Manchester United currently find themselves in quite a strange position. Despite widespread strengthening of the squad over the summer, which saw them spend in excess of £150million – the most by any team in European football – a spate of injuries in defence, coupled with the decision to prioritise big-name attacking players over reinforcing their back line in their transfer dealings, has forced United boss Louis van Gaal to turn to unproven youth in the opening stages of the Premier League season.
However, the Dutchman is accustomed to dealing with youngsters, and may even relish the opportunity to do so again at Old Trafford.
Well-known for launching the careers of several world-class footballers, he gave Xavi and Andres Iniesta their debuts for Barcelona in his time there and now Van Gaal has a number of promising young players at his disposal, and may look to embrace United’s long-standing tradition of developing talent into potential champions. Though emulating the feats of Sir Alex Ferguson’s now-mythical Class of ’92 is a tough act to follow, here are five youngsters that may have important roles to play under Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
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This Northern Irish teenager was handed his first-team debut in the 2-1 victory over West Ham United over the weekend and impressed many with his assuredness in defence, especially when United sustained heavy pressure after going down to ten men. After initially playing in midfield for his local side Ballyclare Colts, McNair was converted into a centre back after signing for the Red Devils in 2011. An important member of United’s Under-21 side, he was picked for the side in the U-21 Champions League last season, only to get sent off for two bookable offences against Bayer Leverkusen – which suggests that McNair still lacks some maturity. However, this can only be expected from a 19 year-old, and judging by his promising debut on Saturday he may find himself involved in van Gaal’s plans with the first team again this season.
A product of United’s academy having signed for the club at the age of eight, Blackett has been the most prominent youngster to be promoted to the first team ranks under van Gaal, having played in the first five league fixtures of the campaign. With his competitive debut coming in the season’s curtain raiser against Swansea City, it has been an exceptionally steep learning curve for Blackett, and his red card for a clumsy challenge on Jamie Vardy in the 5-3 defeat to Leicester City is a sign that the 20 year-old defender is still adjusting to life in the Premier League. Nevertheless, van Gaal seems to have faith in the youngster, and will doubtless have been impressed by his professionalism – he is known to have opted to train and work at the gym in Carrington even on days off. There has even been talk of an England call-up for Blackett, and with his contract at United expiring in the summer, van Gaal may wish to act quickly to ensure that his services are retained for the future.
Wilson burst onto the scene last season with two goals against Hull City on his first team debut, and van Gaal has high hopes for the teenager as well. First scouted at the age of seven, Wilson earned his call-up to the first team squad after a series of impressive performances for the Under-18 side, finishing the 2012-13 season as the U-18 league’s top scorer and scoring seven goals in six consecutive appearances for the team at the start of last season. After the Hull game, Ryan Giggs – the interim manager at the time and van Gaal’s current deputy – had the following to say about the 18 year-old forward: “He is a natural goalscorer but he has got more to his game than that. He can run at people, he has got pace and he is a clever player.” Such high praise from United’s most decorated player suggests that Wilson has a bright future ahead of him, and with van Gaal believing him to be a better prospect than the now-departed Danny Welbeck, he may have found the ideal manager to help him develop his game further.
After progressing through United’s youth academy, Lingard signed a professional contract with the club in the summer of 2011. Four goals on his debut for Birmingham City whilst on loan last season gave an early indication of the attacker’s talent, and after another loan spell at Brighton and Hove Albion he was recalled to Old Trafford for the start of the new campaign. After an impressive pre-season, Lingard made his league debut for the first team against Swansea City, only to be substituted in the 24th minute due to injury. Such a setback was a cruel way for the youngster’s senior career at United to begin, but van Gaal’s decision to start the winger should at least give him confidence of breaking into the starting XI again in the future.
Powell came to United’s attention in 2012 after excelling at Crewe Alexandra, and his goal in the 2012 League Two Play-off Final – arguably the finest goal the new Wembley has witnessed so far – showed precisely why the Red Devils were so keen on signing him. A £6 million deal was subsequently agreed in the summer of 2012, and Powell was quick to make his mark at Old Trafford, scoring on his first-team debut against Wigan Athletic at the start of the 2012-13 season. A loan move to Wigan then followed last year, during which the midfielder scored 12 goals in 42 appearances, and although he has once again been sent out on loan to Leicester City for the current campaign, there is no doubting Powell’s potential. Expect him to be involved in United’s first-team plans next season.