Alejandro Garnacho was just one of two FA Youth Cup winners in the starting line-up for the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Charlton, with Kobbie Mainoo stepping in for his debut.
Mainoo did not shrink on the big stage at Old Trafford, looking comfortable as United went on to clinch a 3-0 win.
The 17-year-old has been on the precipice ever since, an unused substitute in the subsequent Premier League fixtures.
Now three consecutive cup games is likely to see Mainoo get another opportunity to show Erik ten Hag what he can do.
Why Kobbie Mainoo came into the team
Erik ten Hag explained that Mainoo simply ‘deserved’ to start, having been impressed with his performances on the winter tour. Harry Maguire added that the teenager had been impressive in training, speaking after the game.
The opportunity came Mainoo’s way after the season-ending injury suffered by Donny van de Beek.
United are light in midfield, with Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes and Fred making up just five options for three positions, amid an intense fixture schedule.
There does not appear to be money available to spend on a midfielder this transfer window, and Mainoo looks like being Ten Hag’s preferred academy option to step up, overtaking pre-season stars Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage.
Mainoo possesses technical quality, ability to beat an opponent, and strong passing skills. This side of his game is arguably even more advanced than McTominay’s.
It makes real sense for Ten Hag to involve Mainoo where he can, considering the volume of games ahead. He can provide respite for United’s more experienced options, who are at risk of burnout.
Mainoo was one of the stars of United’s FA Youth Cup winning side, and is eager to get forward and chip in with a goal or two. He has already shown that for the first team in a friendly game against Cadiz.
When could Mainoo make an appearance?
It would be wrong to expect Mainoo to feature in United’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Nottingham Forest away from home. Casemiro is rested up after the weekend, and Mainoo will have to settle for a place on the bench again.
The next two games, Mainoo has a chance to start. United’s home FA Cup tie with Reading is a less pressurised environment, and a steady step up in quality of opponent from Charlton. It’s an ideal opportunity for Ten Hag to get him back into the XI.
Mainoo’s chances in the second leg against Forest depend on the first leg result. If United can come away from the City Ground with a 3-0 win, then there could be heavier rotation for the tie at Old Trafford and Mainoo could start. Lose or draw, and Ten Hag will play his strongest XI for the return leg.
Erik ten Hag won’t want to rush Mainoo, but he’s already been curious enough to look at what he can do, and has repeatedly used him in his squads and in first team sessions.
United will need an extra midfield option for the weeks and months ahead, and Mainoo’s combination of youth and quality seems to have intrigued his manager. If he seizes any opportunities against Reading and Nottingham Forest, then who knows what next month has in store, even a dream appearance against Barcelona could become a reality.