Axel Tuanzebe looked like he belonged. He was confident in his stride, his gaze fierce yet relaxed, belying the emotional journey he must have gone through while leading out Manchester United's first team in a home game. Tuanzebe, until Wednesday evening, had led United at every age group from under-9s all the way to the under-18s and reserves. As he was getting ready to warm up for the Carabao Cup tie against Rochdale, Mike Phelan came over.
“Are you ready to go see the referee? Come on, you're captain.”
Walking behind Tuanzebe through the tunnel that evening were Sergio Romero, Marcos Rojo, and Paul Pogba - finalists and winner from the last two World Cups.
This was another in Ole Solskjaer’s firm statement about the direction he wants Manchester United to take. It’s only natural he should choose this path. Solskjaer’s best years as a player were spent around a core of talented academy graduates and a manager who was willing to put his neck on the line for players who caught his eye. Besides, he coached the reserves team at United between 2008-2010, too, so the inclination to look inwards isn’t surprising. He is convinced that Manchester United’s next wave of success will come from within, like it did in his initial years at the club.
But this time, United are riding against the tide. The Class of ’92, that #throwback picture Manchester United now look at every Thursday, were the last real batch of academy graduates who progressed to the first team and brought tangible success. The transition, however, was built on strong foundations at the Under-18 level. Eric Harrison’s team won the 1992 FA Youth Cup, were runners-up in 1993, and won it again in 1995. Most of the fledglings Alex Ferguson inducted into the team had played in those tournaments and were undoubtedly the gold standard for the country to look up to. In contrast, it has now been eight years since United have played a Youth Cup final. They last won the Under-18 Premier League in 2013.
United, along with Chelsea, are the two major Premier League clubs to have invested heavily on their academy graduates this season, although Chelsea have probably been forced by a transfer embargo. That said, Frank Lampard can fall back on a youth structure that oversaw five consecutive FA Youth Cup titles between 2014-2018 and four UEFA Youth League finals since 2015, winning two. The proof lies in the pudding, and the tastiest ones are going around in South West London.
Against Rochdale, a team languishing in 17th position of the third division of English football, Solskjaer fielded a lineup that included Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood along with Axel Tuanzebe, and it took United a penalty shoot-out to force a victory. After Daniel James scored the winning penalty, he let out a deep breath and walked back, alone, to share quiet handshakes and high-fives with his teammates. In the dugout, Solskjaer and Mike Phelan’s faces showed more relief than elation. It was a poignant frame. Just the week before, Peterborough United, currently ninth in League One, had put six past Rochdale. Manchester United, one of England’s brightest, couldn’t score two.
The performance against Rochdale was the latest cut in a worrying and extended trough at United. Since their victory at Paris Saint Germain - an event which many thought would turn the club around but instead looks more fortuitous by the day - they seem to be in perpetual freefall. The game against Rochdale was 17th of last 20 where United failed to score more than once. Their shot conversion rate (6.5%) in those twenty matches is worse than 18 out of the 20 Premier League clubs this season.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) September 27, 2019
This is an ailing team, bleeding from all parts, caught in a wretched run of form. Up until Paris, it looked like Ole had finally unlocked the secret to success for an otherwise disjointed assembly of players. If anything, the twenty games since have highlighted firmly that the issues cannot be solved by “let’s press them high and hit them on the counter”. From recruitment down to tactical details of defending set pieces, there is very little than United have got right in their recent past. In such a situation, Ole and Manchester United cannot be blamed for turning towards youth.
Ed Woodward is an astute businessman - the record revenues that the club continues to generate even in such times speak highly of his financial acumen. While the wounds of United's many failed marquee signings over the years may or may not hurt him much, he and the Glazers need to figure out whether they are ready to afford Solskjaer and Phelan the time, space, and failures required to construct a robust and successful team for the long term.
There isn’t much doubt about the raw talent that the likes of Greenwood and Tuanzebe possess, neither of the potential future for Chong, James Garner, and Brandon Williams, but they all are at a vulnerable stage in their careers where they will excite and frustrate in equal measure. It must not be lost to those who matter, that these young players are being fast-tracked to senior football and mistakes are only due for the course.
If the youth is indeed the long term answer, there are two questions, amongst many, that need to be addressed immediately. Firstly, is the academy at its best shape possible, and is the talent coming through really as good as they think it is? Given United’s long tradition of paving a way for academy graduates to progress to the first team, their pride is understandable, but the lack of recent silverware is a worrying sign. For the academy to become a sustainable source of elite young players, the Under-18 and Under-21 teams need to start winning titles again.
Secondly, the problem that has hurt Manchester United for long, and will continue to for the foreseeable future - the dearth of leaders in the first team. Who amongst Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, David de Gea, or Ashley Young, would you trust to play the role Cantona and Keane did when Ferguson decided to bring in four, five teenagers into the first team? How do you expect Greenwood to be starry-eyed when, at 17 years of age, he’s having to bail Manchester United out in European fixtures? Over multiple attempts to address this, United have failed to crack the code. They have spent almost a billion dollars trying to manufacture their first post-Fergie success, and yet, the horizon still seems a few judicious choices away. That Solskjaer turned to Axel Tuanzebe, who isn’t among the two first-choice central defenders at United, for composure in a cup tie spoke a lot about his trust on some of the seniors in the team to drag the team out of the deepening muck.
The decision to entrust a young leader with the responsibility to rebuild a fractured team isn’t unprecedented. After a disastrous home World Cup in 2003, the South African cricket team handed the captaincy to 22-year-old Graeme Smith. Smith captained the team for 11 years and still holds the records for most international test matches captained and won. Axel Tuanzebe probably doesn’t need lessons in leadership, but he now has an unenviable amount of load on his young, 21-year-old shoulders.
On Monday night, Manchester United host an upbeat Arsenal in the first of an intimidating run of fixtures through October. A good start will go a long way in finally kick-starting the season, and a bad one will start to put the board under the kind of pressure they don’t have the best record at handling.
Arsenal, like United, haven’t had the best start to the season and are already looking a few streets away from the pacesetters in Liverpool and Manchester City. Their recent form is comparatively brighter, with victories against Eintracht Frankfurt, Aston Villa, and Nottingham Forest. Against Aston Villa, down 1-2 and under severe pressure, Arsenal dug deep and eked out a performance that would fill their manager and fans with the hope of a good season hereon.
💬 "I trust and believe in him and he is a good man, a good professional and a good player."
👔 @UnaiEmery_ explains the factors that influenced his decision to name Granit Xhaka as our club captain
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 27, 2019
What was once the flagship rivalry at the top of the Premier League has now become a battle of the also-rans. Both teams are in the process of rebuilding towards a title challenge, and while a victory on Monday is unlikely to change their fortunes in the current season, it will be good validation towards their long term visions.
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Updated Date: Sep 30, 2019 10:02:50 IST