The development of Kobbie Mainoo, two debuts, and the impact of Erik ten Hag: the inside scoop on Manchester United’s academy

The season has ended for the U21s. Continue Reading>>>

When coach Mark Dempsey entered the press box for a quick post-match chat after a recent academy game at Old Trafford, he was warm, engaging and keen to focus on the positives from Manchester United’s draw against Arsenal.

Dempsey was without key players and he picked a youthful side, with four players handed their full Premier League 2 debuts. It has been a transitional campaign for the Under-21s and coaches knew results would be difficult due to the age of the team. Continue Reading>>>

On the surface, the U21s have regressed, but it’s understood the season has still been considered a success internally. Sources have indicated there was never any panic at the results and that it ‘pretty much went exactly to plan’.

The U21s finished the PL2 season having conceded the most goals in the division and with nine fewer points than in 2021/22, but it’s been stressed ‘individual player development is always key’ and that winning individual games is not the priority.

That stance has been tested, especially when just a few miles across Manchester, Manchester City successfully defended their PL2 title, but staff believe the club previously held players back for the sake of results when that was wrong.

The word ‘success’ has a clear definition in the senior game but it’s not that simple in youth football. It’s understood the main purpose of the club’s academy is to develop players to form the core of a winning first team and it’s felt that is being achieved.

Erik ten Hag has given Zidane Iqbal and Kobbie Mainoo the chance to spend the season around the first team and the pair have been given opportunities to make the senior squad for important games, like against Barcelona at Camp Nou.

Mainoo was given his first-team debut against Charlton in the League Cup in January. He made his debut in the Premier League just a month later and he’s been described by sources as a ‘real natural talent with high technical ability’.

There are high hopes for Mainoo and he’s considered as the shining light of his age group. He was instrumental in the club’s success in the FA Youth Cup last year and those who know him best paint a picture of a grounded, likeable young man.

Iqbal and Mainoo were in the squad for Barcelona.

When Mainoo took part in his first training session with the first team, he nonchalantly told a coach ‘it was alright’ and that he ‘did ok’. It’s understood two senior players subsequently told that coach he’d actually impressed and held his own.

That is typical of his personality and those who are connected to him have said they’d be surprised if he ever got ahead of himself. Mainoo can play anywhere in a midfield three, but it’s thought he will be best equipped to play in the No.8 role long-term.

United have a talent on their hands with Mainoo, regardless of which midfield position he specialises in. He might have been absent from recent matchday squads, but that’s been due to an injury and he’s expected to return for pre-season.

There was also a debut for Charlie McNeill in the Europa League in September before he left for Newport County on loan, whilst youngsters Rhys Bennett, Tyler Fredricson and Radek Vitek have trained with the first team for large periods.

That means those players have been unavailable for a number of academy games and sources have indicated that will always take priority due to the benefits for individuals and the importance of supplementing training sessions at Carrington.

In addition, this season would have been Alejandro Garnacho’s U21 campaign in terms of usual progress, but the winger has pleasantly surprised academy coaches with his progress, which has seen him thrive in the first-team environment.

Away from the pitch, it has been a season of change for the coaching staff. Neil Wood became Salford City’s manager last summer and he’d spent three years managing the U21s, helping 17 academy players make their first-team debuts.

Sources at United indicated they were happy with Wood’s decision to coach within a first-team environment and Dempsey was named as his replacement as U21 manager, but a different arrangement was confirmed for EFL Trophy fixtures.

Dempsey is the U21 manager.

The reshuffle at the start of the season meant Dempsey would take the U21s’ matches in the PL2, but Travis Binnion, who is head of player development and coaching and Under-18 boss, would oversee fixtures in the EFL Trophy.

It’s understood that Dempsey and Binnion still discuss tactics and game plans when the latter takes control of the U21s in the EFL Trophy, however, the latter has played down the importance of who actually takes the games.

United’s campaign in the EFL Trophy, known as the Papa John’s Trophy for sponsorship reasons, was the highlight of the campaign. The U21s reached the quarter-finals of the competition and were only knocked out by eventual winners Bolton.

It was the furthest the club had gone in the EFL Trophy and Binnion, speaking outside of the dressing room after the defeat at the formerly named Reebok Stadium, said he was proud of his players for getting to that stage.

Binnion was more than happy to chat about a game months later when approached in a car park outside Leigh Sports Village. The academy coaches give the impression of genuinely caring about each player and that’s the ethos of the club.

In addition, the contrasting results in the PL2 and the EFL Trophy can be explained by the approach. League fixtures are prioritised for development, while cup competitions are used to give ‘elite young players’ the platform to perform against higher opposition.

In layman’s terms, the ‘less developed’ player in the academy has played in the PL2 this season because they need minutes and game time over a ‘better’ player who might not necessarily benefit as much from playing in that fixture.

That also explains why the average age of the U21s in the league has been just 19.1, which is the second youngster in the division. It provides context to the campaign, as the average age of the opposition when playing United has been 19.7.

Emeran celebrates scoring.

Those extra six months can be important to physical development and the U21s are expected to fare better next term, but it’s understood the same policy of promotion of youth will be taken, meaning the average age should remain low.

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