It was a moment of purest theatre. The sharp crack of a bulging net; the roar of an otherwise subdued crowd; the birth of a new star. Marcus Rashford’s neatly taken goal against Danish side Midtjylland in the Europa League last week was a moment that epitomised so much of Manchester United’s 138 years. The club of the Babes, Fledglings and Class of ’92, now perhaps on the cusp of a fresh, youthfully inspired regeneration. Amid increasing frustration, an early goal for the visiting team, and a missed penalty, Rashford’s side-footed finish meant more than most.
Perhaps to Louis van Gaal too. After all, the criticism has been stiff, and the Dutchman’s response often, and frustratingly, robust. Yet, amid faltering results and a failing campaign there has been a modicum of brighter light in the past week – Van Gaal’s willingness to throw younger players into the mix, whatever the personal cost. Whether due to a hand forced by injuries, or as part of the now less-discussed philosophy, Van Gaal has offered game time to 15 players aged 21 or under this season. The Dutchman has handed debuts to 14 academy graduates during his Old Trafford tenure.
It is a policy popular with fans and Glazers alike – a rare moment of synergy between long-time enemies. Yet, youngsters such as James Weir, Tim Fosu-Mensah, and four-time goalscorer Rashford may get fewer opportunities if, as expected, José Mourinho takes over in the summer. The former Chelsea manager is, after all, the arch pragmatist – one not schooled in an Old Trafford fan-culture that prizes the development of its own.
And despite United’s three victories over the past week, which have proffered a boost in confidence at a vital time, the campaign is likely to end in failure. With it Van Gaal’s career will conclude on a bitter note too. After two years of rapid evolution in personnel, and huge sums spent in the transfer market, Van Gaal has served up mostly stultifying tactics and mixed results. Even if the Dutchman pulls off a small miracle and brings qualification for the Champions League few supporters will shed a team if, and when, he is replaced in June.
Those youngsters might watch developments with a note of caution though. Anthony Martial has played more than 30 games for United this season, Lingard – who at 22 is not one of the aforementioned 15 – more than 20. Even Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, a relatively new addition to United’s first team, has clocked up over 10. Van Gaal’s decision to work with a small squad, obviously weak in key areas, has sharply backfired when it comes to delivering results. Few of the younger players offered a chance in United’s first team have caused for complaint though.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]For Van Gaal is about more than the here and now. Whenever the end comes to his time at United, the manager believes that young players will form the keystone of his legacy.[/blockquote]
The injection of younger players this season, especially in recent weeks, has energised the club, if not always brought an upside in results. Yet, while injuries may have forced Van Gaal’s hand, he can point to a long record of trusting in talent; of dismissing the oft-held notion that youngsters cannot last the distance.
“It has always been part of my own philosophy,” Van Gaal noted last year, ” and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players. If a young player can do it, then I select him. If it’s an older player, it doesn’t bother me; it’s not the most important factor. Age is not important.”
He is outwardly proud of the young players whose careers have been catalysed by time under the veteran coach: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and David Alaba at Bayern Munich; Thiago Motta, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona. Further backPatrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids were teenagers when Ajax claimed the 1995 Champions League.
“We had a small squad at the beginning of the season because you can then give chances to the young players,” he told MUTV. “I’m always really convinced of youth players and how they can stimulate the other players and raise the atmosphere in the dressing room. Those kinds of things are happening now.”
It is, for Van Gaal, more than just the here and now though. Whenever the end comes to his time at United, the manager believes that young players will form the keystone in his legacy at the club, but only if it is protected by his successor.
“I hope people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy,” he added. “The next manager would also have to show the confidence in the younger players. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, it shall be very difficult.”
It is a warning with the spectre of Mourinho looming over Van Gaal’s time at the club. Unless, of course, the veteran is able to deliver real momentum from the past week – a challenge that has rarely been met, with his side sustaining a winning run too infrequently over the past two years.
For all Mourinho’s stock of silverware he, perhaps, represents the antithesis of Van Gaal’s youthful outlook. In five years over two spells at Chelsea Mourinho handed debuts to just nine academy players – just five of them starting a game for the club. In 15 years at the sharp end of European football, Mourinho has used just 23 academy players in total. Too few have gone on to enjoy stellar careers.
It is not just this contrast between Mourinho and Van Gaal that offers cause for concern. Indeed, the lurch from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes; Van Gaal to Mourinho reflects the chronic lack of long-term planning at United – each new manager representing a shift in outlook, style and philosophy. Continuity be dammed in everything except for the warm glow of sponsors’ dollars.
And despite the positivity that Rashford has helped to deliver this week, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is likely to lead another binge in the next transfer market. It is one that Mourinho will surely demand as part of his summer entrance and one that the club also needs – a fresh injection of talent in a failing squad is required whatever the merits of integrating academy graduates.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It is not just the contrast between Mourinho and Van Gaal that offers cause for concern. The lurch from Ferguson to Moyes; Van Gaal to Mourinho reflects the chronic lack of long-term planning at United.[/blockquote]
Then there is questionable belief among the club’s hierarchy of the long-term value provided by young players as a resource. This doubt is reflected in the near year-long search for an academy head, in the wake of former director Brian McClair’s departure last year, only for the club to appoint Nicky Butt. The former midfielder was seemingly far from first choice for the job – and will oversee a facility facing financial cuts.
It is also now a well-worn truism that Manchester City’s academy is attracting the best local players, including those of United’s players, driven by impressive investment in facilities and coaching staff. The Glazers, meanwhile, are said to consider United’s school ‘a poor return on investment.’ If Rashford fires Van Gaal’s side into the Champions League reckoning the Tampa-based family may have cause to reassess.
Yet, there are no guarantees for the 18-year-old Manchester-born striker. Nor for the 14 other youngsters Van Gaal has used this season. Talent in youth does not always mean success in experience. This is especially true under Mourinho’s leadership. Youth be warned.