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Mourinho treats Man United Youth Academy like eBay in Premier League finale

Monday 22nd May 2017
On the 2016-17 Premier League's final match day, Manchester United upset highly favoured Crystal Palace at Old Trafford with surprising ease. To a casual fan, that sentence may seem to have been jumbled in the wash. Nonetheless, Sam Allardyce's Palace were viewed as favourites over the Red Devils because, well in advance, Jose Mourinho had stated his intent to field a boatload of Man United youth academy players to better rest his battered first team before their midweek Europa League Final against Ajax in Stockholm. Josh Harrop impressed mightily with his opening goal but did any among the group stake a claim for a place in next season's senior team? Or, as Mourinho may have hoped, did they just earn themselves loans out to lower tier clubs?

Mourinho has, to many's surprise, made some effort to carry on United's vaunted tradition for building from within. At his first presser, he dubiously indicated his respect for and intent to manage in the so-called United way.

I have promoted 49 youth players from Academies. If you want, I can give you that list. Two factors that are very important on these records, because sometimes you promote because you don't have another chance or so many injuries, you have to bring them in. The second factor is when you are not playing for big targets then it is easier to bring them up. My record of injuries is very, very low. I never promote players because of a need—I do it because of conviction.

On several occasions since, Mourinho has made further reference to a perceived obligation to adhere to United tradition. Against league leaders Chelsea, tradition dictated he not rest his first team while still fighting on multiple fronts. With only the Europa League still to be decided and the final weekend's opponent, Palace, safely playing out the string, the Portuguese's sense for both history and pragmatism prompted him to give several youngsters an opportunity. Convenient. Regardless, Mou capped his first Premier League season as United boss by starting or subbing in nine players who spent time in the United youth set-up.
As noted on one match broadcast, his decision continued an unbroken streak stretching from 1937. During that eight-decade run, United have played at least one academy player in every competitive match, a tally now approaching 3,700 games. Yet, if anyone held a thought the starting lineup was intended to preview the coming season, it should be remembered Nicky Butt's rugrats weren't allowed anywhere near the position at which United experienced its most dire need this campaign: center half.

Included in last Sunday's academy nine were Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Scott McTominay, Joel Pereira, Josh Harrop, Demetri Mitchell, and Angel Gomes. The first three, all older, have consistently been in Mourinho's matchday squads. The middle trio have enjoyed recent appearances. Harrop, Mitchell, and Gomes made their United senior team debuts, the first two starting, the latter given a late run out.

Pogba and Lingard have already established themselves as squad regulars for years to come. They had nothing to prove in this match other than fitness for the Stockholm final. On the other hand, their involvement in both goals, with Pogba setting up the first, then scoring the second, was a subtle reminder to the boss as to his youth set-up's value.

For all his talk about giving nearly fifty players their debuts before arriving at United, only Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane stands out as having become integral to the Portuguese's plans. Moreover, the young Frenchman was pilfered from Lens; he did not come up through La Fabrica. The Palace match aside, United's ambitions parallel Mourinho's, squeezing out almost all room for sentiment. That's why, after an impressive 2o15-16 season under Louis van Gaal, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is withering on the Wolverhampton vine.

It was a big ask for any youngster to catch Mourinho's eye in what amounted to a late-season friendly. One or two may have, though not the one most anticipated. At the tender age of sixteen, Angel Gomes, so hyped pre-match, was understandably protected by Mourinho. He came on near the end, match well in hand, with absolutely no pressure or expectation to do more than touch the ball once or twice, perhaps make a teasing diagonal run. His time is still two or three years in the future, at the least.

On the other hand, Josh Harrop's opener was the stuff which gives birth to legend. Unheralded, he grabbed the match by the throat on the quarter-hour. Driving at his defender, he cut inside from the left flank, then curled a beauty into the far upper ninety. Not just United supporters, but any English fan watching, likely turned to a friend to ask, "Did you see that?!"
Unfortunately for Harrop, the answer is yes. We see it frequently from players on United's left flank. Marcus Rashford makes that move with regularity. As does Anthony Martial. When he's in the mood, Henrikh Mkhitaryan lets fly from either side or the middle. Nor is a single goal likely to put United off their rumoured pursuit of Antoine Griezmann. Assuming the Atleti striker signs with Old Trafford, Juan Mata stays, and Wayne Rooney leaves, Harrup would find himself at least sixth in the queue for match time. It's more likely the Stockport lad has earned himself a loan spell with a Championship or League One side.

