Manchester United have a lengthy history of bringing through their own players, and that puts every current generation under huge pressure.
Perhaps the problem is that Sir Alex Ferguson made it all look a little too easy. One of the biggest balancing acts faced by every manager is the question of how and when to introduce young players. On the one hand, young players need experience; every young player who wants to be a Premier League footballer has to make a debut and have a run of games in the first team at some point.
But it isn’t as straightforward as many seem to believe. Blood them too early in the coldly forensic world of modern football analytics, and a young player could find their confidence destroyed by people picking their performances apart. Leave it too late, and you’re running the risk of pushing them towards the exit and the hope of first-team football elsewhere. It’s a balancing act between managing the present and building for the future.
Manchester United found themselves with an embarrassment of riches in the mid-1990s, and even then there was something vaguely anachronistic about the idea of building an all-conquering team on homegrown talent. The Class of 92 were never going to be able to avoid comparisons with the Busby Babes, but at least when those comparisons came they were glowing, rather than holding a newer generation of players up to a standard that they could never hope to equal.
But the Class of 92 were a once-in-a-lifetime grouping of players, especially coming through together at the same time. Between them, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil and Gary Neville and Nicky Butt played almost 3500 games for Manchester United and won 120 trophies between them. It is vanishingly unlikely that any youth set-up would be fortunate enough to find itself with six – SIX! – players of this quality coming through simultaneously.
So the rewards for the club were enormous. They were the foundations upon which the revitalised Manchester United empire were built after 27 years without a league title win. But they also came at an ever-so-slight cost, because they increased the burden of expectation for every young player that has come through Manchester United’s academy since. The young Manchester United players coming through to the brink of the first team don’t just have to bear comparison with the now-fading memories of the Busby Babes; they also have to bear comparison with a recent generation of players, every single one of whose movements on a football pitch were recorded for posterity.
Three decades on from 1992, Manchester United are still capable of bringing through great young players, but the landscape of youth development has changed for the club in two very different directions. On the one hand, the Elite Player Performance Plan removed the ’90 minute rule’, which gave each club a catchment area by only allowing academies to sign players aged under 18 if they resided within 90 minutes’ travel time of a club’s training facility while setting the compensation levels for poaching a young player from another club at such a low level that several EFL clubs closed their academies after it was introduced because it was no longer financially viable to run them. These rules disproportionately benefited Premier League clubs, and the bigger the Premier League club, the more they benefited.
But for Manchester United, the growth of Manchester City and their focus on youth development created a level of competition in the 2010s that didn’t exist to anything like the same extent in the 1990s. The catchment areas of old may no longer exist, but the shape of the competition for young players has also changed, and that this has not been to United’s benefit. The media is starting to talk with admiration about the generation of players that City are bringing through, with inevitable comparisons to 30 years ago.
Press attention is currently turning to the form of Marcus Rashford. Rashford has been off his game a little this season and there have been questions asked regarding his extra-curricular activities, although it also worth remembering that the media can be very selective about which activities they consider to be worthy of comment. Rashford was the fourth youngest player to reach 250 games for United and the punishing schedule that players have been through over the last couple of years is well-documented, and on top of that, the arrival of a new manager and a change of system has required him to play in a different position.
There is, in other words, a conflation of explanations as to why his form may have dipped which go beyond the facile ‘spending too much of his time being a do-gooder’ narrative that some – who we might reasonably expect have been holding fire on saying this for some time because he represents something that makes them feel uncomfortable – have been peddling. It’s also worth remembering that opportunities in the first team for younger players, particularly younger attackers, are limited by the presence of the distinctly 30-something Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani.
The appointment at Ralf Rangnick at Old Trafford was part of a plan for Manchester United, but this part of that plan is focused on the short term and not the long term. As an interim appointment, Rangnick’s job is not a wholesale overhaul of the club’s playing operations, but to nurse them through the rest of the season, hopefully qualify them for next year’s Champions League, and if possible pick up a domestic trophy, before handing to an as-yet-unnamed individual and moving upstairs into a consultancy role. This, combined with the fact that Champions League qualification is financially necessary, always meant that the second half of this season was never likely to be the sort of ‘transitional’ that might have offered younger players the opportunity to play in less of a ‘pressure cooker’ environment.
But high expectations can lead to disappointing outcomes, and this is a culture in which players such as Euro 2020 finalist Marcus Rashford or World Cup and four-times Serie A winner Paul Pogba can be described as ‘mediocre’ without many batting an eyelid. If Manchester United do expect every generation of young players who come through to be the next Busby Babes or Class of 92, they’re likely to end up disappointed more often than happy.
That Manchester City currently have what may be a stunning group of young players coming through should not be a huge surprise to anybody, but with catchment areas being a thing of the past, that’s hardly a reflection on anything Manchester United may or may not be doing. United’s standards are and should be high, but it will ultimately be unhealthy for the club to keep those standards so high that they can only be reached once every 20 or 30 years.