The FA Cup is a competition with a long history, and some of its greatest stories involve unknown youths making their names known to fans all over in the early rounds.
Now with the rise of social media, unknown youths are seldom found. Players are unearthed, profiled, and have dedicated fans long before they make their first team debuts. This does not, however, take away from the feeling of joy at seeing a player who has fought to get through the academy be given an opportunity and grasp it with both hands.
Nick Cox, the head of Manchester United‘s academy, often tweets about how much this means at the Old Trafford club, and updates the number of Carrington graduates to make their senior bows every time a new player sails across the sea between the lands of boys and men.
Manchester United play League Two Newport County on Sunday evening, and this poses a fantastic opportunity for the side to blood through some new talent, and supplement it with more established ones who have not been seen in some time.
The likes of Isak Hansen-Aarøen, Willy Kambwala, Omari Forson, and Amad Diallo are known to fans, and three of these names have made their debuts for Manchester United. With many fans eager to see more, the upcoming game poses a great opportunity for Erik ten Hag to give them a golden development opportunity whilst working to future-proof his squad.
United’s use of youth under Erik ten Hag has been mixed. Whilst the obvious success stories of Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho are now seen game-by-game in the first-team, there have been many instances where fans feel youth could have been utilised more by the Dutchman, offering valuable rest minutes to overplayed senior players whilst giving talented youngsters a taste of the increased intensity and physicality of men’s football.
The previous round against Wigan Athletic presented itself as an example of this, with Ten Hag opting to name a full-strength XI against a side who sit in the relegation zone in League One. Backup goalkeeper Altay Bayındır was not used despite the possible need for United to start him in coming league games, with André Onana at the African Cup of Nations.
Hannibal Mejbri, a player who has shown promise every time he has been given the opportunity, was given mere seconds on the pitch. Omari Forson, who was a part of the senior squad in pre-season, was offered a debut coming on at the same time as Mejbri but not a long one.
Many who defend the lack of opportunities some youth players have had argue that not everyone can be given an opportunity, and that experience is important. On the first point, it holds fair when talking about important Premier League games against top-level opposition. But do Manchester United really need the likes of Raphaël Varane and Bruno Fernandes to get past Wigan Athletic and Newport County?
On the second point, balance is, of course, crucial. With United having many more established players returning from injuries now, the likes of Lisandro Martínez, Casemiro, and Harry Maguire, they have an opportunity to give them valuable minutes as they step up their recovery from said injuries.
These players, whether as starters or as substitutes, can be a source of guidance on the pitch for the younger players who will be eager to make their mark and show Erik ten Hag just what they are capable of. Maguire was United’s club captain for over three years, and Casemiro is a known leader who possesses a very in-depth understanding of football. Their presence can provide a stronger platform for those taking their baby steps in men’s football.
If United were to go out with a full-strength XI in South Wales, then barring exceptional circumstances they would win the game comfortably, but it would go down as a wasted opportunity for them, missing the chance to potentially both speed up the recovery of key senior players and develop youngsters who in two years’ time could be first teamers.
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