|Image from AS English|
For young aspiring footballers, Old Trafford has always been the centre-stage to achieve their dreams, and this is what the club’s structure prides in – bringing in a considerable number of elite level footballers. Be it Duncan Edwards and Bill Foulkes from 50s, Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside of the 80s or the reputed Class of 92 or most lately, the FA Youth Cup winning side of 2011 featuring current first team players Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.
But the past decade saw a dip in quality of the performance as well talents churned out from the famed academy of Old Trafford, due to underfunding and neglect after the departure of Brian McClair. Consequently, rivals Manchester City (with huge investments and a state-of-the-art training facility) and Chelsea have dominated the Youth Cup competitions in the past decade.
But the arrival of Ole, along with the appointment of Nicky Butt, an Academy graduate himself, as the Head of First Team Development and the hiring of a new Statistics Analysis Team, is ushering in a new era. The signs are already visible with a huge improvement in performance on the pitch in U23s and U18s along with player development and many first team debuts. And arguably, Manchester United is yet to reap the benefits of this overhaul.
Players namely Ethan Laird, Dylan Levitt, Teden Mengi, Ramazani, D’Mani Mellor and many more have already caught the attention with eye-catching displays, while Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong have made their first team debuts. Mason and Brandon have already pocketed a good number of first team appearances while the other two haven’t still got a consistent run in the first team.
Tahith recently commited his future to the Red Devils, after a lot of speculation surrounding his future with the club, amid various sources linking him to Juventus. The Curaçao-origin, Dutch forward has been instrumental in the recent upturn in performances of the U23s with 24 goal contributions in just 35 matches. He also boasts 15 goal contributions in 22 matches for the U18s. This was infact rewarded with the personal accolade – Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year for 2018.
By default a right winger, Tahith has also been deployed on the left quite often. He was given his much awaited Premier league debut in 2019 against The Saints, by the then care-taker manager, Ole . Three days later he was named in the UCL squad against PSG, for THAT night in Paris. A good dribbler of the ball, mostly looking to take on opposition players one-on-one, with pretty much neat control and intelligent movements he is a threat to the opposition teams. The fact that he is not isolated to a single flank, but can work his way on both is a major plus factor. Though he is quite good physically for the U23s, he needs to put some work in and develop a formidable frame for the push and pull of the Premier league.
In the current campaign, Tahith has been used in 5 of the 9 Europa League matches played out so far. And in the last match behind closed doors against Austrian opponents LASK Linz, before football was suspended, he did release a beautiful through ball for Mason Greenwood to slot it home.
But with his debut senior goal still to be scored, the forward was part of both the drab fixtures against Astana,with the away leg lost 2-1. And the team as a whole earned staunch criticism for the uninspiring display. Infact, Chong hasn’t snatched the oppurtunities given to him with both hands. More or less unimpressive in the 15 matches he played for the senior team, doubts have certainly crept in on his ability and reputation. He needs to step up his game and address his critics sooner or later, and sweep all his doubters aside. However famed his dribbling is in the U23s, it has not been much effective in his first team games. Seemingly fragile on the ball, he is dispossessed effortlessly while attempting dribbes and take-ons. However hard you try, that glaring miss of an open goal in the loss against Astana, stands out. It felt as though he was already celebrating the goal before he had even scored and that lapse in concentration shows how steep the learning curve might be in front of him. You can’t blame a 20 year old getting excited for his first goal in the big stage nonetheless.
Being 20 already, he can’t go long in this fashion. He has to gain more matches on the way and the path certainly doesn’t look that open either. The arrival of Daniel James, a right winger from Swansea City, though productive for the squad has been far from positive for Tahith Chong and his ambitions for the first team. The Winter window saw the Portuguese Magnifico enter, which even though doesn’t have a direct influence on his position, has certainly increased the options for the manager sending him down the pecking order. And Manchester United going for reinforcements in the form of Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish in the near future, if true, is only going to make life harder for the Dutch international at Old Trafford.
All being said, it’s still too early to judge a player with just 15 first team chances in his pocket, and many among them being just small cameos. This is a professional who has been magnificent for the youths, a Jimmy Murphy award winner, which certainly makes him a talent not to be overlooked on. You do need to have the flair, don’t you, even to perform well at the youngest of levels? Maybe the lad is just a late developer – just like Becks. And maybe a loan move could be beneficial for his learning, same as Becks did from his move to Preston North End, although a short spell at a Premier league club would be preferable for Chong.