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Do Manchester United have any plan for all their kids?

Manchester United v Wrexham - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag knows exactly which sort of players he wants to bring into his team. That certainly applies to the side’s external signings, which we’ve already seen a few of in his first year in charge, but we’re starting to see it with academy graduates too. You know exactly which academy products ten Hag sees as contributors because he keeps them in and around the first team.

But what about the rest of the young core? Fringe players and graduates from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era who have promise but little in terms of a first team pathway.

What is the plan for these players? I’ve got some thoughts.

Now, before you all rush to say, “I like this player, he just needs another loan” allow me to take the time to remind you the loan system isn’t what it used to be. In 2023 loans are by far more a means of shedding a player’s wages from your books or laying the groundwork for a sale rather than player development.

The managerial lifespan has gotten so short that if a player can’t help you win today, a manager isn’t going to play him. The patience they used to have with loan players doesn’t exist anymore.

Most importantly, clubs aren’t in the business of developing players for other teams. Especially not Premier League clubs. The market has completely changed. Clubs now spend big money on 19, 20, 21 year old players so if you’re not breaking through at a top club, it’s not because of your age. It’s because the manager doesn’t deem you good enough.

In the old days, smaller clubs didn’t have the resources to have too many scouts. They were really limited in how many players they could see. When Sir Alex Ferguson called and said I have a player here who’s good quality they listened, mostly because the net they casted was so small. These days with data and video analysis scouting is much cheaper, and even the small clubs can cast a much wider net.

In that regard, if a club doesn’t think you can help them right now why should they take you on loan and spend time developing you just to send you back to your parent club when they could just go sign their own 20 year old, develop him, and then sell him to a top club for big money two years later?

Remember, United have a reputation for promoting from within. That means anyone good enough isn’t becoming available, so if United are making someone available... you could do the math.

The game has changed. The reality is if you’re going through the loan system your odds of making it at your parent club are down to almost nothing. Look at the squads of the current top six, how many of the players who came up through English clubs went on loan? Sure there’s Harry Kane and Mason Mount, but they are the exceptions, not the norm. The players good enough to play for the top six, typically jump right to the first team.

Let’s get to the current crop of players.

Brandon Williams

I have no idea what’s going on with Williams. He got his breakthrough simply because he wasn’t Ashley Young in 2019 but he was quickly found out. He played five minutes of first team football in 2022-23. The writing on the wall is as clear as can be.

He got minutes on the tour this summer but that’s likely because Tyrell Malacia picked up an injury and couldn’t go. Still, it’s a little weird he got minutes over a prospect like Alvaro Fernandez.

His loan at Norwich during the 2021-22 season didn’t help him much. I don’t think he’s a Premier League fullback but he can certainly play somewhere. It’s weird that no other from anywhere is trying to sign him - unless he’s content sitting on the bench for his boyhood club.

(Post writing time update: Leeds are considering signing Williams. Good for Brandon. Hope it works out).

Hannibal Mejbri

A lot of people love Hannibal and think he’s a star. Then again, everyone on Twitter thinks every United academy kid is going to be a star (remember how much we heard about Ethan Laird?).

I don’t really see it, but Hannibal is a unique case where whether or not he’s a star doesn’t really matter here. Hannibal’s issue is he’s the exact wrong age and coming up at the exact wrong time for a career with Manchester United.

He’s an attacking midfielder. If you had to compare him to one current first team player that player would be Bruno Fernandes. That’s a problem because not only is Bruno not going anywhere anytime soon, but he plays every game. The pathway just isn’t there.

United need a backup for Fernandes, and if they think Hannibal can be a small contributor, he’s a great player to have in the squad for that role. But again, Bruno never misses games. Hannibal’s playing time will be very limited. He certainly wouldn’t be happy with that, and if you do think he can become a star, it won’t happen if he’s sitting on the bench all year.

Hannibal went on loan to the Championship last year where he had a pretty good year with Birmingham City. There’s reports of Luton of trying to bring him on loan but I’m not sure how much that would accomplish? It’s a bit telling that only Luton are interested in him.

