Monday 16 September 2019

Solskjaer left to deal with the consequences as United's famous production line grinds towards a halt

Jim White

When the Manchester United team is announced for the lunchtime kick-off at Southampton, it will be the 3,979th successive game in which a youth-team graduate has been a part of the match-day squad.

Every United fixture since October 1937 has featured one of their own.

Indeed, there is every chance that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will pick as many as six academy products in his starting line-up, with another three on the bench.

Such is the flood of youth, in ways it looks like 1995 all over again.

That summer, the manager Alex Ferguson eased out a trio of regular choices: Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince - to replace them with a collection of young prospects.

At the time, Ferguson was widely questioned for his apparently reckless endangerment of United's immediate chances.

Alan Hansen led the critique with his assessment that "you can't win anything with kids", a dismissal that was undermined when the kids won the Treble four years later.

Now Solskjaer seems to be trying the same approach. Since becoming manager at Old Trafford he has ruthlessly dismantled the squad he inherited.

Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku have all gone; Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling have been loaned out; Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Phil Jones have been reduced to observers. And while he has spent heavily on a trio of new signings: Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire; the gaps left have been filled by promoting from below.


Ferguson later claimed of his summer of '95 clear-out that he had no choice. Such was the swell of talent emerging from the academy he knew that to hold them back in their development was to risk losing them altogether.

Indeed, for those alert to these things, it was an inevitable move: the Class of '92 had been an extraordinary force as they came up through the ranks, dominating international age-group squads and winning youth cups - this was a volcano waiting to explode.

But in summer 2019, it is not quite the same: few could suggest Solskjaer's promotion of youth is a function of a vibrant academy bristling with unstoppable talent.

"There's none of that now," says Tony Park, co-author of 'Sons of United', a history of the club's youth system. "Back in the nineties our U-16 and U-18 teams were filled with those chosen for England.

"In the last 10 years there has been virtually no United players in age-group international sides. Yes, we have had occasional stand-outs but not consistent numbers. In our current U-18s there's nobody who is a star. I think we've lost it."

He has a point: last season Ricky Sbragia was dismissed as the club's U-23 coach after his team won only one of their previous 10 matches. And that was with a side that included Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, James Garner and Mason Greenwood, all of whom are likely to feature in Solskjaer's squad against Southampton today.

Like much of the infrastructure at Old Trafford, with the club's owners preferring to withdraw money, the youth system has been obliged to live on past achievement.

"Since before Fergie left, there has been a woeful underinvestment," he says.

"That has been particularly apparent in our European scouting network. Either we haven't got enough people or we aren't employing the right ones, but since the time clubs were allowed to sign foreign youngsters at 16 we have brought in more than 50 and only one - Paul Pogba - has made more than 50 appearances for the club. That's a terrible return."

Moreover, Gerard Pique apart, none of the foreign recruits have gone on to lengthy careers elsewhere.

Too many - like Federico Macheda, Adnan Januzaj and Giuseppe Rossi - have flitted briefly, then faltered. It is the same, Park contends, with local signings.

In 2000, United's U-16s featured Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown and John O'Shea; in 2006 Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison played together at youth level. Since then, Marcus Rashford, Greenwood and Axel Tuanzebe have been outliers rather than part of a group.

Meanwhile, Chelsea, Manchester City and today's opponents, Southampton, have developed superior systems for spotting talent. "We've produced too many vanilla-type footballers, all playing the same game," reckons Park.

Since he arrived from Molde, Solskjaer has taken a far keener eye on the academy than any of the previous three managers.

He has just recommended Nicky Butt be promoted to a new role linking the youth set-up to first team. A raft of scouts have been recruited under his watch, many with impressive credentials. Those who have seen them in action talk of some real prospects now emerging in the lower age groups.


But that is the future: Solskjaer is obliged to deal with the here and now. And closer examination of those he has drafted into the first-team squad might suggest it is not 1995 but another moment in United history that makes a more appropriate point of comparison.

In 1989, Ferguson, exasperated by the deadwood in the squad he had been bequeathed, gave a number of young players: Lee Martin, Russell Beardsmore, Mark Robins, Tony Gill and Deiniol Graham; a chance in the first team.

In a nod to the club's heritage, the collection were immediately dubbed Fergie's Fledglings, reckoned their generation's Busby Babes. It proved a fond sobriquet: they had none of the trophy-accumulating potency of their predecessors and were soon on their way elsewhere.

Whether the new manager is unleashing genius or pragmatically giving youth a chance for wont of any viable alternative, we are about to find out.

When they step on to the pitch, we will begin to know if Solskjaer's Striplings offer a real glimpse of the future or just another false dawn in United's post-Fergie world.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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