A hamstring injury 58 minutes into Manchester United’s EFL Trophy win over Salford in early September has prevented Ethan Laird from making any kind of contribution to the club’s season so far.
A claim from The Athletic at the time saying Laird could make a swift late September return proved to be incorrect. He has not featured at any level since.
It is now mid-November and Laird should be back imminently. It is even possible he features in the EFL Trophy game against Morecambe tonight.
Pathway to first team
Laird is in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans. He made his first team debut as a starter a year ago this month away at Astana, and then as a substitute at Old Trafford against AZ Alkmaar.
The young right-back joined United’s first team squad for training in July.
If he could just stay fit, there is a pathway into the side for him, perhaps a limited one.
Diogo Dalot is out on loan at AC Milan for the season, leaving the role as stand-in right-back open behind Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Brandon Williams is one option, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah is an option at least until Laird can stay fit and show he should overtake him.
Laird has the talent. At just 19, he has already demonstrated a real attacking threat from the full-back position, with his dribbling and crossing superior to Wan-Bissaka.
First he needs to get a run of games together in the academy, display his sharpness, and prove he is ready to challenge Wan-Bissaka, or even just fill in if required.
His prospects are complicated by the performances of Arnau Puigmal, the versatile Spaniard who can play at both midfield or right-back.
His recent display at wing-back in the under-23 win over Brighton (one goal and two assists) puts him into the mix too.
Puigmal will likely move back into a central role for the under-23s once Laird returns, but the message is simple: If he does not return and stay fit, then he will lose his chance.
Talent vs fitness
Laird’s battle is a personal one. He needs good fortune to stay fit in a year where Dalot’s absence opens up an increased chance for him.
The teenager returned to training earlier this month, and if the midweek game comes too soon for him, then Laird could be targeting Sunday’s unde-23 match against Tottenham instead.
The problem for Laird of course has been that this latest hamstring injury was not his first fitness issue. He missed several weeks at the start of last season, and at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, with separate issues.
It may just be a case that Laird has had some bad luck, and so he needs fortune to be on his side from here on in.
A strong end to 2020 could set him up for a breakout 2021, in which he finally starts to live up to his potential.
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