‘Trust in youth’ is perhaps the largest pillar in the foundations that have turned Old Trafford into world football’s grandest stage.
Some of those same academy talents then played elder statesmen in 2008, alongside new, fresh talents that had been either produced or acquired and developed from boys into men under their guidance.
When you think of United’s greatest players; Bobby Charlton, George Best, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo among others, they were either Carrington products or were purchased as teenagers, and given the platform to thrive.
When Manchester United were down in recent years, it was Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who led the charge, beacons of hope for fans who saw little light at the end of the tunnel.
Manchester United as a club have not only always trusted their young players, but turned to them in times of need, when things get stale and need freshening up. Recently things have looked very stale, and in Hannibal Mejbri the team has been handed a second wind.
Mejbri is a breath of fresh air. The Tunisian never goes unnoticed on a football pitch, both for his distinguished long, curly hair, and his actual ability with a football. Mejbri possesses immense technical gifts, and underneath that hair is a brain that works faster than most on a football pitch.
His decision-making with the ball, understanding of how to evade pressure, and ability to find spaces make him an effective passer and carrier, and this translates to both a more advanced role and a deeper one. He also has the capability to play out wide – he looks up to Paul Pogba and shades of the Frenchman’s quality are seen in Mejbri’s game, with one trivela pass in particular against Burnley standing out.
But the thing that stands out most to United fans right now: he never stops running.
Manchester United have had some physical problems in their recent games. Players have looked incredibly sluggish, gassing out very quickly in games and being overrun by their opponents. With such large spaces to defend, it has stood out even more.
United had to adopt a slightly different approach in their game against Burnley last weekend, but the 20-year-old covered the most distance for United. Often it has felt like United have been playing with fewer players than their opponents this season, such is the lack of energy in the side.
In the two games that Hannibal Mejbri has played, United did not feel this way so much. He was an integral part of United’s press at Turf Moor, blocking passing lanes into Burnley’s No.6 and providing a lot of intensity. He was also instructing United’s players in the press and was the first player to run back and support his deeper midfielders.
In the below example, these are all seen. Mejbri makes clear to Fernandes that he is marking Burnley’s No.6 and instructs him to push out wider, in case of a pass to the far-side fullback (out of the picture). As Burnley play out of the press in the second image, he starts to run back to support his midfield but cues Rasmus Højlund to come back and watch the pass inside.
Højlund presses the pass inside to Burnley’s No.6 and pickpockets him with the ball falling loose. The alert Mejbri picks this up, before slipping Rashford in with a reverse pass. This leads to a shot on target inside the first minute.
This intense running is not just a physical quality, in his mind Mejbri is fearless. He showed this in his early cameos at United, and it stood out against Brighton where he came off the bench with United 3-0 down and scored from range. Being brought on when your team is losing isn’t easy for any young player, but Mejbri handled it well. He possesses all of the necessary mental traits to go far in football.
Mejbri is an example of a player who works both hard and smart, he leaves everything out on the pitch whenever he steps out onto it and has clear intention behind all of his actions, always making a positive impact as a result of this.
One thing he has improved on immensely in the last 12 months is temperament. With his hard-working nature can come a fiery attitude, and the youngster was often targeted with dangerous fouls as a youth player due to his quality – not always responding so well. This led to a few disciplinary issues.
His loan at Birmingham City last season has helped him to improve this temperament, channelling his innate aggression in a better way. As a result, he is a much more mature footballer and more ready to make an impact at a senior level for United, and fans are starting to see this impact now.
In Mejbri’s emergence, United have been handed a tireless runner in a team of tired legs, a technical master in a side that can struggle to appreciate the ball at times, and a positionally versatile footballer at a time when injury issues are running rampant throughout the squad.
Trust in youth has always been at the core of what makes Manchester United great. Amidst the grandeur, it gives fans something to really root for, and the club a connection with its geographical and historical roots.
Hannibal Mejbri is the latest in a long line of youth products that have stepped out into the theatre to fulfil their childhood dreams, and he has been the bright spark that the dimming Manchester United have needed to kick off their season. He has earned his place in the team, now Erik ten Hag needs to trust him with it.
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