Erik ten Hag has finally got his own Frenkie de Jong at Man Utd after Casemiro temp job

Kobbie Mainoo and FRenkie de Jong

While Alejandro Garnacho may have scored the goal of this, or any, Premier League season in Manchester United’s 3-0 victory at Everton on Sunday evening, the true star of the show was another youngster: Kobbie Mainoo. Despite it being his first ever Premier League start, is the 18-year-old already a key part of Erik ten Hag’s side moving forward?

There was surprise when the midfielder was named in the starting line-up having not featured yet this season following a nasty ankle injury sustained against Real Madrid in pre-season; he had been back in full training for several weeks, but a bench cameo seemed the likeliest scenario.

Take the ferocious atmosphere at Goodison Park and couple it with the haphazard state of United this season, and it simply did not seem like the appropriate place for Ten Hag to blood Mainoo. How wrong that turned out to be.

In 72 minutes of play, the United academy graduate showed a combination of calm, composure and class not seen in any of the so-called senior players this season and not in a midfielder since Michael Carrick was at his peak.

It certainly helped United and Mainoo that Garnacho’s stunning overhead kick in the third minute took the early sting out of the game and tamed a Premier League-hating Toffees’ fanbase, but he was a level above throughout, and a world away from the increasingly helter-skelter nature of this United side.

Operating in a quarter-back role of sorts, the England Under-19 international was often the first to receive the ball from Andre Onana, trusted with starting patterns of play. His ability to take the ball on the half-turn, at an angle for a pass, and his ease in tight spaces made him the ideal candidate for this role, particularly with his midfield partner Scott McTominay lacking those exact skills.

After taking the early lead, United fell back into old habits with edgy passing around the back – in truth, neither Harry Maguire or Victor Lindelof are comfortable in these positions, and the absence of Lisandro Martinez is keenly felt in near-every outing.

Mainoo and the returning Luke Shaw were the only players in red capable of slowing down the play and the Goodison crowd, which had the potential to overawe United like we have seen so many tough atmospheres do in recent times.

There was a hooked goal-line clearance late in the first half as well, which showed the awareness needed for someone playing in that deeper role in midfield, again which has been absent from so many more experienced players of late.

After the game, there was widespread recognition of Mainoo’s display, with United legends Rio Ferdinand and Roy Keane in particular picking him out for seriously high praise.

Ferdinand labelled it a “crazy performance” and compared him to Cesc Fabregas in terms of composure shown by an 18-year-old in midfield on their Premier League debut.

Far less hyperbolic or excitable than his former teammate (as well as just about any other pundit), Keane had the following to say:

“He looked like he always had time on the ball and decision-making – when to go long, when to go short. Off the ball as well, what an all-round performance.

“I know the club thinks highly of him. They’ll look to the game today, coming to Everton, for the manager to put him in, he obviously must trust him.

“Listen, good luck to the kid. He was outstanding. It’s a great start for him. Let’s hope he stays injury-free and gets a run of games for Man United because he looked like a Man United type of player today. Nice and brave, a lot of courage, loved watching him.”

There is perhaps no greater source of compliment for a United midfielder than from their most successful skipper, and someone who knows all about dictating play and keeping things ticking over from the middle of the park with smart, incisive and often unflashy but accurate passes.

Keane is also correct in his assertion that Mainoo is extremely highly rated by everyone inside Old Trafford and Carrington; he was part of the 2022 FA Youth Cup winning side alongside Garnacho and was named the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year winner last season.

He has long been earmarked for the first team and was part of numerous squads last season, making his full debut in an EFL Cup victory against Charlton in January before making his Premier League bow with 10 minutes at the end of an easy 3-0 win over Leicester the following month.

A tense away day at Goodison Park is slightly different but shows the trust Ten Hag has in the Stockport-based youngster. The former Ajax manager may have formed a reputation for blooding academy graduates in Amsterdam, as is the norm there, but United are a different animal and he has only put in players who he feels are ready to contribute to the first team, most notably Garnacho last season.

The expectation this summer was that Mainoo would be the next to make the step up and stake a claim for a spot in his line-up, and his performance showed exactly why. He is a player in the mould and profile of Frenkie de Jong, the one player that Ten Hag wanted over any other upon his arrival in Manchester last summer.

That move did not materialise as a result of his former player’s resistance to leaving Barcelona and United’s general incompetence, leading to Casemiro, a completely different type of ‘no.6’, arriving and Ten Hag taking a more pragmatic approach.

While the Brazilian was largely brilliant in his opening season, he is not a player known for his calm or metronomic passing, and nor is Bruno Fernandes. Christian Eriksen has those abilities but lacks the stamina, energy and physicality to do it over 90 minutes anymore. Who knows what Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat’s roles are, such has been there non-impact, albeit for myriad reasons.

McTominay is a striker masquerading as a midfielder, while his former partner in crime Fred was all chaos and no control, a staple of most of United’s midfielders in the last decade – shout out to Marouane Fellaini amongst others.

Mainoo may provide a welcome change to United’s long-standing issues and could even partner Casemiro at some point and reignite the ex-Real Madrid man’s career.

For now, though, he has a real chance to nail down a starting spot in the side with games coming thick and fast and Eriksen, Mount and Casemiro all out for the next few weeks at least.

In the build-up to tonight’s crucial Champions League clash away to Galatasaray, his manager said he had no fears about starting him once again despite an even more intense atmosphere expected. In line with his youth selection policy, Ten Hag said: “If players are good enough, they are old enough.”

Albeit with a tiny sample size, that might very well be the case with Mainoo, the latest homegrown talent to be anointed the club’s star boy and hope for a brighter future. No pressure.