Last season, Jose Mourinho issued the most Premier League debuts for players aged under 22 of any manager in the top six – six, including the youngest debutant in the league in the form of 16-year-old Angel Gomes.
But many of the six debuts under the Manchester United gaffer were very much token gestures; Gomes’ inaugural senior outing came on the final day of the season in a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, alongside Joel Pereira, Demetri Mitchell and Josh Harrop – who has already agreed to leave Old Trafford for Preston North End, citing ‘limited game-time’ and the ‘need to play first-team football’.
“I’m 21 now and I’m confident in myself, I need to play first team football to get myself out there. That wasn’t guaranteed at United, even though they offered me a new contract it was very limited in game time and so I couldn’t take that risk at my age. I need to be out there, proving myself and doing what I know I’m capable of.”
Josh Harrop, 2017
If you take the final game of the season, which was a dead rubber for United and Palace before kickoff, out of the equation, Mourinho actually issued the third-fewest debuts for under 22-year-olds, two, only worsened by Arsenal and Chelsea with one apiece, and issued those debutants the third-fewest minutes throughout the 2016/17 Premier League season.
Of course, the criticism of limited opportunities for young players has accompanied Mourinho for much of his career. His spells at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid were all about instantaneous success; even his Manchester United contract is only for three years with twelve months already gone – hardly enough time to rebuild the club from the youth system upwards like Sir Alex Ferguson did in the late 1980s.
Yet, this is also Manchester United we’re talking about, producers of the Busby Babes and the Class of ’92. When Ryan Giggs gave his farewell speech at Old Trafford in 2014 during his short spell as interim manager, he cited the club’s two underlying principles; playing attacking and exciting football and, most pertinent to this discussion, giving youth a chance. He even described it as part of United’s DNA. Mourinho may be a super-pragmatic by-product of football’s increasing short-termism, but surely even he would be open to the idea of preserving a historic philosophy that has made United the most successful club in English football.
“After 29 seasons at Manchester United as a player and assistant manager, I know winning is in the DNA of this club – giving youth a chance, and playing attacking and exciting football. It’s healthy to have high expectations, it’s right to expect to win. Manchester United expects, deserves, nothing less.”
Ryan Giggs, 2014
Clearly, we didn’t see too much evidence of that during Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford. In fact, it started off with the arrival of 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic – although, in fairness, it did end with 19-year-old Marcus Rashford leading the line in the Europa League final.
But there were inevitable caveats for Mourinho last term, most particularly the fact he inherited a vast, over-inflated squad from Louis van Gaal. Any manager worth their salt would give everybody a chance over the course of their first season and that’s exactly what Mourinho did, using 32 players – essentially, two matchday squads before the bench was boosted to seven – across all competitions. Now Mourinho’s had a year to evaluate his squad and cut the chaff accordingly, we may see him find more room for young players going forward.
But perhaps the real litmus test of whether Mourinho is ready to commit to at least one of United’s two core principles will be his utilisation of Andreas Pereira, an U20 World Cup finalist with Brazil, a former Reserve Team Player of the Year at Old Trafford and an incredibly promising young player who proved as much on loan at Granada last season despite them plummeting out of the Spanish top flight. Due to turn 22 midway through next season, 2017/18 should be when United start to blood in the prodigious South American. Failing to do so or shipping him out on loan again will be an indicator of where Mourinho’s priorities lie.
No question, Pereira still has a lot to learn and compared to some of the other U22s in Europe last season, such as Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Timo Werner or Kylian Mbappe, no evidence thus far has suggested Pereira is a world-beater to the same degree. Nonetheless, credit for last term’s form is deserved; despite Granada’s deficiencies that eventually saw them finish in bottom place, Pereira kept up his end of the bargain – finishing top of their La Liga squad for both goals and assists with five and three respectively.
He also ranked top for key passes per match, 1.5, and second for successful dribbles, 2.1. In fact, only eight non-Barcelona or Real Madrid players laid on more key passes than Pereira in La Liga last season, while he was the only player aged under 22 to make the division’s top 25 in that regard.
Incredibly impressive stuff considering Pereira’s age and the disadvantage of playing for essentially Spain’s equivalent of Sunderland, not to mention the fact he was jostled around a variety of engine room roles last season, spanning both flanks, defensive and attacking midfield.
Pereira’s primary position remains No.10, a role that seems unlikely to be utilised at Old Trafford next season with Paul Pogba United’s most offensive midfielder as somewhat nomadic No.8, but evidence of his versatility takes away the potential excuse of him not fitting United’s system. In any case, even if Mourinho views Pereira as a No.10 exclusively, he can still be a useful tool against packed defences in the closing stages of games.
Of course, Mourinho may have a completely different, pejorative opinion of Pereira’s abilities and utility to his aims next season. But the crucial aspect is ‘giving youth a chance’ – that should also include the chance to prove Mourinho wrong. Whether the pressure for results quickly takes precedent, however, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, after Harrop’s decision to find football elsewhere, whether Pereira actually gets the chance to sink or swim next season feels like an important moment in defining how young players will be treated at Old Trafford under Mourinho.