Manchester United's season has been as injury-stricken as they come, with manager Louis van Gaal at one stage being without 14 first-team regulars.
The worst affected have been the talents of Luke Shaw and Phil Jones. The former has been out of action ever since is horrific leg-break in September, while recurring injury problems have limited the latter to just seven starts this term. Other important players like Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Young and captain Wayne Rooney have all spent months at a time sidelined through injury.
But every cloud has a silver lining and both a result of having an academy bursting with talent and sheer desperation, a huge number of youngsters have broken into Van Gaal’s squad this term. Many of United’s youth products including Donald Love, Joe Riley and under-21 skipper James Weir have all made their Premier League debuts in the current campaign, however, there have been three teenagers who have stood out and acquitted themselves tremendously well at senior level.
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Timothy Fosu-Mensah only made his under-21 debut at the beginning of this season but the 18-year-old has gone from strength to strength this year. He made his senior debut against Arsenal in February and has improved ever since.
Having started his career as a centre-back, Fosu-Mensah’s technical qualities saw him pushed into midfield in United’s youth ranks, however, Van Gaal has used him exclusively as a defender, either as a full-back or at the heart of the defence.
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The versatile Dutchman is blessed with pace, power and excels at making recovery tackles as he showed in United’s narrow win over Watford last month. After that game his manager praised him for “saving” his side on numerous occasions. After making another appearance at The Hawthorns, he came on in the final few minutes of the Manchester derby to help the Red Devils see out a huge victory at the Etihad Stadium.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been a star at youth level and his progression since joining United three years ago has been terrific. The 19-year-old Englishman represented his country at schoolboy level, made his under-21 debut for the club when he was only 16 and last season he made more appearances for United’s under-18’s than any other player.
After Shaw broke his leg and Marcos Rojo dislocated his shoulder earlier this season, Borthwick-Jackson became Van Gaal’s first-choice left-back, although he is also a very capable central defender. He made his debut in United’s 2-0 win against West Brom in November and has built on this performance. The Manchester-born starlet is quick, assured in possession, excellent at delivering crosses into the box as well as being strong in the tackle.
Borthwick-Jackson, who boasts the longest name in Premier League history, as per the Daily Mail, has been absent since mid-February because of injury. Nevertheless, in his 12 senior matches so far, he’s shown that he is good enough to play at this level.
Marcus Rashford only scored his first under-21 goal in December, however, he’s made an incredible start to his Manchester United career and given the Red Devils fresh hope of qualifying for the Champions League come the end of the season.
The striker was forced to make his debut against FC Midtjylland following a pre-match injury to Anthony Martial, and took his opportunity with glee, scoring twice at Old Trafford in United’s 5-1 triumph over the Danish club. Rashford possesses wonderful balance on the ball, he’s very fast and he never hesitates to run directly at defenders, as one Martin Demichelis found out a couple of weeks ago.
The 18-year-old, who earned a call-up to England’s under-20s in the recent international break, is constantly on the move and willing to run into the channels, but he can also find space in the box and provide United with an attacking focal point.
Born and bred in Manchester, Rashford has brought a youthful exuberance to the senior side and the local lad instantly received great affection from the United supporters. With five goals in just eight games thus far, including a sensational solo winner in the Manchester derby, the man who Van Gaal labelled a "real striker" is surely one of the first names on the Dutchman’s team sheet at the moment.
A system in decline?
Some football experts have claimed that Man United’s academy system is currently in decline, as suggested by the Daily Mail. They argue that United no longer have one of the elite youth setups among European football’s big clubs. The under-18 team were thrashed 5-1 by Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup in January, whilst their neighbours and bitter rivals Manchester City have invested hundreds of millions of pounds into youth development over the past few years.
However, the successful emergence of academy graduates like Fosu-Mensah, Borthwick-Jackson and most notably Rashford indicates quite to the contrary and suggests that United’s youth system is still capable of producing talented footballers. The establishment of these starlets into the first-team suggests that United could be about to enter a minor golden age of academy-bred talent. In other words, they've still got it.
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