It’s going to be hard to salvage much, if anything, from Manchester United’s car wreckage of a season, but an emerging crop of new talent may yet be a memento to treasure and take forward.
Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Diogo Dalot have been among the top performing players of an admittedly shambolic campaign – leaving some more senior stars shamed and skulking in the shadows.
With Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and James Garner waiting in the wings and all given a taste of senior football by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, and showing signs of promise, United fans might plausibly look to the future with positivity.
Let’s just begin by getting one thing straight, this is by no means excusing a truly rank campaign.
Likely failure to qualify for the Champions League is not a good thing for United. It’s nothing short of a disaster, especially when you consider how bright things were looking at the start of 2019.
A magical three-month spell that briefly lulled fans into a nostalgic coma, tricking them into thinking the future was rosy, however, has seen them awake to the very abrupt reality their club is in a mess.
But, if it is to be Europa League football next season, it may not quite be the apocalyptic scenario many fear. It may actually be the perfect testing ground for the younger quartet.
In terms of the elder foursome, Rashford, Shaw, McTominay and Dalot are 21, 23, 22 and 20 respectively, yet have played with a poise and tenacity that belies their young years.
Rashford still divides opinion. Some rage against what they see as flagrant cloaking of the Wythanshawe wonderboy from criticism due to the fact he’s a local lad.
Some fail to grasp that he’s a 21-year-old still largely ahead of schedule, who has achieved so much in his fledgling years – it has been well documented that his Premier League goalscoring record surpasses both Cristiano Ronaldo and Tottenham star Harry Kane at the same age.
Since his debut a little over three years ago, he has scored 45 goals in 168 games in all competitions for United – no other player in club history compares at the same age.
After 149 United games, Rashford’s goal tally was 40. Ronaldo’s at the same juncture was 31. Rashford’s six league assists this season is second most after Paul Pogba.
Fan frustration seems to largely be borne out of futility and the club’s current ranking among the elite, both in England and on the continent.
Shaw’s defensive nous and conditioning still draws criticism despite the fact he’s enjoyed a career campaign. He’s become a vital outlet and threat in attack; his lung-busting runs leading to 32 key passes – fourth most at United after Pogba, Ashley Young and Anthony Martial, while he has the third most league assists (4) after Pogba and Rashford.
Often used as a stick to beat him with, aspects of his defending have actually improved. Only Ander Herrera has blocked more passes (29), with the Spaniard and Matteo Darmian the only two players to make more tackles on average per game than the Englishman’s 1.9.
He has won a third of United’s nine player of the month awards this season and is likely to usurp David De Gea as the recipient of the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year – the only other winner in the last six seasons was Herrera in 2016/17.
McTominay, so often a scapegoat during his formative United years, and largely labelled the standard bearer representing the dearth of talent coming through United’s academy, has come on immensely this season.
His athleticism and energy injects life into a stagnant midfield that has so often been overrun and outmanoeuvred. The poise and composure belies his 22 years and he routinely outperforms £52 million summer signing Fred.
The young Scot, who has been a shining light during a dark time for Solskjaer, was voted United’s player of the month for April, the first such accolade in his career.
Dalot is another player to have benefited greatly from the shift in management. He has perhaps seen more action than he, or anyone else, might have thought following a summer move from Porto.
The versatile full-back has featured more prominently in attack during his maiden campaign as he hones the defensive side of his game, which despite needing work, has seen him dribbled past just four times all season.
The third fewest among team-mates and second of those who’ve played 10 games or more. His quick feet, confidence and crossing ability in attack have all impressed United fans and promises more for the future.
There are, of course, some exceptions. Martial, Andreas Pereira (both 23) and Romelu Lukaku (25) have shown flashes of brilliance, but haven’t done so with anything close to the consistency of the other four.
It’s been a season in which the old manager – admittedly a dinosaur seen to be besmirching the club’s DNA – was thrown under the bus by many senior figures. The club seemed to be steering back onto the right path with Solskjaer at the wheel, although they have veered disastrously off course again in recent weeks.
But, amid the debris, there is hope. While Solskjaer has been badly let down by senior figures at times – Pogba, Martial, Lukaku, even De Gea (more so on the pitch than off it) – youthful exuberance promises better times ahead.
At youth team level, Greenwood (17), Chong (19) and Gomes and Garner (both 18) continue to garner praise.
And youth is something Solskjaer, unlike his predecessor, will actively look to develop and nurture – if he likes what he sees. And all the signs are that he does.
Greenwood has plundered 30 goals at youth team level for the club this season. Dutch talent Chong and Birkenhead-born Garner, along with Greenwood, have all been handed their first team bows under Solskjaer.
