Matteo Darmian, Ander Herrera, Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Antonio Valencia… they were all missing. For one of their biggest, most consequential games of the season - a Champions League last 16 second leg away to Paris Saint-Germain - Manchester United were down to their bare bones. Angel Gomes must have fancied his chances of making an appearance.
Along with Tatith Chong and Mason Greenwood, Gomes was one of three untested youngsters named on the bench for the trip to Parc des Princes. But as his peers were introduced to the madness, with United pulling off a remarkable comeback to make the Champions League quarter-finals, the 18-year-old was left to watch from the sidelines.
That astonishing result was immortalised in images of the raucous celebrations that followed Marcus Rashford’s penalty kick winner and the full time whistle. Chong and Greenwood were in there. Gomes, however, was not and that in itself provided an illustration of the position the England Under-19 international currently finds himself in at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed, in part, due to his commitment to youth. The Norwegian used it as a keys part of his pitch to be given the manager’s job permanently, highlighting how Manchester United’s identity had always been rooted in its own youth academy. And yet despite this Gomes has still to earn the trust of Solskjaer.
The teenager was only handed 25 minutes of game time in the final two games of the season despite United, locked out of the Premier League’s top four by that point, having nothing to play for. Contrast this to the game time Greenwood was afforded in matches against PSG, Arsenal and West Ham as well as the start he was handed on the final day of the season against Cardiff City.
This has led to speculation over Gomes’ future with Barcelona, among a few others, reported to be monitoring his happiness at Old Trafford. The 18-year-old only has a year left on his Man Utd contract and so even before he has made a senior start Gomes has come to something of a career crossroads this summer. He could have a decision to make.
By limiting Gomes’ opportunities Manchester United are risking another Pogba-esque situation. The French midfielder, much like Gomes, was identified as the club’s most exciting young prospect, but found his route into the first team blocked, forcing him to leave for Juventus in the search for first team football. As we all know, Pogba went on to become a superstar in Italy only returning to Old Trafford after United had paid a then-world record £89 million transfer fee for him.
Additionally, Gomes has almost certainly looked at the precedent set by Jadon Sancho, the teenage winger who left Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund having anticipated a lack of a pathway for him at the Etihad Stadium. Now, Sancho is arguably the most exciting teenager in the European game holding down a first team place for both club and country.
United need a player of Gomes’ mould. They have been linked with Bruno Fernandes and James Maddison this summer as Solskjaer looks to add a centrally-positioned attacking midfielder to his ranks. So what’s the excuse for not turning to Gomes, a player who would stylistically fit Man Utd under the Norwegian?
Whether or not Gomes is given a chance at Man Utd will reveal a lot about the true extent of Solskjaer’s revolution. In years gone by money would have been splurged in the transfer market to ensure players like Gomes were locked out. Rashford was the last academy graduate to earn a place in the first team. Before that, Lingard and even he was forced out on loan after loan.
It’s therefore little wonder that so many English players are looking abroad to make that crucial progression from prospect to fully-fledged performer. English football has had no issues in producing young talent over the years, but this has been the missing link. Too many players go missing between the stages of youth and senior football. Gomes could be next.
This willingness to move abroad at such a young age has become something of a trend in the English game of late. See Brahim Diaz’s decision to leave Man City for Real Madrid in January, with the young midfielder already seeing more first team action in his first few months in Spain than he did under Pep Guardiola. What does it say about the English game that a young player is more likely to be given a chance at Real Madrid, the club of the ‘Galacticos,’ than in the Premier League?
“A lot of players who have done it have seen it pay off, but, realistically, everyone is different and everyone has their own timings as to when they might break through,” Gomes explained in a recent interview when asked whether the success of Sancho and co. could tempt him abroad. “Jesse Lingard is a good example of that. He broke through a little later than some of the other players from his age group but look what he's achieved now. It's massive.
“Jadon Sancho is another one. We've played together for England for a while and he's taken that step because he felt he was ready for the demands of first-team football, and he's shown everyone what he can do. It's all about timing and, for me, wherever my career goes, I want to be ready to play when the opportunity arises at Man United.”
Gomes’ remarks about Lingard and waiting for his opportunity will encourage those at Man Utd, but they simply cannot afford to sideline such an exciting talent for much longer. If Solskjaer truly means what he says about providing a route into the first team from the youth ranks then Gomes will play a much more prominent role in the squad next season. Otherwise, Gomes could follow the lead of Pogba and Sancho.