Best XI of Manchester United Academy Graduates No Longer at Club

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2017

One of these three men is ineligible for our team.
One of these three men is ineligible for our team.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Graduates from the Manchester United academy played 44,055 minutes of Premier League football last season, more than double those passing through runners-up Tottenham Hotspur's ranks who racked up 21,668, per Press Association Sport (h/t Sky Sports).

Many of those minutes were acquired away from Old Trafford. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford led the charge for home-grown players at United—albeit in the Frenchman's case there was an extended sabbatical elsewhere—but what of those plying their trade at other clubs, either in the Premier League or the wider football world?

How good an XI could be constructed from those United graduates playing elsewhere?

The rules here are simple: Players must have spent some time in United's youth ranks and play regularly at another club to qualify.

So let's assemble our XI and find out whether they would be a match for United's current crop. [Spoiler: they aren't.]


Goalkeeper: Tom Heaton

Getting the gloves ahead of Ben Foster and Ron-Robert Ziegler is Burnley's Tom Heaton.

The England international had a fine season in 2016/17, including a standout performance against United at Old Trafford. His reputation has been growing for some time, and it seems reasonable to surmise he will eventually find a role at a club with loftier ambitions than the Clarets.

A solid stopper—though not a patch on David De Gea.


Right-back: Rafael Da Silva

Getting in the side ahead of Premier League winner Danny Simpson and Burnley's Phil Bardsley is Rafael Da Silva. Though he arrived in Manchester quite late in his development, he nonetheless meets the criteria as he and his brother, Fabio, spent time with the youth setup before their first-team break.

Now aged 27 and playing for Lyon in France, there is a pretty solid argument that United should never have sold the Brazilian. That's not just because of his popularity with fans and generally positive presence around the club, it's also for his on-pitch abilities.

Arguably, only Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick were more consistent performers in United's last league title win, and it was under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal that Rafael's form suffered. He was hardly alone in that.

His combative approach would have been a decent fit for Jose Mourinho, though his relatively diminutive stature may not have suited the manager's current attempt to turn Old Trafford into the Land of the Giants.


Left-back: Robbie Brady

Robbie Brady may be more associated with an advanced role now, but he has played plenty of games at left-back in his time.

The Republic of Ireland international was responsible for one of his country's most memorable moments during Euro 2016 when his winner against Italy ensured his country would qualify from the group stage.

Now at Burnley, after a spell at Norwich City in which he first captured fans' hearts and then sort of lost them a bit when he underperformed in the Championship, Brady could do a job for this XI, particularly in providing attacking width.


Centre-backs: Gerard Pique and Jonny Evans

Evans and Pique in action together for United.
Evans and Pique in action together for United.ANDREW MEDICHINI/Associated Press

The first choice is an easy one here. Gerard Pique meets the criteria and is an automatic pick. Alongside the Barcelona man, we have opted for the grace and calmness of Jonny Evans over the more blood-and-thunder approach of Ryan Shawcross, who will line up against United for Stoke City on Saturday.

Everton's Michael Keane might make his way into one of these in the future, but the competition for places remains too stiff for now.

Pique and Evans could have been the first-choice pairing at United even now, had things gone a little differently for both. The Camp Nou defender is probably happy with how things have developed; Evans possibly less so, though he has been a vital part of Northern Ireland's superb performances of late.


Midfield Three: Tom Cleverley, Danny Drinkwater and Darren Fletcher

Stoke's Darren Fletcher would probably captain this side, having become a genuine leader during the latter part of his career, and he is close to first-name-on-the-teamsheet status in this XI.

The Scotland international is a cult hero at United, guaranteed an excellent reception whenever he faces his former side. While his on-pitch level may have dipped below his best since his illness, the manner in which he dealt with that ailment proved a degree of mental strength few footballers could match.

While he would obviously not get in United's first team ahead of Pogba and Nemanja Matic, he would be an enormous asset to their dressing room, and he is the kind of player for whom a role should be found once his playing career is over.

Preston North End's Ben Pearson was in consideration for a terrier-like defensive-midfield role, but in the end the safe passing of Tom Cleverley was the pick.

Cleverley, once the bearer of high hopes at United, has struggled to live up to his billing but is still a Premier League regular with Watford.

Finally, Danny Drinkwateranother Premier League winner who joined champions Chelsea on transfer deadline daywarrants a place in this side.

Not too many United fans would take the former Leicester City man over Matic given the Serb's impact at Old Trafford so far, but Drinkwater's move to Stamford Bridgereuniting him with N'Golo Kantewill offer him another chance to prove he belongs at the top level of the game.


Forwards: Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj, Joshua King

Replace Wayne Rooney with Joshua King, and this would be our front three.
Replace Wayne Rooney with Joshua King, and this would be our front three.Jon Super/Associated Press/Associated Press

This is a pretty straightforward selection.

Joshua King may have seemed an unlikely addition to this XI a couple of seasons ago, but his 16 Premier League goals for Bournemouth in 2016/17 demonstrated his line-leading capabilities.

He would be able to interchange with Danny Welbeck and Adnan Januzaj, who would start in wide positions but have the freedom to roam.

Januzaj has flattered to deceive since his remarkable breakthrough season at United under Moyes. His place in this XI is earned through a combination of the ability he showed in that season—it must still be in there somewhere—and a lack of serious competition for places.

Welbeck was for a time beloved by a section of United's support for his home-grown status and what he could do at his best. Indeed, while not too many Red Devils fans would want Arsenal to do well, there were plenty who hoped the England international would at least live up to his potential after his move to the Gunners.

However, things have rather stalled for Welbeck. A couple of seriously injury-hit seasons and the surroundings of a club seemingly endlessly on the precipice of a meltdown have meant the 26-year-old has not really kicked on.

The forward can still do incredible things with a football from time to time, but he is still prone to lapses in concentration or just straightforward bad finishing.

So, there aren't too many Pogba-esque ones who got away here. The bench would feature Foster, Simpson, Keane, Shawcross, Pearson, Ravel Morrison (who could have become a Pogba-esque one-that-got-away but is currently on loan in Mexico at Atlas from Lazio) and Fraizer Campbell.

Should this team meet the real Red Devils, those who stayed would likely win by a comfortable margin.


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