Watching United’s fleet footed youngsters dance across the pitch at Old Trafford this week was a wonderful reminder of just how fun football can be. But while I mostly allowed myself to be washed over with warm fuzzy feelings and farfetched dreams of the emergence of another United Champions League winning side built around home grown talent, there is a little flicking finger of negativity about the situation that irritates me.
The immediate and positive effect these kids have had (so far at least), has put firmly into focus the complete ineptitude of many of United’s senior players over the past couple of lousy seasons. You can shout “it’s only been a couple of games” at me all you like, but some of these fresh faces have already provided more through their sheer exuberance than many United players have over much longer periods.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has looked composed and elegant at full back which is wonderful to see of course, but gallingly, he already looks the best crosser of a football in the entire squad. Gallingly might be a peculiar word to use here, but I use it more to shame players at United who have offered appalling service from wide areas consistently and seemingly without reproach for years. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia – I’m looking at you two in particular. The teenager’s decision making when choosing the type of delivery for a certain situation also looks to be light years ahead of his more seasoned team mates. That has to be a source of embarrassment for the currently injured duo, whose repetitive “smash it low” and “float it to the back stick” crossing mantras must suddenly look as dreadful to them as they have to the hordes of United fans who have had to suffer their efforts for years.
Jesse Lingard is a player with obvious limitations, but his intelligent running off the ball and manipulation of space make him a constant threat. He will miss more chances than he scores, but he works his legs off when United aren’t in possession, something his teammates will really appreciate. Straight away you can compare his influence to that of Juan Mata who was a nonentity in that position. You can roll out the excuses for the Spaniard, as many people like to, but Mata could and should have performed at a higher level from that area of the pitch. If you are being hyper critical (and correct), then you would say that Mata has only been marginally better centrally. He is United’s “nearly man”. He almost gets the striker through…..he almost opens the defence…..he nearly gets the return pass in the one-two back to his teammate. He is most definitely a complete liability when United don’t have the ball.
Guillermo Varela’s name has been lumped in with the adolescents, but at nearly 23, it’s only fair to expect a little more maturity from the Uruguayan. Comparisons with Rafael are easy to make – Varela plays with passion, determination and aggression, traits you would in no way associated with United’s Italian international right back Matteo Darmian. Of course you’d have to acknowledge that Darmian is still in his first season at Old Trafford, but he too often looks completely petrified in a United shirt. In Varela’s handful of starts, he has offered more than the Italian at both ends of the pitch.
Marcus Rashford’s energy has been a Godsend for United fans whose blood boiling frustration has simmered to a more troubling apathy towards the stuck-in-the-mud styles of Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney. Fellaini, of course, plays in a different area of the pitch and his physical attributes could never lend themselves to the type of running and movement Rashford can provide – which is fine, so just don’t play the Belgian again then please – ever. Rooney’s form had perked up a little before his inevitable badly timed injury, but generally he provides about as much dynamism as a Bill Cosby dinner date (too soon?)
Individual comparisons can be made on a position-by-position basis, but the most important difference between the majority of United’s senior players and their young pretenders is the difference in attitudes. The kids play with the kind of fire that has been all but extinguished at Old Trafford post-Fergie. Their downright will to win and refusal to be rolled over by their, let’s face it, superior opponents on Sunday represented everything that United should as a club. In a reversal of roles, it was the kids who inspired their older teammates to run more, to work harder, to battle on in difficult circumstances. Mata, Herrera, Schneiderlin and Memphis all looked re-energized and they joined their inexperienced comrades in their collective buzzing around the Arsenal players. It was a breath of fresh air and a departure from the usual turgid, emotionless football synonymous with United under Van Gaal. The normally stoic Dutchman even got caught up in the perceptible gossamer of jejunity.
United’s mini resurgence this week will not just have given Van Gaal plenty to ponder over – it should lead to some much needed soul searching by United’s more household names. Hopefully the return of those injured seniors won’t mean a return to a United side that plays with fear and hesitancy. If it does, then the teenagers will quickly take centre stage on merit and not because of an injury crisis.