Dancing with the devil: Manchester United in danger of losing soul?
Generations of Manchester United fans, from Sir Matt Busby Way to downtown Tokyo, have revelled in their club’s ability to produce and develop a consistent core of homegrown talent, whilst remaining competitive at the top table of elite European teams.
However, now that the tide of success is flowing against them, United, who are odds-on at 4/7 to finish outside the top four, appear ready to surrender their proud traditions at the first sign of trouble.
Whilst Carrington and the Aon training complex may not offer the conveyor belt of glittering stars moulded at Barcelona’s La Masia, the Old Trafford outfit still have one of the most successful academies in world football.
Young supporters, who grew up idolising the unique crop dubbed ‘Fergies Fledglings’, including the likes of David Beckam, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, may have enjoyed a lifetime of watching club-reared talent shine in the famous red shirt. Will the next generation be able to say the same?
Youth development and boasting the best of British talent are two of the main hallmarks, along with unrelenting attacking football and wing play, of the Red Devil’s identity. Using those values as a benchmark, the current incarnation are almost unrecognisable as a United side.
The famous ‘Class of ‘92’ have all since hung up their boots and the Red Devils can no longer dine out on the reputation of years past. As new boss Louis van Gaal prepares his luxury team to take on QPR, there are sadly few academy produced players likely to stake a serious claim for a place in the starting XI.
Darren Fletcher may enjoy a few more outings before Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick return to full fitness, but Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett now face a battle at centre back after the acquisition of Marcos Rojo.
United are no strangers to making marquee signings, having smashed the British transfer record on numerous occasions. However, the idea of fielding a starting XI bursting with big-money superstar signings is still somewhat of an alien concept for faithful fans, spoilt by the foresight and longevity of departed duo Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill.
Previous spending on lavish signings was limited, and used, in line with Ferguson’s philosophy, to supplement success rather than create it. The incredible amount of money forked out on the likes of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Angel Di Maria and Juan Mata now suggests a worrying move in the opposite direction.
With such a bloated and expensive squad, even recent recruits such Fellaini, Mata and Herrera could soon find themselves out in the cold, so the cull of academy products can come as no surprise.
Danny Welbeck, who bagged a brace for England in their recent Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland, was a casualty of Van Gaal’s thirst for new blood, and his abrupt exit to rivals Arsenal left a particularly bitter taste in the mouth.
United could soon be forced to eat a slice of humble pie, after drafting in Radamel Falcao to replace the outgoing Welbeck, if the 23-year-old enjoys a Daniel Sturridge-style renaissance. The England forward has excelled at Liverpool since leaving Chelsea, who were not prepared to risk the patience required to nurture the young striker.
Tom Lawrence, who had only enjoyed the dizzying heights of his first-team debut in the final Premier League game of last season, also found himself surplus to requirements, alongside Tom Cleverley, who was ushered out of Old Trafford on loan.
The once promising Red Devils futures of England hopefuls Michael Keane, Nick Powell and Wilfried Zaha also look bleak after the trio were shipped off on temporary stints away from the club. Meanwhile, Jesse Lingard and Will Keane, already both 21, may fall further behind their peers in development if they spend the season stagnating on the bench.
The question is whether the Red Devils should be sacrificing their club identity, sacrificing and shipping out players instilled with United’s values, when British, and particularly English, talent is currently at such a premium, with the Premier League enforcing a homegrown quota.
United would not wish to follow in the footsteps of noisy neighbours Manchester City, who are struggling to comply with the rules, and have a dearth of club produced players in their squad.
Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira and James Wilson are the latest top Red Devils prospects to be slated for great things, but may follow the likes of Paul Pogba out of the Old Trafford exit if the path to the first team becomes even more congested.
Even a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo would struggle to find space in the current squad, and what a travesty it would have been to see the Ballon d’Or winner achieve his potential elsewhere.
United, 14/1 to win the Premier League, may think they cannot afford to take a risk on youth as they battle to reclaim Champions League status, but discarding the promise within their own ranks could prove far more costly in the long-term.