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The Great Red Debate: How should Mourinho handle Manchester United’s youngsters?

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In this week’s Great Red Debate, Ryan and Jack discuss what José Mourinho should do with Manchester United’s high-profile youngsters. Who should be kept, who should be loaned, and who should be sold? Here’s our take.

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Ryan: Much has been made of José Mourinho’s record of developing young players. The accusation that he has failed to fully utilise talented youngsters is one that has been levelled at the Portuguese coach throughout his career.

And it is one that seems to irk Mourinho, evidenced by, during his first press conference as United manager, the production of a list containing the names of 49 young players he’d given debuts to over the years.

In the view of many fans, his alleged mistrust of youth was one of the major caveats of Mourinho’s appointment as successor to Louis van Gaal.

The Red Devils have a proud history of developing young prospects into first-team stars: from the Busby Babes through to Fergie’s Fledglings.

And Mourinho’s stewardship of the club’s current crop of up-and-comers is a cause of consternation for many, as multiple media reports over the last week have suggested that several academy graduates are to be made available for loan or sale.

So, in an ideal world, what should Mourinho do with United’s better-known young players? Who should stay, who should be loaned out to gain experience, and who should be sold?

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Jack: I think that there are a few players we’ve seen regularly enough to know they’re probably not good enough. Tyler Blackett is one, Will Keane is another, and I confess, I stand in opposition to many United supporters when I say I’m not convinced James Wilson will ever make the grade either. These players are what Donald Rumsfeld would refer to as the known-knowns, and I wouldn’t be too upset to see them leave.

However, then there are the known-unknowns: players we’ve seen plenty of but aren’t yet sure of their ceiling. Paddy McNair, Adnan Januzaj, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are probably in this category. And finally, a group most closely approximating the unknown-unknowns: Andreas Pereira and Axel Tuanzebe sit here, as we’ve heard they’re probably quite good, but we can’t be sure that they’re really very good, because their first-team game time has been so severely limited.

And so, having thoroughly confused everyone (including myself) in the fine tradition of a member of the Bush administration, I’ll simplify things: we should sell the known-knowns, and loan the known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. Easy!

Ryan: I’m with you (I think). I think we’ve seen enough of Blackett and Keane to be pretty sure that they are not of the requisite quality to make the grade at Old Trafford. And Wilson certainly tiptoes along that borderline too. I wouldn’t object to any of them being sold, for their own sake as much as anything.

I think Sam Johnstone is in that category too. He’s a perfectly serviceable young goalkeeper, but, at 23, it’s time for him to find first-team football — in truth, it was probably time a year or two ago.

We’ve discussed the tricky topic of what to do with Adnan Januzaj in a previous Great Red Debate, and it seems clear that Marcus Rashford and, after some media confusion, Timothy Fosu-Mensah will be part of the first-team squad this season.

But the others all fall into the category of needing regular games at a level higher than the under-21 league in order to develop — with the possible exception of Tuanzebe who is still only 18, and could remain in the under-21s with the occasional League Cup outing for the senior side.

So I think, as you pointed out, loaning the likes of Pereira, Borthwick-Jackson and McNair out would probably be the best option, provided, as we discussed in the Januzay GRD, that the right club can be found.

One interesting option for the players who straddle the line between known-unknown and unknown-unknown, as you put it, could be the increasingly popular sale with a buyback option.

These deals are prevalent in Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona have exercised their options to re-sign Alvaro Morata and Denis Suárez respectively this summer, both at below market value.

Do you think that could work for players like Wilson or maybe McNair?

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Jack: I think that should be considered as a possibility. These sorts of deals seem much more common on the continent than in England, though I must admit, I’m not sure why that is.

I think for players who are considered elite talents — like Pereira, for example — we should try to steer clear of selling, as the downside is clearly that we lose control of their development, making a first-team transition in the event of a buyback a little less seamless. However, for the likes of Wilson and McNair, who look unlikely to make the grade, this is probably the perfect solution.

Ryan: With Rashford and Fosu-Mensah set to stick around with the senior squad, and rightly so, how do you think their game-time should be managed this season?

Jack: It’s a good question. Ideally they’d both be playing as regularly as possible, though heading into the season it is clear that they’re not going to be in José Mourinho’s strongest line-up. As a result, I think we’ll have to hope that they’re given minutes in the Europa League and the domestic cups — the sum total of which should be more than enough to avoid stifling their development.

Though we’re all more than aware that Mourinho is always desperate to win, it’s probably safe to assume he’s not really all that bothered about the Europa League. As a result, we can hope for quite significant experimentation in those matches, including any of the aforementioned who don’t end up departing on loan.

Ryan: I think it would be fine for both to be first deputy to the more senior players in their position. A lot has been made of how Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming in will push Rashford down the pecking order, but he’s 18 and has only been playing senior football since the end of February. To expect him to play 50 games next season would be too great a burden, and inevitably lead to the dreaded burn-out; the same goes for Fosu-Mensah.

With three domestic cup competitions and the Europea League, there will be plenty of opportunities for both to rack up over 30 appearances with 20-plus starts next season — more if another injury crisis hits.

The fear is that they will become forever seen as back-up players and never make the leap into becoming first-choice starters, but I think that, with time, both will make themselves virtually undroppable.

For now though, the role of able-deputy-cum-impact-substitute will suit both and probably be the best solution for their long-term prospects.

Jack: Yep, I completely agree. I think if there’s one thing that we’ve learned from Louis van Gaal’s tenure, it’s that we shouldn’t be scared of having to play youngsters. It’s certainly true that last season we were a little too reliant on the reserve team when injuries started to build up, though now it seems the squad’s balance is a little better, enabling us to pick and choose when best to give them a chance. Who knows how many Rashfords may yet be lurking among United’s youth?