If another club thought United were sitting on a gem and didn’t know it, they’d be making shrewd moves to sign him on the cheap. As that’s not happening, United’s best course of action is likely to keep him around, let him work under ten Hag this season, and hope he can contribute as a hard working squad player.

Alvaro Fernandez

Another one that twitter loves. Another one who looked good on loan (but the Championship is not the Premier League) and looked good in preseason (but it’s preseason). Another one where paying attention to everything else gives you more insight than just looking at the player.

Fernandez looked like he’d get an opportunity this summer when Tyrell Malacia picked up an injury and couldn’t travel. Instead, those minutes went to Brandon Williams with Fernadnez only featuring in the glorified academy matches. That’s a pretty good indicator of where ten Hag sees him.

And again, just one year ago United signed a 22 year old left back. That was their ‘left back of the future’ move. They just handed their starting left back - who happens to be one of the best in the world - a new four year contract. Where’s the pathway for Fernandez? The timing for him is just wrong.

Fernandez is unlikely to sign a new contract with United if he’s not playing, You don’t want to lose him on a free. United should sell him now and look to sign a new, 17 year old, Alvaro Fernandez, so in three years when Shaw is on his way out, you’ll have a 20 year old ready to push for his place.

Dean Henderson

When the summer started Henderson looked like United’s most sellable asset. Months later only Nottingham Forest seem to be interested in him and they only seem interested in a loan. As I’m writing this, I’m not entirely convinced he’ll leave.

I guess Deano is learning that you could be an average Premier League goalkeeper and you can be an asshole off the pitch, but it may impact your market if you try and do both.

Amad Diallo

The question with Amad was always about his size. He showed he could play with men last season when he scored 13 goals on loan at Sunderland but again - the Championship isn’t the Premier League.

The question is, what now?

The consensus is a loan to a Premier League club, but it seems clear that’s not going to happen. The thing about players being ready for the Premier League is you’re not ready for it until you are. And there’s no way to know if you’re ready for it until you’re thrown in there. Another loan isn’t going to change things. Given United’s problem’s on the right wing, the time seems right to see if he’s ready.

United also have a lot more invested in Amad than the typical academy player. Due to Brexit regulations he was an academy signing that was signed as a first team player - and because of that his fee rose up to nearly £40 million. Even though he’s only 21, it’d be very difficult for United to recoup that investment if they tried to sell him without proving himself at a higher level of the game.

With all the caveats of ‘it’s just preseason’ Amad looked good in the minutes he got this summer, and it was a big blow when went down with a knee injury against Arsenal. United say the injury isn’t that serious, but it might be enough to keep teams away from coming for him for the remainder of the window... and that might be the best thing to happen to him and United.

Facundo Pellistri

Pellistri’s 10 appearances last season were 10 more than I ever thought he’d make for United, and I’ll also admit he had a much bigger impact than I ever expected.

I just don’t see what the plan is here. Yes Pellistri is a starter for his national team but by now United fans should know that international football and club football are two very different things. It doesn’t always translate. Pellistri is a right footed right winger playing for a coach who prefers to have wingers on their off feet so they could cut inside. Pellistri’s minutes this summer have come on the left wing but that’s just not his game.

What’s the move for Pellistri? Go to the left wing and be behind the star of the team (who just signed a new contract making him one of the highest paid players), the biggest prospect the club currently has, and £77 million Jadon Sancho? Just to play a position that doesn’t suit his game?

Or the alternative. Stay on the right side where you’re behind £80 million Antony and possibly £39 million Amad playing for a coach who prefers to use left footers on the right wing. And if he decides to go with a right footer there, £77 million Jadon Sancho is right there. Not to mention that he still likes to use Bruno Fernandes in that spot too.

There’s a report that ten Hag wants him to join FC Twente on loan but what is that going to do? What’s the plan for Pellistri here? Do United have one?

Do they have a plan for any of these kids?

Even with an optimistic outlook it’s hard to see much of one right now, and that is one of many things that will have to change going forward with such a number of prospects coming into and graduating from the academy.