A group like the Busby Babes or Class of ‘92 doesn’t come around every year. But, even with properly-adjusted expectations, the Manchester United academy had a pretty rough run during the 2010s. With Marcus Rashford the one outstanding exception, the Reds got very little from their youth ranks for nearly a decade.
Since Nicky Butt took over the academy in 2016, though, the club has put its financial strength to good advantage in rebuilding its young talent base. Supporters love cheering on hometown boys, but restoring United’s academy to its world-class best took a lot more than just scooping up the best local talent.
Butt and Nick Cox (who now runs the academy) implemented an aggressive strategy of outspending the competition to restock the youth cupboard. Considering Manchester United remain one of the richest clubs in the world, it’s a pretty smart plan. The most important aspect of this overhaul has seen United poach top prospects from other European giants.
No signing better exemplifies this approach than Hannibal Mejbri. After a falling out at Monaco cracked the door open, Manchester United quickly swooped in to snatch one of the top young talents in world football. Lots of other elite clubs were hot on United’s heels for Mejbri, but a huge transfer fee (which could reportedly reach £9 million) put the Reds over the top. You don’t see prices like that for academy prospects very often.
United paying Monaco about £9.4m for 16-year-old midfielder Hannibal Mejbri. Competition from Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Leicester but he's chosen Old Trafford. They're very excited about him.— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonESPN) August 11, 2019
And Manchester United didn’t stop there. Smaller fees were paid for Dillon Hoogewerf (Ajax), Noam Emeran (SC Amiens), Mateo Mejia (Real Zaragoza), and Bjorn Hardley (NAC Breda). While these transfers typically fly under the radar, they hold the promise of great profitability.
If Emeran or Hoogewerf — or even the high-priced Mejbri — develops into a first teamer, that initial fee looks like peanuts. And, even if they don’t pan out, these signings raise the profile of the Manchester United academy and pave the way for similar moves in the future. Talent attracts talent at any level. In the academy, especially, it’s a numbers game. The more world-class prospects who come in, the more future stars should come out.
Ahead of 2020/21, United are already off to a good start. 16-year-old Czech goalkeeper Radek Vitek has already been signed and persistent rumors strongly link both Marc Jurado (Barcelona) and Joe Hugill (Sunderland) as practically done deals.
For young players, Manchester United offer both prestige and opportunity. Pulling on that red shirt — whether in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford or on a rainy weeknight in Premier League 2 — still means something. Even after years of subpar results at both senior and youth levels, United have the cachet to make any player’s shortlist. After all, if the Marc Jurado talk pans out, they just plucked a coveted prospect out of La Masia. Impressive.
The chance for rapid advancement doesn’t hurt, either. Both the U18s and U23s routinely feature players far younger than the competition. That might not be ideal in terms of on-pitch results, but it allows extraordinary players to develop at their own pace — no matter how fast. Just look at how Mason Greenwood zipped through the youth ranks and into the first team. As Sir Matt said, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
In other news, Manchester United triggered a one-year option in Luca Ercolani’s contract that will keep the 20-year-old center back at the club until 2021. It’s a rare bright spot in a pretty gloomy year for Ercolani, who suffered a severe knee injury in September that ended his season. If healthy, Ercolani should be a regular starter for the U23s in 2020/21.