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Trial by fire: Youngsters Erik ten Hag may rely on in his first season

With few options off the bench after a summer full of departures, these five youngsters could very well see significant playing time under Erik ten Hag

Manchester United v Borussia Dortmund: Round Of Sixteen - UEFA Youth League Photo by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

Manchester United proudly boasts a rich history of promoting youth players into the first team and selecting academy graduates in the squad for each match. With a senior team that has only seen three new additions to a squad that has lost six players this summer transfer window, manager Erik ten Hag may very well look to academy graduates this season to fill the void in United’s slim squad depth across the pitch.

After having a preseason to assess the current squad, here are four academy graduates that could play significant minutes, and shine, in ten Hag’s system during the 2022-23 season.

Zidane Iqbal:

Manchester United v Aston Villa - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

If you hadn’t heard of this youngster’s name before this summer, you probably have now after he caught the attention of United fans worldwide during the summer tour. Despite only having one senior appearance to his name—a one-minute cameo in last December’s 1-1 draw to BSC Young Boys in the UEFA Champions League—prior to preseason, Iqbal played significant minutes under ten Hag in United’s five

The midfielder, who joined United’s academy at the age of eight, mainly featured as a No. 8 alongside fellow academy graduate Charlie Savage, and displayed how he can dictate the game with a simple, intelligent, and elegant style of football that isn't seen in United’s starting midfield duo of Scott McTominay and Fred.

Take a look at the highlights below from Iqbal’s performance in United’s 4-0 win against Liverpool in Bangkok, Thailand, where he caught the eyes of fans against a veteran midfield three. (Highlight: at the 0:50 mark, notice how Iqbal spins off of Fabinho to lose his marker and then immediate dribbles through Liverpool’s midfield with pace to try to start the attack.)

It would also be criminal not to include this roulette that the 19-year-old did to split two Melbourne Victory players and get into space to send a cross into the box.

Following the departures Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard (all players who could play in a similar role as Iqbal), ten Hag is left with slim midfield to choose from this season. It seems as if McTominay and Fred will likely be the starting midfield pair behind Bruno Fernandes to kick off the season this weekend, and it is still unclear what role Christian Eriksen will have in the squad.

With Donny van de Beek and Eriksen as the only concrete midfielders available from the bench at this moment, as it’s also unclear whether academy graduate James Garner will go out on loan for a second season, Iqbal could very well see significant first team football under ten Hag. There will be a number of cup competitions for the 19-year-old to feature in, and he could play in in the league as well as the Premier League begins to allow teams to make five substitutions this season.

It’s worth noting that Iqbal has already played two matches internationally for Iraq’s national team, so he has played a bit more senior football than most of his teammates his age in the United squad. Yes, he’s just at the beginning of his career and still needs time to develop, but he has a level of maturity in his game that makes you sometimes forget he’s only 19 years old, which could very well benefit his performances if he receives minutes with the first team this season.

After shining in preseason, Iqbal admitted in an interview with MUTV that his goal for the season is to continue to sharpen his game and play first team football, whether it’s for United or on loan.

“As long as I keep moving forward and improving myself, it will be a good season,” Iqbal said.

Charlie Savage:

Liverpool v Manchester United - Preseason Friendly Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

It’s almost impossible to mention Zidane Iqbal in a sentence without speaking about his midfield partner, Charlie Savage. They've had an almost identical career at United, as both joined the club at the age of eight, played in every age group together, signed their professional contracts together, and made their first team debuts together.

Now, at the age of 19, both are starring in the squad and making their breakthroughs into the first team together.

The son of former professional footballer Robbie Savage, who rose through the academy and into United’s first team as a member of the iconic “Class of ‘92,” Charlie Savage featured regularly alongside Iqbal in the preseason tour as a defensive midfielder. He’s comfortable dropping back to receive the ball from the back line, turning, and distributing it up the field with his impressive passing range. He’s strong on and off the ball despite his size, and he isn’t afraid to put in a challenge.

A standout aspect of his game is how he plays simply and calmly with few touches and his head on a swivel at all times. After making a pass, his first instinct is always to move into an area to give his teammate an option, and he covers the areas left by centre-backs in the back four when they drive forward with the ball.

Here’s a look at his performance in United’s 4-1 win against Melbourne Victory on July 15, which many fans considered Savage’s standout game on the tour.

After the duo received much praise from fans this preseason, Savage explained his chemistry with Iqbal in an interview with MUTV.

“People like to see me and Zidane linking up,” Savage said. “I think we’ve got that connection from when we were younger because obviously we’ve played together for so many years. We understand what each other can do, and I think we complement each other very well.”

The midfield pair even received public support from Bruno Fernandes in one of his tour vlogs for Manchester United’s YouTube channel.

“Obviously you play really well,” Fernandes said. “We’re still expecting more from you guys, and I hope that you keep enjoying and improving with us.”

With the tour behind him now, Savage said his sights are on improving, impressing ten Hag, and earning minutes in the first team.

“Every day we’re trying to impress him, and hopefully we’ve done that,” Savage said. “There’s a long way to go. There’s a few cup competitions, so maybe a few [young] players might play then, but even if we don’t play the rest of the season, to come here [on the tour] has been amazing.”

There have been reports on Wednesday stating that multiple clubs from the EFL Championship and League One are interested in securing the midfielder on a season-long loan. However, is future is yet to be decided.

United has two extremely technical midfielders in Iqbal and Savage with a wide passing ride that can control play despite their young age. Some fans even went as far as to say they’re as good as, or even better than, McTominay and Fred. Nevertheless, with the aforementioned lack of midfield depth in the squad, especially at defensive midfield with the departure of Nemanja Matic to AS Roma earlier this summer, Savage could soon earn minutes in the first team with a long season full of many matches to be played.

