Giving the youth a chance is a firm part of Manchester United’s culture. The club emphasized on that in December of 2019 by reaching 4,000 consecutive games with an academy graduate in the match day squad. United have since continued to polish that record, and with the likes of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams looking very secure within the first-team set up following what we have seen of this season thus far, it looks like that record is safe for years to come.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given a plethora of youth players their debuts this season as he sent a squad filled with academy players to a Europa League tie in Kazakhstan against Astana after United had already secured their progression into the knockout stages, but there have also been players, such as Greenwood and Williams, who have featured more regularly. So, with that said, let’s take a closer look at all of the academy products with five appearances or more this campaign and assess their season’s in one word:
Mason Greenwood, 18 | Apps: 40, Goals: 12
Season in One Word: Superstarlet
Young Mason Greenwood has been a revelation in his first senior season, just as the United faithful had expected. The 18-year-old relentlessly ran the show in the academy since breaking onto the scene at around the age of 15 — and his transition into senior football has been as seamless as can be.
Carefully mentored by former United striker, now manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Greenwood has continued to make strides this season by bagging 11 goals in all competitions and significantly contributing to the first-team following the departures of big names such as Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
Greenwood has repaid the faith of Solskjaer on multiple occasions this season, looking ever so comfortable on the pitch when asked to start in big games against Tottenham and Everton, and by carrying the goalscoring load for United in Europe with five goals in seven appearances in the Europa League.
The future looks ever so bright for the teenager who seems to be only scraping the surface of his potential in his first full season in senior football and United fans worldwide eagerly await what the future holds for the potential superstar.
Brandon Williams, 19 | Apps: 26, Goals: 1
Season in One Word: Revelation
The fearless left-back has probably been the most surprising emergence from the academy this season, especially considering that he wasn’t even part of the pre-season tour which usually features some of the youth closest to breaking into the squad. Nonetheless, his early season barge into the first-team has been a breath of fresh air.
Williams really came into the fold with the door. During a spell where Luke Shaw was really struggling for form, as was the whole team, Williams’ consistency and passion gave United a well needed push. He wasn’t phased by the big stage in the slightest. He seems to be one of those stone cold characters.
Adventurous going forward and disciplined at the back, Williams’s presence brought some stability to United’s left-hand side and he has seemingly all but secured his place in the squad for the foreseeable future. Now, with Shaw once again looking close to his best and Williams being a reliable option, the left side of United’s defence looks like one of the more solid positions.
Axel Tuanzebe, 22 | Apps: 10
Season in One Word: Incomplete
To say the centre-back’s season has been disappointing would be harsh, because when he was fit, it wasn’t. Axel Tuanzebe looked very solid at the start of the season and at times, many felt he would soon breakthrough as the perfect partner for Harry Maguire. Unfortunately, injury issues wrote a different script for him.
After a fantastic season at the newly promoted Aston Villa down in the Championship last year, everyone was excited to see what Axel could offer at the level above. And it was looking good for a moment. He even got to captain United against his home town team, Rochdale, in the early stages of the Carabao Cup. At the time, Victor Lindelof was looking a little shaky too, and all signs were pointing to the big Englishman soon taking over as a first-team regular.
But Tuanzebe picked up a mysterious knock. Many are still unclear in regards to what exactly happened, but he has not featured for United since December after coming off injured against Colchester in the Carabao Cup. He was back in training though right before the season was brought to a halt by the Coronavirus and so it’s going to be interesting to see whether he will be able to win a spot in the first XI when/if the season resumes.
Tahith Chong, 20 | Apps: 11
Season in One Word: Subpar
The expectations for the standout academy winger have never been sky high. It feels like for the most part, the fans are excited by what Tahith Chong could potentially bring with his quick feet and blistering pace, but if it doesn’t work out, then so be it. And unfortunately, he’s looked below average a little too often for United’s standards.
His talent is evident. Chong is an adventurous player with a nice left-foot, but his game has struggled to translate well into senior football. Every time he steps back down into the U23’s, he dominates. But every time he gets a chance in the first team, he looks poor. His decision making often leaves a lot to be desired for and he just generally struggles to find his place on the pitch.
But with that said, it would be harsh to just write him off. Chong has shown enough at youth level to perhaps trust his talent alone for a little longer in order to see how his development continues. At this moment, it feels like a smart loan move next season would be the perfect scenario for him to get regular minutes at the senior level.
Angel Gomes, 19 | Apps: 6
Season in One Word: Disappointing
It was tough to choose the right word for Angel Gomes but disappointing just seems to fit right. And that’s not necessarily because of his performances, but because of everything that has been going on around his name this season.
It felt like this was finally going to be the year the crafty playmaker gets his real shot at first-team football. Gomes has been consistently outstanding at all youth levels, and now, finally, United had a manager who wants to give the youth a chance in place. But it was all just too good to be true. It wasn’t long before another obstacle emerged. This time, it was Gomes’ contract situation.
Having featured regularly enough at the start of the season, it’s quite unclear as to why Gomes didn’t just put pen to paper on the new deal that was put in front of him. Everyone at the club and the fans seemed excited about his potential, and it feels like if he’d just signed the contract and got on with it, we would have seen a lot more of him. But, as fate would want it, things became more and more complicated, offers from other clubs started coming in — and we’ve seen little of Gomes since.
It’s understandable that the club and Solskjaer don’t want to continue playing a player who is uncertain about his future, but it would be interesting to know how this conflict, if you want to call it that, began. United could have certainly used with Gomes’ creativity and flair at times this season, but the 19-year-old has only racked up six appearances for United thus far.
James Garner, 19 | Apps: 6
Season in One Word: Promising
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It’s difficult to assess a player off six appearances, especially with even fewer of those being starts — but whenever James Garner has featured, he’s looked good. He seems like the perfect fit to throw right into the engine room, quite similar in style to Scott McTominay. Garner is positionally aware, doesn’t pull out of tackles, is a sound passer, and has quite the eye for goal from midfield.
Garner also brings good energy onto the pitch which is useful in the press and ball retention. But unfortunately, he hasn’t featured quite as much as most fans probably would have liked, and it felt like at times, with United’s injury and squad depth issues, there was room there for Garner to slot in and play more regularly. But it also has to be acknowledged that the central midfield is a key part of the pitch and it’s not easy to just throw a teenager into the deep waters, especially at Manchester United.
What we do know, though, is that Garner is way too good for the U23 level. He’s outgrown that level of football quite some time ago, and similarly to Chong, perhaps a loan deal next season would be the ideal option to see how the 19-year-old continues to develop while playing senior football.
The dynamic right-back has only made two senior appearances for United this season, but his talent and physique are undeniable. He’s already built for senior football at the age of 18. Laird is rapid, has an eye for goal, and is very solid defensively. If not for some injury issues of his own, you can’t help but feel that he would have featured a few more times this season. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka the clear first choice at right back, Diogo Dalot should watch out for the highly rated Laird gunning for his spot in the squad next season.
The 19-year-old only has one senior game to his name this season in that youth overhaul away to Astana in the Europa League, but that was enough to land him a mention on this list. His crisp passing and natural ability to control the tempo of a game were glaring in Kazakhstan, and despite his size, the Welshman could very well have a future in United’s first team set up.