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.
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