In goal, Pereira was barely tested. Palace found the target just once in six shots. Without trouble, the young Portuguese made the save. There was one moment, however, which proved he has a long way to go before troubling David de Gea and Sergio Romero's job security. He found himself helplessly pinned to the goal line by a Palace forward while defending a corner. The delivery was fortunately headed well wide but a stronger, more aggressive keeper would have forced his way out to claim the ball.

Similarly, Scott McTominay's performance can best be graded incomplete. He made no glaring errors in central midfield but appeared to still be using the Van Gaal playbook. Seemingly every pass was to one side, the other, or back towards United's goal. Michael Carrick briefly uses similar tactics to settle and consolidate possession in United's half. When the ball is in the opponent's end, however, he picks out open attackers with frequent, deadly precision. We didn't see that from McTominay. In 2017-18, United will be eager to make their eleven home draws in all competitions an historical footnote. Any youngster looking to break into Mourinho's midfield corps must show more confidence than the young Lancastrian.

At left back, Demetri Mitchell wasn't brilliant. The hometown boy was strong and steady, though. Nevertheless, he finds himself in the same predicament as Harrop. United are better stocked than Tesco with fullbacks. Stacked on the shelf, along with Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, and Marcos Rojo, are Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe.

The young Dutchman joins compatriot Blind in fronting the queue when it comes to motivation to play in the Europa League final. Both began their careers in the fabled Ajax youth set-up. Blind moved to Groningen before signing with United. Fosu-Mensah transferred directly from one academy to the other. He has become a solid role player for Mourinho, as his play against Palace affirmed, but hasn't exactly pushed Valencia for the 31-year-old Ecuadorian's place at right back. Rather, he has been competing for back-up minutes with Italian international Darmian.
Now, both Fosu-Mensah and Darmian feel Tuanzebe nipping at their heels. The African-born, England U20 played well in his first Premier League start, against Arsenal. He's shown his adaptability, as well, playing right back and defensive midfield for the senior team despite being primarily a center back for the reserves.

Mourinho has long since eaten his words regarding a preference for specialists when ruling Wayne Rooney out as a midfielder last summer. Injuries have forced him to move Rooney into the midfield, Rojo to center back, return Blind to left back, and play Rashford, Lingard, and Mkhitaryan there, too, in emergencies. Meanwhile, Rooney's continued presence, along with a surplus of healthy attacking mids, has led the boss to deploy Pogba most often as a deep-lying playmaker rather than in the advanced role in which he thrived at Juventus.

Tuanzebe's composure in partnering Pogba, a position usually filled by Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini was complemented by the confidence to make the odd, timely push forward. Quietly impressive, his versatile performances during the run in may see him claim Fosu-Mensah's place in the senior team next fall with the Dutchman loaned out or sold. Then again, given his tender years, young Axel may be sent out on loan himself.

Some supporters may be reacting like teenage girls, front row at a One Direction concert, over Mourinho fielding so many young players, then seeing them dominate a Premier League side. Yet, it's silly to expect anything other than Jose taking another stage dive into the transfer market over the summer to acquire a forward, one or two center backs, and, depending on which way David de Gea's head is turned, possibly a goalkeeper.

Fergie's Fledglings and the Busby Babes will forever be written into United lore but it bears remembering they were generational phenomena occurring forty years apart. Until its next bumper crop comes along, round about 2030, United will do as it always has: develop young players, keep the very best one or two for itself, then sell the rest to help finance its transfer moves. Mourinho isn't stupid. He knows that history. Starting so many youngsters wasn't done entirely to rest first-teamers or at all to give purists hope for a homegrown future. It was a shrewd marketing ploy by a savvy manager.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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