Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already shown himself to be a manager who can see the long-term goal through the clouds of a club like Manchester United’s short-term aim.
The immediate aim for United is winning trophies, particularly the Premier League, which looks set to be absent from Old Trafford for the eighth successive season.
But Solskjaer has plans for his legacy at United to be measured by more than just silverware and he’s not been afraid to give youth an opportunity at the club.
Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood have become regulars in the first-team squad on his watch and there have been countless more debuts, with Axel Tuanzebe and Dean Henderson both getting opportunities this season.
Solskjaer is attuned to what is going another underneath the first-team at United and twice over the previous two weekends he’s referenced results at Under-23 level when speaking to the media.
A week ago it was Joe Hugill’s decision to pass up a penalty to score his fifth goal in the 6-2 win for Neil Wood’s side against Liverpool, on Saturday he referenced the spirit and enterprise with which the Under-23s had shown in racking up another half-dozen goals in beating Blackburn 6-4 on Friday night.
That’s now 93 goals in 18 games for the Under-23s this season, at a mind-boggling average of 5.1 goals a game, and while they haven’t all gone in at the right end it’s a sign of the attacking talent that is catching the eye in United’s academy.
The way Wood’s side plays might be making it difficult for defenders to catch the eye, but the attacking players are getting plenty of opportunities to shine.
That swashbuckling attacking style and some of the football being produced by players who are still eligible for the Under-18s is why many United fans are now perusing the Under-23s fixture list with as much intent and interest as the games ahead for Solskjaer’s team.
On Friday night one clip of the irrepressible Hannibal Mejbri and the £37million winger Amad playing keep ball in the closing stages at Leigh Sports Village went viral and it showed the confidence of youth and the panache with which these teenagers are playing, the pair toying with Blackburn Rovers after edging a share of 10 goals in the game.
Those entertaining wins against Liverpool and Blackburn have garnered more attention due to the first appearances for Amad since the 18-year-old completed his move from Atalanta on the evidence of two goals and three assists in 180 minutes his time with Wood’s team might be short-lived. He trains with the first-team and he will surely soon be playing with the first-team.
But there are others who continue to thrill for the development side. Hugill, mentioned by Solskjaer a week ago, has nine goals in 870 minutes and is still only 17. Shola Shoretire, also 17, has five goals and three assists in five games and is set to train with the senior squad for the first time soon.
Winger Anthony Elanga, 19, has also caught the eye with eight goals in 16 games and some dazzling displays in the EFL Trophy, while 18-year-old attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri is easy to spot with ‘Sideshow Bob’ haircut, as Leeds fans taunted in the Youth Cup a year ago, but it’s his football that stands out as much as his locks.
These players won’t find live quite as easy when they make the step-up and Solskjaer will know they have to be handled with care. Training with the first-team this season can mean limited exposure to the Under-23s as well due to bubble life at a football club. Amad’s only mixing with his colleagues at this level is on the pitch, he doesn’t train with them and as a result can’t travel with them.
Solskjaer will know he has to make sure the pathway is there for all of them, however. Youngsters at United will always feel emboldened that this is a club where they will get a chance and the way Greenwood has become a regular will encourage them.
But as United edge closer to a return to challenging for titles the temptation will be to spend big on going to the next level. That has to be balanced with making sure Hannibal, Amad, Hugill, Shoretire, Elanga and the rest can still see a road map that will take them to the first-team at Old Trafford.
Many of them will be involved again this Friday when they host Arsenal in Premier League 2 at Leigh Sports Village. We know Solskjaer will be watching and as excitement grows around this crop of youngsters he won’t be the only one.