Eight games and counting. That's what Manchester United’s winning run under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was extended to with victory over Arsenal on Friday. It’s not the only streak the Old Trafford outfit are on.
The other one, though, stretches all the way back to October 30, 1937 - 81 years and 3,955 matches ago.
It was back then that United picked an academy graduate in their matchday squad, and they have picked one in every matchday squad since. It’s an astonishing run that now forms a key pillar of the club’s core identity. Man Utd managers are now expected to carry the baton, giving youth the sort of opportunities they perhaps wouldn’t get at another elite club.
The early signs are that Solskjaer will do his bit to continue such traditions. Marcus Rashford has been installed as Man Utd’s centre forward in-chief, Jesse Lingard is an integral part of the first team, while the sight of teenagers Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and James Garner on the bench has become common in recent weeks.
“That link between the academy and first-team is crucial,” explained the Norwegian not long after his appointment.
“We bring players through to the first-team, we develop them to play a certain way and then they know when they get to the first-team this is how we want them to play. That's our identity, I was in the reserves as well, so I've been on that side of it, the link between the academy and the first-team, and I know how important it is that me, Nicky, Ricky and Neil speak a lot because that is in our tradition, it doesn't just go back to the Class of '92, it goes back even further than Sir Alex, back to Sir Matt Busby. And I'll never forget it, if you're good enough you're old enough.”
All this will be music to the ears of Mason Greenwood. He hasn’t yet been given his first-team bow by Solskjaer, but many expect him to be the next homegrown superstar to come through at United. A club and a fanbase that has cultivated and harnessed world class talent like David Beckham, George Best, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and more recently Jesse Lingard and Rashford, is hyped about its next academy-grown icon.
There is great anticipation over how Greenwood will take to first team football. He is the most exciting prospect to come through the Manchester United academy since Rashford. In fact, in terms of his achievements at youth level, Greenwood has actually surpassed Rashford, scoring 24 times in just 20 appearances for United’s Under-18s, Under-19s and Under-23s teams this season.
You may have seen some of his goals in one of the viral clips that have bounced around social media in recent weeks and months. His latest sparkling performance, which saw the 17-year-old bag a brace in a 4-1 win over Stoke City’s Under-18s, prompted some to draw comparisons with Robin van Persie, albeit with more of a propensity for dribbling.
Greenwood is the complete striker, almost custom built for the modern game. He’s good with both feet, he is quick, he has a certain physicality and most importantly for a centre forward, he boasts the goalscoring knack - the kind of composure when faced with the goalkeeper that cannot be taught.
Solskjaer is paying attention. Greenwood was invited, along with Chong and Gomes, on Man Utd’s warm weather training trip to Dubai earlier this month. There, Solskjaer will have had a closer look at the teenager, giving him a chance to get to know the players who will surely be his teammates in the not so distant future.
There is a growing clamour for Greenwood to be given his chance, but Solskjaer remains cautious. “You’ve got to remember that he’s only 17,” he said recently, underlining the risks of throwing a teenager like Greenwood in at the deep end. Nonetheless, the Norwegian admitted “he’s knocking on the door to get his first appearance.”
The circumstances are perfect for Greenwood to be brought into the first team fold. Solskjaer has revitalised Man Utd as an attacking outfit. He is an advocate of forward-thinking football and of youth. While the likes of Anthony Martial, Pogba and Rashford felt surpassed under Jose Mourinho, they have been liberated by his caretaker successor. Even though it was Mourinho who first called Greenwood up to the senior squad, putting him on the bench for a game against Valencia earlier in the season, the 17-year-old has the perfect mentor in Solskjaer.
At a time when Man Utd must plot a course for the future, with a permanent managerial appointment to be made in the summer, Greenwood’s rise says something about the positive aspects of the club’s identity that still remain. He is the part that the Old Trafford faithful should still be proud of.
Manchester City may have outspent United in the development of their state-of-the-art youth facilities on the other side of the city, but they have yet to establish a pathway for their academy graduates like there is at Old Trafford. Just look at how Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz were forced to look elsewhere for first team football. Despite their obvious talent and potential, there was no way for them to breakthrough at City.
Not every youngster gets their chance at Man Utd - see Paul Pogba’s decision to join Juventus as a teenager - but they still place more faith in youth than most other elite sides. United have suffered an identity crisis in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years, but the fact that they still have core values, even if they were put on the back burner by Mourinho, should be applauded.
Greenwood is the latest embodiment of those key values. They are instilled in Lingard and Rashford and even Pogba, despite his sojourn in Turin for a few years, and increasingly under Solskjaer, they are instilled on the team on the pitch. At another elite club, Greenwood might not be given a chance, but Man Utd have a tradition, and an 81-year-old record, to keep up - yet another manifestation of their identity to harness.