It hasn’t yet happened this season, largely due to the size of Manchester United’s bloated squad and the circumstances surrounding this unique season. But you feel it will happen soon.
We are now well into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s third season ‘at the wheel’ of United and in each of the previous two, there was an academy breakthrough of serious note.
After being appointed in December 2018, Solskjaer reinstated academy products like Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira to the side. When injuries struck, he was unafraid to throw Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes into the mix. He even found time to hand senior debuts to Chong, Mason Greenwood and James Garner within the space of a few months.
Last season, Solskjaer really felt this United team was his own and was compelled to promote Greenwood to a regular first team role with stunning success, as the teenager plundered 17 senior goals in his first proper season.
There was also an unexpected breakthrough for Brandon Williams, cementing himself as an excellent full-back option for the first team after Ashley Young’s departure. Axel Tuanzebe would have played more often, had it not been for injuries. Ethan Laird and Teden Mengi were also handed debuts, as were the raft of youngsters who appeared for United in that Europa League game against Astana, almost exactly a year ago. See Dylan Levitt, D’mani Mellor, Ethan Galbraith and Di’Shon Bernard.
And although this season started later than usual, it’s odd that we are now nearly into December and Solskjaer hasn’t yet promoted another youngster from within. Mengi, you suspect, will get his chance and is still very young, at 18, for a burgeoning centre-back.
Galbraith featured in midfield alongside Donny van de Beek in United’s only pre-season game, against Aston Villa, before the season started. But then the midfield cavalry returned from their various international outposts, leaving the Northern Irishman’s chances slim.
Now, if you asked insiders at United’s training ground to bank on one youngster making the leap to the first team this season, they would surely say one name: Anthony Elanga.
The Swedish-born forward won the prestigious Jimmy Murphy young player of the year award last season, previously won by Rashford, Greenwood and academy greats like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. That reflects the esteem in which he is held at the club, though it’s fair to say this season Elanga has already kicked on and is performing essential duties for the Under-23s. He’s only 18, but he is now a key player at that level.
Shorn of centre-forward options after Mellor suffered a season-ending injury and Elanga, more comfortable out wide, has been asked to play as No.9 more often than not for United.
He’s done a fine job leading the line, scoring twice and laying on two assists. But for the Under-21s at Morecambe on Wednesday night manager Neil Wood gave new signing Joe Hugill a chance down the middle and brought Elanga on, after an hour, to play as an advanced right wing-back.
Wood told MEN Sport: “We changed it towards the end, to a flat four across the front to try and get more attacking prowess up there and I thought Anthony came on and added a bit to our attack. It’s a difficult one to break down.
“We went to three at the back and they were comfortable with the little formation changes.”
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United entered the international break by winning what was arguably their most important match of the season at Everton on Saturday.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat the Toffees thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
United have a two-week break with many of their stars heading off on international duty – we’ll be keeping tabs on how they all perform, and on preparations for their next Premier League match against West Brom.
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Although United could not claw back the 4-0 deficit they faced that night at Morecambe, Wood was right to praise Elanga for his adaptability.
At youth level, players must be versatile enough to take their chances whenever they come in the first team and in whatever position they come. Williams proved that at left-back, despite being right-footed. Greenwood has played out wide rather than in his preferred central sport.
Elanga has the pace to play on either flank and his delivery is good. He’s now given an indication that he could play as a wing-back, too.
United’s first team are crying out for someone with pace to fill the right wing spot. It’s not an exaggeration to say Elanga could do the job, but he’s now proven there is more to his game as well.