It would be irresponsible to suggest United have another ‘Class of 92’ on their hands. But hope abounds.
Is there a third storied installment of the Busby Babes or Fergie Fledglings yet to be written into United lore? Solskjaer’s Students, perhaps?
Right now, these babes are still lost in the woods. But with Solskjaer at the helm and helping them find their way, together they can help United find their way back to glory.
De Gea has been at fault for a number of goals United have conceded in recent weeks, the latest coming in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
Antonio Rudiger’s long-distance effort should have given De Gea few alarms but the goalkeeper could only parry the ball into the path of Marcos Alonso, who stole in to cancel out Juan Mata’s opener on his 31st birthday.
The result means fourth-placed Chelsea are three points ahead of United with two fixtures of the season remaining, but Lukaku refused to apportion blame for their predicament on the highly-rated De Gea.
Echoing United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s defence of De Gea, Lukaku said: “I think he’s a really positive person. He analyses really quickly what happens to him.
“He’s been the best player at the club for seven, eight years consistently. I don’t think we should discredit him and say all of a sudden he’s a bad goalkeeper. He’s saved us so many times this season.
“Goalkeepers always have a spell where sometimes it might go difficult. The only thing you have to do is work hard.
“I don’t know how goalkeepers get through it, I’m not a goalkeeper, but he works hard every single day.
“We are here to support him as players but mentally he’s really, really strong, or else he wouldn’t be the best player for seven, eight years.
“There’s no doubt about his ability. And he’s a leader in the dressing room. Now it’s up to us as a team to help and trust in his abilities.”
United’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League are now out of their hands but Lukaku, who has failed to find the net in his last six starts but put in a strong showing against the Blues, remains optimistic.
The Belgian striker said: “Until it’s done you keep believing. It’s something that’s in the DNA of the club.
“We have two games where we should give our all, play good football and hope for the best.”
The teams, as well as fifth-placed Arsenal, have suffered some indifferent recent form as the season reaches its conclusion.
That is not lost on Chelsea defender David Luiz, who is determined to secure Champions League qualification for the Blues after they were relegated to the Europa League this season.
Luiz said: “Everybody saw that the last two or three games for everybody were tough. Nobody wants to be in the top four because everybody was losing points because the other teams also need the points.
“It’s important for our club because we are a big club and big clubs want to play in the Champions League. It’s great to be there and play against the best players in the world, the best teams. I miss it.
“But you also have to have the humility to understand when we didn’t do the job one year before, you have to pay the consequences.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer unequivocally backed David De Gea and insisted the faltering goalkeeper is not to blame for Manchester United being in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification.
The Spaniard was culpable for Chelsea’s leveller in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, parrying a long-range Antonio Rudiger shot which let Marcos Alonso steal in and score, cancelling out Juan Mata’s opener on his 31st birthday.
De Gea made a fine save from Gonzalo Higuain in the dying seconds but the major talking point was his latest error, hot on the heels of high-profile mistakes against Manchester City in midweek and Barcelona earlier this month.
United’s hopes of a top-four Premier League finish are out of their hands following the result though Solskjaer, who publicly backed De Gea before this weekend, was loathe to place too much blame on his number one.
Solskjaer said: “He’s been in the spotlight for the right reasons for so long, now he’s going through a period where he probably feels he could have done better.
“I don’t have any worries about him because he’s a strong character.
“Of course I’ll sit down and speak to David as I’ve done when he’s played well. But he’s not the reason why we’re in the sixth position at the moment.
“You cannot say there is any complacency, David is not the type to sit down and be complacent. He is a competitor and he wants to be the best.
“David knows he could have done better with the goal, there’s no reason to hide that, but there’s no chance any of us will point fingers because he’s saved us so many times.”
England striker Marcus Rashford was withdrawn midway through the second half because of a shoulder injury, while Solskjaer confirmed Eric Bailly’s season was over after he awkwardly twisted his knee shortly afterwards.
The Ivorian was seen leaving Old Trafford on crutches with his right knee in a heavy brace.
Solskjaer added: “Eric, it’s a bad knee injury, hopefully it’s not the worst case. But I’m sure we won’t see him any more this season unfortunately.
“Rashy, we strapped him before the game, you could see clearly that his shoulder got worse and worse and he couldn’t run freely any more.”
United lie three points behind the fourth-placed Blues with two games remaining – although both teams and Arsenal, in fifth, have endured indifferent form of late.
Solskjaer added: “Of course if you look at the league table it’s going to be difficult. We’ve got to make sure we turn up, win the next two games, play well and you never know.
“Points are being dropped left, right and centre in this race.”
Provided by Press Association Sport