This season, the under-21 team has transformed in to the u-23s, with the Premier League 2 launched for the 2016-17 season.
Last season, the under-21s had another dominant season under Warren Joyce in 2015-16. Most games won, most goals scored, least games lost and least goals conceded tells you all you need to know. They sat comfortably in second place behind Sunderland with a number of games in hand for the majority of the season, and once they got into gear they eased to the title.
This is Manchester United though, so it was no surprise to see the title confirmed with Guillermo Varela’s dramatic injury time winner at White Hart Lane.
Not only is the team successful because of their results though but also in terms of players produced. Last season saw eight academy players receive first team debuts from Louis van Gaal and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end there.
Ro-Shaun Williams, 17, centre back
“Who needs Pogba when you’ve got Ro-Shaun?” professed Ron Jamieson, the chairman of Ro-Shaun’s renowned youth club, Fletcher Moss Rangers. Williams doesn’t play in midfield the same way Pogba once did but after seeing him break into the under-21 side last season it’s hard to disagree with what Jamieson means by this.
Making his under-21 debut at just 16 was a bit of a hint that Williams has the ability to be something special for United. A physical presence at the back and comfortable on the ball, but what separates him from the rest is the fact he has the ability to match and, more often than not, beat any opposition forward for speed.
Williams picked up his rapid reputation since he broke a 25-year old 100m school sprinting record held by Darren Campbell at 15 years of age at Ashton on Mersey School, the home of education for a long line of Reds, from Darren Fletcher to Marcus Rashford.
So in short; we’ve got an Olympic standard sprinter who is also naturally good at defending. You can see why there’s a lot of excitement consuming the club when it comes to Ro-Shaun. He was included on the bench for the FA cup tie against West Ham in March and it would seem his first-team debut can’t be that far off.
Axel Tuanzebe, 18, defender
Congo-born, Rochdale-raised, the highly rated Tuanzebe was on the cusp of the first-team last season after raising his game at under-21 level. Named on the bench for the first-team’s trip to Selhurst Park in October, things were running smoothly for Axel as a debut looked just around the corner. However, an unfortunate injury delayed any progression and despite easing back into the under-21 side come April, the season ended too early for him to fully recover.
However, the mercurial defender needn’t worry about his apparent first-team hindrance after being namedropped by Jose Mourinho surprisingly early in the special one’s reign. “I don’t know them (Tuanzebe and Tyrell Warren) well, but I just trust Nicky Butt, John Murtough and the structure’s judgement, when they say we have a few players who, in a couple of years, can be first-team players.” Mourinho said. It was just the confidence boost Tuanzebe needed after his first-team hopes were dashed last term.
After a 10-minute cameo during the friendly against Wigan José persisted with his praise of the defender saying “With Axel, 10 minutes is enough. The potential is there; you can see it immediately”. Add to this his inclusion in the China pre-season squad, it looks likely that Tuanzebe’s name will become the 50th on Mourinho’s now infamous academy debut list.
Regan Poole, 18, centre back/defensive midfielder
Signed from Newport in 2015 after shrugging off interest from Liverpool, Poole was made to wait for international clearance from Wales to play for United. This delayed his debut for six months as a mysterious enigma surrounded him; why had United signed an unknown Welsh player from League 2’s Newport County? Why was he included in the Europa League squad having not made a single appearance for the club?
These questions were all answered when Poole eventually took to the field for his full debut against Manchester City at Leigh Sports Village in February. The Welshman was impeccable, tackled hard, covered ground and protected the back four so much they started to look a bit bored. Poole topped off his man of the match performance with a goal saving last-ditch block in the dying seconds as United won 1-0.
Since then he never looked back and even made a first-team cameo appearance for two minutes in the Europa League against Midtjylland.
Another thing Poole has to his game is a genuine goal scoring threat from set pieces, notching three last season, including a brace against Bury in the Manchester Senior Cup. Looking ahead, Poole has the ability and demeanour to make it into the first-team whether that opportunity will show itself is another matter altogether.
It was a mixed season for the under-18s, to put it lightly. On one hand you’ve got 12 losses in a row, including a 5-1 humbling in the FA Youth Cup by Chelsea in February, resulting in Paul McGuinness’ departure after 25 years at the club. On the other, there is a renewed hope as the academy starting to undertake a huge reshuffle under the guidance of Nicky Butt, results improved in the latter stages of the season and there have been some emerging talents from the under-18s within the under-21s and even the first-team. Marcus Rashford is arguably the biggest success story of United’s whole season, and it was in the under-18s where he started the campaign. It could be argued producing quality players is more necessary than results from the academy, so make of it what you will.
Angel Gomes, 15, attacking midfielder
The schoolboy’s talents aren’t the only thing generating the excitement around the club surrounding Gomes, his reputation indicates we could have something special here. Angel is cousin to none other than former United winger Nani and the son of Gil Gomes, a former Portugal international. Born in England he is also eligible to play for Portugal or Angola but he chosen to represent the three lions and often does at under-16 level.
Gomes broke into the under-18 side around Christmas time and his performances soon made his age and his size completely irrelevant. Managing three goals and six assists in 2015-16 is an impressive accolade when you look closer at the results of the side.
His best performance came came against Newcastle where he ran the show, getting a goal and two assists during the 7-1 play-off thrashing.
Angel will certainly be at the forefront to start for the under-18s next term and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were to feature for Warren Joyce’s under-21 side as his talent continues to defy his age.
Tosin Kehinde, 18, defensive midfielder
At under-18 level you often see players taking their time, focusing on making the right pass, movement and so on. But sometimes you see a player who does all this so naturally that you question how long they’ve been playing for. Kehinde is one of these players, a true all rounder of a midfielder, with his roles in the engine room alternated last season between getting forward to support the strikers and staying back to protect the back four. Personally, I like to see him as a holding midfielder, his stamina, physicality and composure have already shown how he fits the role so well.
Another of Kehinde’s assets is his ability to get on the score sheet, with four goals to his name in 2015-16, he certainly seems to have developed his all-round game well since recovering from a back injury he suffered from the previous season. His level of maturity mixed with his sheer physical presence in comparison to others his age on the pitch is probably why he made a shock under-21 debut at sixteen. Kehinde looks set to permanently establish himself at under-21 level in the coming season.
Charlie Scott, 18, centre back/defensive midfielder
I’ve spoken about the guile of Angel Gomes and the natural ability of Kehinde, with Charlie Scott it’s his old-school diehard approach to football which opitimises Manchester United and he is a joy to watch. A real socks-down-sleeves-up footballer, you can feel his tackles reverberate around Carrington.
Originally from Stoke-on-Trent Scott has been at the club for over 12-years, developing in the same youth side as Marcus Rashford and Axel Tuanzebe. His length of time at the club is reflected in his humble and dedicated attitude to the game.
However, there is more to his game than winning the ball. Scott can defend expertly well as a centre back or holding midfielder and showed his capabilities in both positions last season. He even cropped up with a goal or two from midfield, including an explosive long-range strike against Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup. Scott will look to impose himself on Warren Joyce’s side in 2016-17 and his attitude, fitness and resolve could see Joyce welcome him with open arms.
This article was written for the RoM charity season preview.