Over the last week Manchester United have lost both Largie Ramazani and now Angel Gomes, who have rejected deals to pursue careers elsewhere [Sky].
Jude Bellingham is also set to snub United’s offer to sign with Borussia Dortmund instead [ESPN].
So what has gone wrong here? Are Manchester United suddenly no longer an attractive option to young players?
Not exactly. While each of these cases is disappointing to differing degrees, each have their own set of circumstances.
Ultimately they boil down to the same point. They want to play now and United cannot offer the assurances they need.
A team still focused on youth
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made clear this season that he is committed to a youthful approach.
Data from Transfermarkt shows Solskjaer’s side have an average age of just 22.1 years-old, and this is the fourth youngest in Manchester United’s history.
Added responsibility has been placed on leaders like Marcus Rashford, just 22, and Anthony Martial at 24, and they have thrived with it.
Solskjaer has also integrated Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood into the side on a regular basis, and against Astana in the Europa League, he played what was essentially the club’s under-23 team plus Lee Grant.
His desire to see young players thrive is unquestioned, but there are also demands at Manchester United. These demands are for rapid improvement.
Solskjaer is balancing this demand for rapid improvement with a desire to play young players.
It looks like he is getting it right, but there is only so far you can take the youthful approach.
For instance James Garner does not deserve starts ahead of Paul Pogba, nor Teden Mengi over Harry Maguire. Nemanja Matic, 31, is still head and shoulders above anyone else in his position.
It is fair to say a blind spot of Solskjaer’s has been Jesse Lingard, and his minutes could and should have been given to Gomes this season.
But if Lingard had produced and kicked on, Solskjaer’s decision would have been a smart one. Not all the gambles work, in the way his backing of Anthony Martial has.
This was not a tear-it-down rebuild, but a careful transition. There is still a lot this United team can achieve this season, including two trophies and Champions League qualification.
At this stage of the campaign, it becomes even more difficult to blend in young players.
Solskjaer said after the Norwich game that he wanted to, namechecking Tahith Chong, Teden Mengi, Ethan Laird and James Garner.
But with every game counting for something, there are no easy ways to bring young players in. The players mentioned have not even made any of the three extended 20-man matchday squads yet.
The manager has a clear philosophy, but it is not so easy to do exactly what he would like, with games to win and the threat of pressure building immediately if results suffer.
Solskjaer is still clearly wrestling with the balance of combining youth, with a necessity to win now.
For the large part he has got it right, but there have been casualties along the way, with Gomes, Ramazani who never got a first team kick, and Bellingham seeing an easier path to first team football at Dortmund.
You may even be able to extend this to the Erling Haaland saga too. It is hard to know how much of a factor it was that he would have had to compete with Anthony Martial, in contrast to being an outright automatic starter in the Bundesliga.
It will take a little patience from both sides to get right. Solskjaer could have done better at times with his squad management. For instance James Garner should have played more than he has.
The young players simply have to bide their time, and know that the reward on offer of being a Manchester United player is far greater than any they can experience elsewhere. The manager cannot derail his United project or indeed put his own job at risk simply to please a couple of restless academy kids.
It is notable that amid the Gomes and Ramazani exits, United did manage to persuade Tahith Chong to re-sign. That is a win to chalk up for Solskjaer, amid the hope he can fulfil his potential.
Scott McTominay, 23, has just signed a five-year contract extension. And if United can land Jadon Sancho, the club will be buying one of the world’s elite young footballers, who is just 20.
Solskjaer will get it right, and keep believing in youth. The young players who are ultimately of the top standard will get their chances. But along the way, as he is learning, you just cannot please everybody.
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