn't a particularly eye-catching display, his confidence and calmness stood out. It was clear he was the player the England side were trying to get on the ball in advanced areas, and if anyone was going to produce a spark of inspiration to unlock Brazil, it was going to be Gomes."

Gomes in action against Brazil.
Gomes in action against Brazil.Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Interestingly, during the World Cup itself, Gomes was semi-regular, rather than a mainstay. He came on as a substitute in the opening 4-0 win against Chile, scoring a stunning free-kick late in the game. In the second game, against Mexico, he came on at half-time. He started against Iraq in the final group game, captaining the side, as he did in the round-of-16 0-0 draw with Japan.

However, that was pretty much where his World Cup ended, as he missed the quarter and semi-finals. He appeared in the final but only as a 90th-minute substitute. His early contributions were important, and captaining your country at any stage of a World Cup at any age group is a huge honour, but he will doubtless have been disappointed to miss out on making an impact at the crucial stages, especially given the team put in some amazing performances to win the competition.

Doron Salomon, regular youth-team watcher, sounds a note of caution amid all the hyperbole and excitement. 

"I'd say he's had a pretty disjointed few months, lacking rhythm," said Salomon. "He's had a couple of minor injuries and not looked fully match fit for extended spells. He has only played in four out of 10 Under-18s [domestic] games and started two of the four Under-19s [Champions League] games. He is still yet to make his Under-23s debut.

"He has seemed a little peripheral in the games I have seen him play for United but, of course, still has five goals and two assists in six starts.

Gomes in action against Palace.
Gomes in action against Palace.Dave Thompson/Getty Images

"He could do with staying fit now and getting a good run. I'm not sure at what point they'll push him up to the [Under-]23s, maybe around the new year, but you'd hope it'll happen sooner rather than later.

"For England, he was never really a starter at the World Cup as other players were in better form, and although he was joint captain, he played a bit-part role. I wouldn't be too concerned, though. He finished last season unfit and is just going through a difficult spell."

Five goals and two assists in six starts is not bad for a difficult spell, especially given he has struggled a little with his fitness of late. Nick Poole, who covers the United youth set up on Twitter @ManUnitedYouth, shares both Salomon's concerns and his optimism.

"It's tough to say on Gomes this season; feels like his season hasn't really started," said Poole. "He had niggling injuries right at the start and then went away with England for a month but was a surprisingly peripheral figure for them after being a fixture in the side through qualifying."

"The games he has played for United he's been decent—though he was horrendous in the first game of the season, totally unrecognisable, but has picked up a bit, especially with the Under-19s [in European competition].

"He just hasn't had a run of games to hit the form he's obviously capable of yet. Still not entirely sure why he's not been moved up to Under-23s yet really. At the moment it just feels like one of those plateaus that happen for young players every now and then for whatever reason during their development. Can hopefully kick on again after this international break."

In spite of the caveats of a difficult start to this season, he is still attracting plenty of attention. Alan Nixon of The Sun reported that "Manchester United fear" he will be "snatched by Barcelona." In truth, while this would be terrible news for United, there is a certain logic in Barca's interest. The Catalan club's style would be a great fit for the player.

When I wrote the profile back in September 2016, I had to use the "M" word. While this is not to say he will become a globe-conquering candidate for greatest player in the history of the game, it is hard to watch Gomes and not think of Lionel Messi. Watching him pick up the ball out wide and use a combination of dribbles and passes to work it into dangerous areas, especially given his diminutive stature, automatically brings Messi to mind. This is not a comparison in terms of quality, of course, though Gomes possesses plenty of that, but in terms of style, they are a good match.

United fans will be hoping that talk of departure is inaccurate and that the youngest player to play for the side since Duncan Edwards will sign a long-term deal and become part of the club's future plans. While he is still only 17, a player of his quality will presumably be looking for some kind of assurance about his chances at more first-team action.

This brings the Mourinho issue into sharp focus. While he has stuck by Marcus Rashford and, in a time of midfield injury crisis, put some faith in Scott McTominay, it is perhaps a little difficult to see him gambling heavily on a player of Gomes' type. Particularly, in fact, a player of Gomes' body type, given the land-of-the-giants team the Portuguese is assembling at Old Trafford. Picture Gomes lining up alongside Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, say, to get the idea.

On the other hand, Mourinho has, for the most part, kept faith with Juan Mata, in spite of him not exactly matching the Portuguese's equivalent of the Platonic ideal. Indeed, it is Mata's spot in the side that would seem to be a potential entry point for Gomes. While he is a natural No. 10 if ever there was one, playing wide on the right in a front three could potentially work, and in Pogba's absence, United have had a pretty serious creativity problem.

There is no suggestion that a start for Gomes is on the cards, but it would be fascinating to see, particularly in the cups.

In truth, the youngster would probably be better off were United's attack a little more functional at the moment. The most likely means by which Mourinho will seek to offset the current issues around creativity is through the transfer market.

Should, say, Antoine Griezmann arrive at the club, then Gomes' route to first-team football gets even more congested. Getting the balance right when seeking to bring in world-class talent and promote from within is really tricky.

Often it takes a lucky accident for young players to get their breakthrough. This was certainly the case for Rashford. It was an injury crisis that thrust him into the spotlight, and he took his chance brilliantly. Gomes will need to do the same should he ever get the opportunity, because other than perhaps the Carabao Cup, it is hard to see where his starts will come from.

In spite of the links with a move away, though, this is perhaps likely to be more of a problem in a further year than it is now. He is still so young, and assuming he is prepared to be patient, a bright future awaits.

Of course there are many, many obstacles between here and there. Talent is one factor, focus and professionalism are another, and in the end, they might just have more bearing on the trajectory of a player's career than that talent. Then there is the necessity of avoiding major injury and managing the physical changes that come with the ageing process. Even the most promising youngsters are still a long shot to make it at one of Europe's top clubs.

Whether he makes it or not, though, Gomes certainly qualifies as one of the most promising youngsters United have produced for a long time. More than a year on since that last profile, nothing has happened to dampen our enthusiasm about one of United's most exciting prospects.

      

Quotations obtained first-hand where not otherwise stated.