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Manchester United and Youth Development

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For over 3700 consecutive games, Manchester United have proudly had a youth product included in their match day squad. That represents a period of around 70 years. An achievement to be proud of for a club that always aimed to compete for trophies and valued winning. It shows the trust that the club has in its youth system. But having spent hundreds of millions since Sir Alex Ferguson retired two years ago, did that trust diminish?

The class of '92 was a one off. It is unrealistic to expect a club to produce multiple top players in a single year. It also might prove difficult to produce a single special player each year. But surely a top club that values youth football so highly should be producing players that can contribute to the first team on a yearly basis? United, to an extent, have done that. Since the class of '92, United have produced (or purchased and developed) very good players. Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, Johnny Evans, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are/were all good international players that contributed greatly to United's success. But are they enough output from supposedly one of the top youth academies in the world, over the span of two decades? Also, they were all touted as special players at one point or another during their development years, could it be the club's fault that they did not reach those heights?

As impressive as the set up at United is, judging my the number of graduates playing in the top leagues in Europe, there are some obvious flaws when it comes to youth strategy at United. Think of the Treble's strike force: Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer, all purchases that spent 3-4 years together at the club. And after a gap of a year or two, United ended up with Van Nistelrooy, Saha, Rooney and Smith. Again, all four were players bought. Over that decade, have United really not had the ability to produce a striker good enough to be a 3rd/4th choice? Or did they not see the need in that? Think 2004, United had Barthez, Carroll, Ricardo and Howard; four 'keepers. Surely the club could have produced at least a good back-up keeper over the years to cover for any star keeper it wishes to buy? Tom Heaton performed very well in the Premier League for Burnley last season, Zieler is a German international, and both players spent time in the youth system at United. Danny Welbeck is a regular for England. United have produced talented players in both positions, they just failed to make the most of the talent that they produced.

Failure to utilize the talent available is due to a number of reasons. Perhaps the most critical reason is that the club does not see both the first team and the youth academy as one picture. Therefore, when a special young player is ready for first team football, he finds an established set of players blocking his way to the first team because the club failed to foresee his development. Think Progba and Cleverley with Anderson, Scholes and Fletcher blocking their paths. Zieler, Brady and Shawcross to a lesser extent. United need to think of their promising youth players as jewels that need special care in order to shine. Like Fletcher, who was shown enormous trust and patience to develop. Similarly, Pique and Evans jumped ahead of the likes of Brown and O'Shea in the pecking order straight away. United have shown that trust and patience before, they need to show it more often to succeed.

Man United have to add some Wenger-ness to the club. Perhaps not on a Denilson/Diaby Delusion level, but more like Ramsey and Gibbs, two different cases. After difficult starts to their Arsenal careers, the pair have settled into different roles after enough games and faith shown in them. Ramsey is now a Premier League star midfielder, while Gibbs is an England international and a valuable squad player at Arsenal. The likes of Rossi, Pogba, Shawcross, Bardsley and Brady could have fallen anywhere between the two categories. Pogba is now considered one of the best players in the world already. Rossi could have had a fine career if it wasn't for the all the injuries. Bardsley could have provided a good solution to the problematic right back position at United. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and the possibilities are endless, but United need to do a lot more with their developing players after they turn 18.

Reserve team football, the u21s, is pointless. Not enough competitiveness, not enough games, not enough at stake. If United won't offer their young players enough football to develop, and most big clubs cannot afford to do that with so much at stake, then they might need to look at two models who appear to be very effective: Chelsea's and Real Madrid's. The former have spent huge amounts of money on the best young players around the world, trained them, and they have sent 30(!) players on loan last season. The affiliation with Dutch side Vitesse is proving to be fruitful for both clubs (Vitesse qualified for the Europa league last season). Some of those players will make the Chelsea squad/team better, while the rest could be sold for profit. Madrid on the other hand sell young players that they don't need but more often than not they include a buy-back clause in their contracts. Players like Carvajal and Morata can go play at other clubs, get games and develop, and Madrid can buy them back if they develop nicely enough. Carvajal for example left for Leverkusen, developed into one of the best young right backs in Europe, and Madrid brought him back for a net cost of 1.5m euros which is basically what they would have probably paid him in wages for the year. Perhaps United could develop a strategy of their own involving the best features of both of those strategies.

United have spent heavily over the past two years and have faced a lot of criticism for "neglecting their youth policy". But let's face it, the squad was ageing and starved of quality established purchases for years. United had to spend in order to be competitive again. And with a forward and a centre back to add to the mix, United can finally have the quality and the depth needed to challenge on all fronts. But after that, some serious planning and action need to be taken by the club towards their youth policy. Players like Young, Rojo and Blind are good enough players, but you cannot go around paying 15m on a squad player forever, no matter how wealthy the club is. Heck, 27m were spent on Fellaini, 25m on Smalling and Jones. Developing young players could save a club a big amount of money down the line. Heaton, Bardsley, Shawcross, Brady ... players that could have been useful squad members at United. Welbeck and Cleverley might also end up being players that we regret selling.

Signing the likes of Ferdinand, Veron, Van Persie and Di Maria over the years was brilliant, and United should always go for great players. But its the lesser players that the club needs to be wary of overloading the squad with. Before United bring in squad players, they need to look in-house for players that can offer the same contribution. If not now, then in a season or two. Quite a few players are on tour with United at the moment. Sean Goss is a guest of honour really. Blackett isn't good enough for United. But the rest are promising. Januzaj have shown his star potential on occasions. Pereira is very talented. Wilson could develop into a great poacher. Lingard and McNair should end up being good Premier League players, as should Johnstone. That's 6 players that have enough talent to make it, and with the right guidance, training and care, they can develop into first team players (with different roles of course). Some might look at the recent signings and think that it is a bad sign for the young players. But it could be exactly what they need, or what some of them need. Less pressure on them to perform. Less expectations. Perhaps someone like Cleverley could have benefited greatly from that. Let's hope the current patch do and develop into Manchester United players.

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