Looking back at the 2018/19 Manchester United youth season reveals a project in far better shape than in the pre-Nicky Butt era. There’s still plenty of work ahead, but the first shoots of progress are finally starting to push through. One look at the first team lineup last weekend against Cardiff City made that quite clear.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fielded a front six entirely composed of academy graduates, including Mason Greenwood, the system’s undoubted crown jewel. He stepped right into the starting eleven and easily ranked as United’s top performer. Not bad for a 17-year-old.
While the season ended trophy-less for the United academy, success stories like Greenwood more than make up for it. Player development, not the final score, is the name of the game at this level.
After the disappointment of relegation to the second division of Premier League 2, Ricky Sbragia’s side spent most of the season in contention for an immediate bounce back. But, much like the senior team, they faded down the stretch and finished sixth. Players like Ethan Hamilton (Rochdale) and Zak Dearnley (Oldham Athletic) left on loan, disrupting the group’s rhythm and forcing some U18s into the lineup as replacements.
Tahith Chong finished the season tied with Angel Gomes as the team’s top scorer (6) and won the Reserve Team Player of the Year award. Mason Greenwood, too, made an impact. Despite playing far above his age level, Greenwood announced his arrival with a debut goal against Wolves in October.
The U23s qualified for the Premier League International Cup knockout round with a huge 3-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain U23s (with Scott McTominay lending a helping hand), before losing to Reading in the quarterfinal.
Nicky Butt’s U19s won their qualifying group in the UEFA Youth League for the first time in club history. And they did it pretty easily, taking five wins from six against Juventus, Valencia, and Young Boys. That earned the Reds a trip to FC Midtjylland in the knockout round, where they fell 3-1 to their Danish hosts.
All in all, though, it was a successful competition for the U19s. Players like Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes, James Garner, Lee O’Connor, Aliou Traore, Nishan Burkart, and Mason Greenwood all received valuable European experience that should stand them in good stead in the years to come.
Manager Neil Ryan doesn’t seem too bothered by his side’s fourth place finish in the U18 Premier League. “I don’t get too caught up with looking at the league too much,” he explained. “We get asked about it, so you can’t hide from it. But I don’t get too caught up with that.”
And, considering his success in developing the next wave of United stars, that nonchalance makes a lot of sense. More than a few times, Ryan’s standouts missed U18 matches because they were training with the first team squad. That might hurt U18 results, but is priceless experience for the club’s hottest prospects.
Mason Greenwood won the Youth Team Player of the Year award after netting 30 goals across all levels of the youth setup. At U18, he scored 15 goals in only 13 matches. To cap off his amazing season, the youngster dazzled Old Trafford last weekend in his first Premier League start, posing a constant threat in attack.
Remarkably, he’s still eligible to play for the U18s next season. Hopefully, though, Greenwood will be with the first team full-time in 2019/20. He proved against Cardiff that he’s ready for the big time.
Dylan Levitt was also nominated for the Youth POY award after a strong season in midfield. He’s off to the U23s next year.
The U18s earned the academy’s best win of the season by knocking Chelsea out of the FA Youth Cup. That 4-3 thriller ended Chelsea’s reign of terror in the competition after five consecutive Youth Cup titles. Unfortunately, United bowed out to Brighton & Hove Albion in the following round.