Manchester United flew to the United States on Sunday for their pre-season tour with a mere skeleton of the side which will embark on the 2018/19 campaign.
The World Cup, which nobody really wanted to end, has deprived Man United of a litany of key players for pre-season.
You could more or less mould Jose Mourinho’s starting lineup from that list.
Daley Blind is set to join Ajax imminently, with Matteo Darmian soon to follow. Only three players from Mourinho’s starting XI against Chelsea for the FA Cup final will be there on day one of the tour. In other words, there has rarely been a better time to be a promising United youngster.
That brings us nicely to nine very important names you may not have heard of: Axel Tuanzebe, RoShaun Williams, Demetri Mitchell, Ethan Hamilton, James Garner, Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, Joshua Bohui.
Youngsters going on a pre-season tour is no brand new phenomenon. But these nine youngsters have extra reason to be hopeful going into these next few weeks. The first being because of recent history: 2015 was the year of Jesse Lingard, 2016 the year of Marcus Rashford, 2017 the year of Scott McTominay.
This club, for all the changes it has weathered since 2013, remains receptive to the vitality of youth, and has benefitted from the hard-working, fearless ethic brought to the first team by academy products in recent years. That maxim has remained true under Mourinho, supposedly a scourge of youth.
There was a point last season, after all, during that January to March period where the manager’s paranoia was at its zenith, that Mourinho’s favourite player, the one he could rely on the most – Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic aside – was McTominay, who at the time hadn’t even reached double figures in appearances for the first team.
Mourinho is a man who works from intuitions. He notably said after his first pre-season game as United boss that he could tell Tuanzebe was a talent after just ten minutes on the pitch. He told his players at half time against Brighton and Hove Albion that they would lose because the mood of the team was all wrong (they did, 1-0). Diogo Dalot only has eight senior appearances but Mourinho has seen something in him.
The Portuguese is a dogmatist in many respects, but when it comes to personnel his attitudes can flip like a switch: one moment Luke Shaw is starting every week, being branded as one of the best full-backs in England, and the next he is nowhere to be seen.
What he looks for, above anything, is the right attitude – an intangible heft to a player’s performance and their overall character. Michael Carrick‘s humble, grounded persona was a primary reason behind any Mourinho took him to the coaching staff. He wants a kind of X-factor, if you like. You either have it or you don’t. Matic has it. Lukaku has it. Alexis Sanchez has it, whereas Anthony Martial – in Mourinho’s view – doesn’t.
That could be quite daunting for a young player. All of the youngsters on tour will know that one mistake, one bad session, could tar their manager’s judgement of them indefinitely.
On the other hand, they have the opportunity to present themselves as fresh, committed, disciplined, full of zeal and ambition and selflessness. Weighed against a slew of players Mourinho growingly lost faith in towards the end of last season – from Eric Bailly to Daley Blind to Martial to even Lukaku – the 55-year-old may look on them as more than just kids, there to make up the numbers.
They are guaranteed game time, especially against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes. They are guaranteed close proximity to Mourinho over a prolonged period of time. They are a different breed to the group of disillusioned first team regulars who toiled – rather than flourished – under their manager last term. And they are, most importantly, a talented group of players. Tuanzebe, Mitchell and Gomes have already tasted first team football. Chong, Greenwood and Williams had superb campaigns in the youth ranks.
And as Kieran McKenna watches over them in the Californian sun, with numerous established stars still on their holidays and others losing the trust of their boss, these players have to feel as if this is their moment to make an enduring mark on the first team.