Manchester United have the most revered academy in English football. Their success dates all the way back to Jimmy Williams and his building of the Busby Babes. Statistically, it’s the most successful academy in England.
“We may not turn you into a Manchester United player but we’ll turn you in to a Premier League player.” I may be paraphrasing there but that quote was uttered by Daniel Mann while commenting on a Manchester United match back in 2012 in reference to Sir Alex Ferguson discussing United’s academy.
At the time, United had a bustling academy. It was routine for a random academy player to pop up off the bench not just in the League Cup, but in a random Premier League or Champions League match too. Players like Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard were leading the reserve team to league titles in 2010 and 2012. Even more were going out on loan, and many were being signed to permanent deals at Premier League clubs at the bottom of the table.
Players like Robbie Brady, Ryan Shawcross, Craig Cathcart, Phil Bardsley, Danny Drinkwater, Danny Simpson, Ritchie de Laet, Tom Heaton, and Kieran Richardson all found homes on Premier League teams. Josh King eventually did too. If you watched a match between two clubs in the bottom half earlier this decade odds are you would see a graduate from the Manchester United academy.
The problem is five years later, the list of academy graduates populating the Premier League is basically the same. There was a moment of hope when Louis van Gaal began promoting youth into the first team but where are they now? Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is on loan at Tranmere and will likely be released next summer. The same goes for Timothy Fosu-Mensah. James Wilson ended up in Scotland and Will Keane and Paddy McNair are playing in League One, not even on the radars of clubs in the Championship.
When the Glazers took over, investment into the academy seemed to stop. Scouts were only working part time and the facilities were antiquated. When Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, the academy seemed to lose its identity. When the Head of the Academy, Brian McClair, left in 2015 it took United an entire year to name Nicky Butt as a replacement. It was only this past summer when Butt was named Head of First Team Development.
When Abu Dhabi took over Manchester City all the headlines focused on how much money they were willing to spend in the transfer market. Quietly though, they were investing everywhere, including building a brand new state-of-the-art £200 million academy. In just a few short years, United was no longer the desired place to go for local youth players.
Today, all the stories focus on the Glazers’ lack of investment into the club. The narrative has been that they won’t invest enough in the first team but that’s not true.
In the past six years United have spent (about) £622.15 million in the transfer market on first team players. That’s just on transfer fees (before agent fees, wages, and all the other expenses). That’s a 171 percent increase on the £229.75 million they spent in the six years before that.
Obviously there’s far more inflation in the market today then there was a decade ago, but in the same six year timeframe only Manchester City (£851.90m) and Chelsea (£728.30m) have spent more than United. Fans are just misusing the word “lack” when they really mean “bad.”
The difference is that in the same time, City have recouped £228.35m in transfer fees, while Chelsea have made a whopping £533.29m in player sales.
Where that money has come from is exactly where the Glazer’s didn’t invest, and it’s exactly what’s preventing Manchester United from competing right now. The academy.
Chelsea and Manchester City are famous, and mocked, for having their “loan armies.” Battalions of young players who get shipped out every year, more likely to command a transfer fee than ever play a first team game for the club.
United used to have exactly that. In 2010, Manchester United’s academy won the reserve league and the U18 Premier League. They also had 18 players sent out on loan.
In an FFP world buying players for your academy, and being able to sell them, is a vital way to make money. This summer City spent about £8 million to sign 11 players to their academy. They made £13.2 million in sales just from the academy. They let 19 academy players leave on free transfers but that seems worth it to me.
Manchester United used to do this. For all the Valencias, Youngs Berbatovs, and Van Persies they signed, transfer windows were often filled with players like Mame Biram Diouf, Angelo Henriquez, Nick Powell, Zoran Tosić, and Marnick Vermijl. Players who weren’t signed for right now, but signed for their potential.
That’s no longer the case at Old Trafford. Diogo Dalot may not have been signed to be a first teamer last season, but he wasn’t signed for the academy. It was only this past summer that United made headlines by signing 16 year olds Mateo Mejia and Hannibal Mejbri. Prior to that the last (announced) academy signing was in 2014 when Louis van Gaal signed Reagan Poole.
Statistically speaking, most academy players aren’t going to make it. That’s fine. But under Sir Alex Ferguson it was common for a player to pop up and contribute a few times. Occasionally they were good enough to stick around for a few years. Sometimes they made big contributions (Federico Macheda) but ended up amounting to nothing.
The disarray of the early decade set United’s academy back by years and is now starting to rear its ugly head with the first team.
To put it simply, in the middle part of this decade United’s academy wasn’t producing good players. Full stop. This culminated in 2018 when United’s U23s finished dead last in Premier League 2 and were relegated.
Normally having your reserve team get relegated wouldn’t be a reason for concern since the best players are often either out on loan or with the first team. But that was José Mourinho’s second season and only one player — Scott McTominay — was promoted from the U23s to the first team. United did have 13 players out on loan, albeit eight of those 13 were only for half a season.
Those numbers may be enough to brush it all away, but remember at the beginning of the decade United were dominating this league and that’s with more players out on loan and far more routinely getting called up to the first team. Not winning the reserve league would be nothing to bat an eye at, getting relegated is.
In the past few years, only Scott McTominay has fully broken in to the first team (with Axel Tuanzebe to follow). Even that hasn’t been perfect. At the academy level, McTominay was more of a number 10. He’s been able to stick around the first team because he’s converting himself to a number 6.
United woke up and recognized the need to revamp their academy in 2016 and Solskjaer correctly pushed to do even more this summer, but it’s going to take years before that starts to bear fruit.
With United cutting ties with several senior players this summer the spotlight falls onto the academy more than ever this year. United have a very thin squad. They’re going to need players from the academy who can step up and contribute this year. It’s very unclear if the academy is ready for it.
At 17 Mason Greenwood is the start of that. He may not be fully ready for the Premier League but he’s already outgrown the academy.
Then there’s Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. I’ve got to be honest, at this juncture I’m not sure if the hype around these guys is because they’re that good or if it’s because they’re the best our academy has right now.
The problem isn’t that United’s four best prospects right now are Greenwood (17), Chong (19), Gomes (19), and James Garner (17), it’s that there is literally no one in the 20-23 year-old range that they can call on.
That all comes from the Glazers’ and Woodward’s neglect of the academy in the middle part of the decade. Spending lavish amounts of money on the wrong players was bad. Letting the academy sit and rot for years is worse, and that will make this rebuild all the more difficult.