Let’s take a closer look at Ethan Laird, one of the most talented teenagers on Manchester United’s books.
A Modern Fullback
From a physical standpoint, Ethan Laird has it all. He effectively uses both his speed and athleticism to push forward from right-back to provide an attacking threat down the wing. That’s really his calling card — bombing forward with the ball, taking on backpedaling defenders, and either getting to the end-line for a cross into the box or cutting inside for a shot or pass.
Laird delivers accurate crosses, but also shows a sharp eye for a cutback pass to onrushing teammates. It’s no surprise that he racks up a lot of assists. While Laird is undoubtedly weaker with his left foot, he’s got plenty of moves and wrinkles that keep defenses off balance.
On the defensive side — he is still a fullback, after all — Laird looks perfectly serviceable. He’s fast enough to recover if caught upfield after an attack, an aggressive tackler, and provides the versatility to flex over to center-back or left-back if needed. Sure, there’s room for improvement, but Laird is no pushover in the defensive end.
Laird lit up the U18s, scoring two goals with eight assists, in an injury-shortened 2018/19 season. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury in the UEFA Youth League derailed what might have been his breakout campaign.
This season, the 18-year-old jumped up to the U23s and didn’t miss a beat. He recorded three assists in ten Premier League 2 appearances, showing that his attacking threat plays at all levels. Laird will also go into the Manchester United history books as the club’s first goalscorer in the EFL Trophy, notching the opener in the 2-0 win over Rotherham United.
Laird’s academy success did not go unnoticed. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called the teenager up to the first team for two Europa League matches — including his full debut in November at FC Astana.
Laird’s biggest problem is that he just can’t stay healthy. After missing almost all of the second half of last season with injury, he again struggled with fitness in 2019/20. Laird missed two months in the fall and then suffered another injury in January that effectively ended his season. That much missed time takes a toll on a player’s development.
It wasn’t too long ago that many academy observers rated Laird higher than Brandon Williams. But while Williams stayed healthy and broke into the Manchester United first team, Laird could only watch from the rehab room. Injuries can derail even the most promising careers, so Laird must improve in this area.
Manchester United, though, aren’t even close to giving up on the talented teenager. In February, the club signed Laird to a new contract that will keep him a Red until at least 2023.
In His Own Words
After his goal-scoring performance in the EFL Trophy, Laird spoke to ManUtd.com about putting his injuries behind him.
On getting back onto the pitch in 2019/20:
This season is definitely my comeback season. I’m looking for great things this season. Obviously, it’s good to start it off with a goal and it’s a brilliant feeling for me and the team as well.
On his physical development:
I’m growing, I would say. I like to say the time I had out really helped me physically. Unfortunately, I was out of football but there was other stuff to work on, except for the football, like my body. I want to get to the next step, which is the first team, and be able to cope at that level. Definitely something I’ve learned [against Rotherham] was the back-post position. Sometimes, they have two or three crowding you and you need to make it hard for them.
Logjam at Right-Back
Injuries aside, another reason Laird might struggle to break into the Manchester United first team is the crowd ahead of him at right-back. The club splashed a lot of money on Aaron Wan-Bissaka last summer — a move that certainly contributed to United’s dramatic defensive improvement. Diogo Dalot and Timothy Fosu-Mensah also stand in front of Laird in the first-team right-back pecking order. At least Ashley Young is gone.
While AWB seems to have a stranglehold on the position for the foreseeable future, Laird poses an intriguing alternative. Where Wan-Bissaka locks down attackers but still struggles to push forward and create chances, Laird is just the opposite. Even if AWB can’t be unseated, Laird could at least provide a complementary skillset from the bench.
The bigger question over Laird’s immediate future lies with Dalot. Will the Portuguese youngster go out on loan next season — or maybe even be sold? There’s been reported interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham Hotspur. The latter, obviously, would be a natural fit as José Mourinho brought his countryman to Old Trafford in the first place. If Dalot remains at United, though, it’s tough to see Laird getting much of a chance.
Of course, this all depends on Laird staying healthy. He’s got the natural talent to give AWB a run for his money at right-back, but enough red flags (mostly health-related) to keep his hype in check.
Diogo Dalot won't challenge Aaron Wan-Bissaka because he's not THAT much better offensively to mask for the significant gap defensively.— ً (@utdrobbo) April 23, 2020
Ethan Laird, however, has contributed goals from left AND right back for #mufc's reserves whilst starting at centre half for England youth. pic.twitter.com/8MSI2p3quQ