Alejandro Garnacho:

Manchester United v Rayo Vallecano - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

If you’ve watched United over the last year, then you’ve surely seen and heard of Alejandro Garnacho. The Argentinian sensation broke onto the scene last season and was the face of the academy as he impressed at the Under-18 and Under-23 levels, which led to playing time in the first team with Cristiano Ronaldo and a call up to the Argentinian national team alongside Lionel Messi.

He’s the full package that any manager could hope for in a forward. The right-footed left winger oozes confidence and shines at doing just about everything needed from him. His stunning pace, strength, technical ability, and finishing ability make him difficult to defend and exciting for fans, and he is also lethal from set pieces.

The forward split time last season playing for the Under-18s and Under-23s and scored 15 goals and providing six assists in 33 matches. He was the key piece of U-18 side that won the FA Youth Cup at Old Trafford in May, scoring a stunning brace to secure the 3-1 victory over Nottingham Forest.

He went on to make two appearances with the first team last season in the Premier League, playing a total of 11 minutes.

Garnacho was on the preseason tour but didn’t play a single game out of the four matches. However, ten Hag gave him the nod to start in United’s 1-1 draw against Ray Vallecano at Old Trafford last Sunday, and the 17-year-old took his opportunity to shine. Garnacho was the standout on the team as he soared down the left wing with his impressive pace and took on Vallecano’s defenders one-on-one to try to create chances in the final third.

He was so exciting to watch that even I couldn’t stop tweeting about him.

Ten Hag was also full of praise for the winger after his performance last weekend.

“What you want is also a young player who deserves a chance,” ten Hag said in an interview with the club. “We want to give them that chance, and he shows himself during pre-season [training] and that is why he came on [started]. He played pretty well, and that’s hopeful. He is just a teenager, but his performance was really good.”

Journalist Fabrizio Romano reported in June that United is working on a five-year contract for the teenager, and he provided an update this week stating that ten Hag has approved the contract and is “so happy with Alejandro Garnacho.”

With Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard gone from the club and Cristiano Ronaldo’s future up in the air, ten Hag only has youngsters to choose from to replace starters Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford from off the bench. As the season progresses, Garnacho will surely see more and more playing time up top with those players.

If any of the starting three forwards picks up an injury or Garnacho takes his chances in training and in matches to impress ten Hag, United fans could very well see the left winger earn minutes as a starter as well.

Hannibal Mejbri:

Manchester United v Aston Villa - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

One of United’s best-known academy products, Hannibal Mejbri is a player that United fans have been excited about for the last year or so. The attacking midfielder had already featured in a couple first-team matches prior to ten Hag’s arrival after impressing former interim manager Ralf Rangnick, and he has only continued to impress the new manager.

After not appearing in United’s first two preseason matches, the Tunisian midfielder came on in the 66th minute in the team’s 3-1 win against Crystal Palace after convincing ten Hag in training that he deserved to play.

“Hannibal plays some minutes now,” ten Hag said in an interview with club media. “I think he did quite well in training as well. He makes a good impression.”

Hannibal is everything a coach looks for in a midfield playmaker. He’s a versatile player who thrives in a possession-based team where he can help dictate the game on the ball and display his top-quality dribbling ability, technical skills, and vision.

The 19-year-old has also featured as a false nine this preseason, as he energetically pressed opposition defenses and tried to create chances for United. He also plays with grit and isn’t afraid to go hard into a challenge and pick up a booking.

The Tunisian international, who has 12 senior caps for his country, has been linked to a loan move to a Championship side, according to Sky Sports. However, Hannibal has his eyes set on a long-term future at Old Trafford.

A move to the Championship would undoubtedly allow the young playmaker to blossom and develop with regular first-team minutes. However, should he chose to stay at United, Hannibal would surely continue to fight for his spot in the squad as he impresses the new manager.

Time will tell how many minutes and matches he will play in United’s first team this season, but the prodigy is, without a doubt, set to become a superstar at Old Trafford as he gets older. The upcoming season features a jam-packed schedule for United, so having Hannibal as an option off the bench in the league or as a starter in cup matches will provide ten Hag’s side with a much needed spark of energy, tenacity, and creativity.

James Garner

Manchester United v Rayo Vallecano - Pre Season Friendly - Old Trafford Photo by Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images

The 21-year-old holding midfielder has excited United fans for the last couple years, especially after a standout loan at Nottingham Forest last season in which he earned a starting spot in the squad and helped them secure promotion to the Premier League. Many supporters hoped that Garner could potentially be the solution to United’s holding midfield issue, but preseason hasn’t gone as planned for the academy graduate.

To the disappointment of many fans, Garner missed United’s first three preseason matches with a slight injury. However, he returned to the lineup in the team’s 2-2 draw to Aston Villa on July 23, replacing van de Beek in the 67th minute, and he came off the bench once again in the 1-0 defeat to Atlético Madrid last Saturday in Oslo, Norway.

Ten Hag rewarded the midfielder with a start in the midfield with Donny van de Beek and Christian Eriksen against Rayo Vallecano last Sunday at Old Trafford. Garner showed the Dutchman and the supporters his qualities to develop into a solid box-to-box or holding midfielder who can contribute to build-up play as well as do the dirty work defensively under the new manager.

Garner will certainly be able to develop his game and flourish under ten Hag in training and if given the opportunity to play regularly should he choose to stay at Old Trafford rather than seek another loan move. If he stays, it will be exciting to see how he performs in a midfield where two of the three starting spots appear to be up for grabs at the moment. For United fans, they’ll be hoping to see the Garner that recorded four goals and eight assists in 44 appearances for Forest last season.