The young defenders vying for a spot in Erik ten Hag’s squad

Carrington is open once again; the new season feeling, though tinged with frustration at a lack of transfer activity, is here. Erik ten Hag has taken charge of his first week of training sessions. The PR team at Manchester United have inundated social-media with clip after clip, photo after photo of smiling footballers wearing the famous red and yellow badge. Involved in senior training are several notable young players who, given United’s demand for homegrown talent, may see the green of the pitch come the new season.  

Erik ten Hag has taken charge of his first week of training this week. (Photo by

There is a relieved sense of joy about the training ground. Last season’s woes are long forgotten and amends are already in the process of being made.  

New manager ten Hag has a well-documented history of utilising young players from the academy. He worked under now-crosstown-rival boss Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich as his second-team coach. During this time, he oversaw the early career of Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg. There are similar success stories at Ajax. Donny van de Beek, Ryan Gravenberch and (potentially incoming) Frenkie de Jong have all emerged as top European talents under ten Hag’s tutelage. 

Frenkie de Jong’s transfer saga to Manchester United appears to be in its final stages of negotiations and Erik ten Hag may soon have his midfield man. (Photo by

The fact is, young players will get their chance to shine at regular intervals this season. A congested first half of the season filled with 16 league games and 6 European ties means that ten Hag must use his entire squad, youngsters and all, very tactfully. Here we look at a number of young players who might just get minutes under their new boss. 

Here, we look at three defenders who have a real shot at making ten Hag’s matchday squads in the coming season. 

Alvaro Fernandez – Left-Back – 19 

Amongst the rawest of defensive talents in the under-23 squad, Fernandez is a player that is getting United fans excited. The Majorca-born youngster spent his formative years at local club Deportivo and later Real Madrid’s youth academies before joining United’s youth team in 2020.  

Alvaro Fernandez joined Madrid’s youth set-up at 14-years-old before moving to United (Photo by

He is not your traditional left-back; Fernandez possesses some interesting credentials. Physically, he is tall, imposing and powerful. When receiving the ball, his first instinct is to stand up and progress. Helpfully, he can pass and has the vision to pull off the ideas he has. Adept with either foot, his crossing comes both from deep positions and from pull-backs into the box. 

The Spanish under-19 international played almost 90% of available minutes for United’s youth squad this season. In it, he set up four goals and scored three, earning the coveted Jimmy Murphy (U23) Player of the Year trophy – previous winners include Danny Welbeck, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Elanga. Fernandez was named on the bench for two premier league games towards the end of the campaign. 

Ethan Laird – Right-Back – 20 

I’d be remiss to not mention another exciting prospect at full-back here as well. Ethan Laird is a joyful, exuberant and skilful defender. Laird spent 6 months on loan at Swansea City during the first part of last season. They certainly missed him when he left and joined Bournemouth on loan during the same season. He attained promotion but played a bit-part role in the process.  

“I am kind of privileged – my hobby is my job, so I have got to smile, really”. (Photo by

The Basingstoke-born 20-year-old, who’s been at United since the age of nine, has 50 English league appearance already across three loan spells. He was part of the fabled Europa League excursion to Astana, Kazakhstan in November 2019. United fielded an almost entirely home-grown team and lost 2-1. Laird started at right-back at 18-years-old.  

During his stint with Swansea, he was deployed as an outright wing-back as part of a back 5. In a particularly impressive performance in September 2021, his team found themselves 3:0 down at half time. Laird provided the assist for a 92nd minute equaliser which delighted his manager Russel Martin, who had previously worked with Laird at MK Dons the previous season. The assist came from the last of his nine successful crosses that game.  

Will Fish – Centre-Back- 19 

Will Fish is another player ten Hag has had his eye on in training this week. Fish has recently signed a new long-term deal at United, the club he grew up at, which keeps him at United for the next four seasons. Though it’s unlikely that this was solely ten Hag’s decision, it indicates that he is highly thought of around Carrington.  

No-one played more for United’s Premier League II side than Will Fish. (Photo by

The fact remains Will Fish is impressing his coaches for both club and country. Having captained England at under-19 level, the Manchester-born centre-half has a bright future ahead of him. He has showcased his positional awareness, keen tackling ability and leadership in the Premier League II last season. It is also noteworthy that Fish has an excellent range of passing. He has a definite tendency to look up and spot teammates in advanced positions. 

Fish is unlikely to battle for Premier League minutes next year. This is despite United conceding 57 league goals last season (as many as they scored) – their worst season defensively in the Premier League era. He could, however, be given more time to train with first-teamers Harry Maguire, Rafael Varane and Victor Lindelof and play a part in early cup games and Europa League group stage ties, especially those which involve long-distance travel.

Importantly, Will Fish has first-team minutes under his belt for United, playing a part in 2020/21’s final league game vs. Wolverhampton.

Do any of these defenders have what it takes?

Ten Hag must use his squad deeply in this strange, convoluted season, given the impact of the mid-season World Cup. Any of these three defenders could benefit from this. After all, the club is famed for its adoration of young talent. There have been over 4,000 games – or 85 years – since United started fielding at least one of their youth academy products in the first-team squad.  

(Photo by

Countless defensive young stars have emerged in front of the United fans’ eyes. The Neville brothers, Wes Brown, Bill Foulkes and John O’Shea all emerged from the youth squad at United. Could this season prove a springboard for a young player to make their mark? 

Author: Sam Talbot

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