Four goals in two starts, a pair of braces no less, represents a fairytale start to life in Manchester United’s first team for Marcus Rashford. The 18-year old enjoyed a dream Premier League début against Arsenal, to quote an oft-used cliché. Rashford’s strikes were predatory; his movement sharp, while his hold-up play and awareness to set-up Ander Herrera displayed maturity beyond his years. The Fletcher Moss Rangers graduate deservedly picked up the man of the match award for a sensational performance at Old Trafford. What happens next is up to him, but Rashford could become a key player should his progress continue.
While Rashford will be the name in the headlines it was, once again, United’s academy graduates that stepped up to derail Arsenal’s title challenge. Guillermo Varela kept his cool at right-back, despite picking up an early booking, defended well and played a crucial role in the build-up to United’s first two goals against the North Londoners. Timothy Fosu-Mensah looked assured on his senior bow, save for the odd sloppy pass after he came on for Marcos Rojo. Jesse Lingard made a telling contribution as well, lofting a great cross for Rashford’s second while Adnan Januzaj graced the field for a short cameo and James Weir earned his début.
By the end of the game, United could boast six academy graduates having taken to the field against Arsenal, with five finishing the game. It’s certainly a contrast from the season’s early months when United’s proud 78-year-old record of having an academy member in every first team match-day squad looked to be under serious threat.
If this is Louis van Gaal’s last hurrah then the Dutchman’s decision to blood youth may have a positive and lasting impact. His hand was forced, no doubt, because of the crippling injury crisis, but he has never been afraid of using young players to the point of being cavalier.
While the Dutchman earned Old Trafford’s enthusiasm on Sunday after a fantastically theatrical touchline spat with the fourth official, his use of academy graduates should not go unnoticed by the Glazers or perennial superstar-chasing executive Ed Woodward. With Neymar rumoured to have shaken hands on a contract extension at Barcelona, Woodward will do well to realise the benefits of investing in youth and not chasing stardust.
While the owners and executive vice chairman pay lip service to United’s history of developing talent, it is doubtful whether they truly understand how important this process is to the club. After all, some of United’s most iconic players such as George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs all came through the youth ranks.
A revamp of the academy is underway, with Nicky Butt heading it up and Henny de Regt appointed as its chief scout, but whether this is truly the beginning of an evolving youth set-up, or just a piecemeal attempt to catch up with rivals, remains to be seen.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]By the end of the game six academy graduates had taken to the field against Arsenal, with five finishing the game. Van Gaal’s use of academy graduates should not go unnoticed by the Glazers or perennial superstar-chasing executive Ed Woodward.[/blockquote]
It is clear that commercial considerations come before sporting ones at United, so if the owners understand the money-spinning potential of the academy then they may not be so blasé about the importance of developing young players.
One of the major concerns is that investing in youth is not cost-effective. It is true that only the very best make it to the first team, but that doesn’t mean an academy cannot be self-sustaining. Since the Glazers assumed ownership of the club United has sold over £80 million in academy-developed talent. No trifling amount.
That may be the cost of one Cristiano Ronaldo, but knowing that clubs will pay for players with the United premium should alert the hierarchy that there’s money to be made selling players who have come through the academy.
And what of those who do make it? There have been many players who have come through to become useful squad members or more. The Neville brothers, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Darren Fletcher may not have been superstars, but nonetheless, each contributed much to United’s trophy-laden recent history. Boasting players who understand the fabric of the club is a commodity that no commercial partnership can ever match.
Then there’s the polished diamond, the marquee player. Since Woodward became effective CEO at United the club has sought to shop in a different market, unsuccessfully on many occasions. The executive has been led on more than one wild goose chase, signed too many flops, such as Radamel Falcao, and overpaid for Ángel di María. Youth integration may not hold immediate marketability, but yields dividends down the line.
By contrast, youth integration may not hold immediate marketability, but yields dividends down the line. If Marcus Rashford develops into a world-class talent then United will boast a talismanic and international player who, from a commercial point of view, will be highly marketable. Granted, this is a best case scenario, because special talents, such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, come along rarely, but it is still wrong to view the academy as ‘waste of resources.’
Yet, there are few scenarios where youth-team graduates leading United to glory is not a goldmine from a commercial standpoint; the slogan “Made in Manchester” comes to mind. Lest we forget that Beckham, the club’s most marketable superstar in recent years, was a homegrown talent.
True, few will complain if United signs world-class talent as well, but it should not come at the cost of short-term thinking or underinvestment in the academy. After all, United is a club renowned for developing its own, with a proud history of fostering young talent into, occasionally, world-beating stars.
It is part of United’s history that deserves more respect from the Glazers, although it seems unlikely that the incumbent hierarchy will ever truly appreciate the full importance of this tradition.
In the meantime, there is some irony that in an uninspiring season it is the kids that are providing the marquee moments.