Manchester United’s young talents were thrown in at the deep end on Thursday evening against Astana. They coped well in the first half and showed glimpses of why all of United’s coaches, senior players and fans are excited about the future.
And yet, players like Angel Gomes, Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong aren’t playing as they do in the under-23s. It’s somewhat natural and expected, but how can the trio convince Solskjaer to start them more regularly?
At 5ft 2in, Gomes’ stature has always made him stand-out, normally in a positive way. His talent has come into more question in the last year than ever before. His debut for United came so long ago that the player he replaced off the bench was Wayne Rooney, back in 2017. Since then chances have been rare.
That’s partly down to an inability to take games by the scruff of the neck. In games for the under-23s and under-18s at United, or England’s youth sides, Gomes has done that. His ability is centred on his brilliant touch, composure, vision and close-control.
In games for the first team, Gomes has shown how he can keep the ball in tight spaces and pass out of pressure. He opens up the game. But what’s not quite being seen for Solskjaer’s first team is his dribbling. Gomes’ low centre-of-gravity makes him a joy to watch under pressure, managing to keep the ball from those who try to hook a leg around and take it away.
In the first team, Gomes seems a little hesitant to try things. His glowing reputation from everyone he’s played and worked with come from instinctively pulling off breathtaking skills and passes. It’s likely just a matter of being too careful at the early stages of his United career. He has to look to someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, and Solskjaer must support him with this, and see how the Portuguese tried and failed so many times when he was a 19-year-old at United.
Four goals this season is a good record for Greenwood so far. His natural finishing ability is obviously on show. In slight contrast to his performances for the youth teams, though, we’re seeing Greenwood on the periphery in most games and then suddenly sparking to life.
The 18-year-old’s goals last season show that he’s often at his best running at players. He makes defenders trip over themselves as they run back towards their own goal. That’s not quite there yet. Neither is that sense of freedom you often got with Greenwood. It comes down to the enormous gap between youth football and first-team football.
As Greenwood builds up his physical strength, fans will start to see more of the freedom and confidence he has shown. It’s not to say he hasn’t played well so far, but there is certainly more to come.
A confident and direct winger, Chong is so often beautiful to watch. He floats across the pitch with that famous afro hair bobbing up and down as he weaves in between defenders. But that fluency isn’t on show for the United first team. Again, it likely comes down to the confidence or lack thereof. He’s received a lot of criticism on social media and was put back down into the under-23s to regain some faith in his own play.
He also needs to improve his play in less space. The intensity of first team football has left him struggling. His best game for the Reds came as a substitute against Leicester City when he was used as a counter-attacking outlet. The Foxes, looking for an equaliser, allowed Chong space and he flourished. Against deep defences of Astana (twice) and Rochdale, Chong’s been less influential.
In his most recent chance, he missed an almost open goal. The abuse on social media resumed. It’s pathetic from so-called United fans who need to show a bit of belief in a talented young player. But that miss sums up Chong’s lack of confidence, not necessarily his ability.
It’s the job of Solskjaer, Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna to provide these young players with the help needed to build confidence and strength.
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