When the likes of Herrera, Smalling, Darmian, Sanchez and Lukaku left Old Trafford and no midfield or forward reinforcements were signed, we were invited to see Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s vision: it was time for the Class of ‘19. On opening day, the average age of United’s line-up was easily the youngest in the Premier League, and waiting in the wings we had another crop of exciting young talents in Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and James Garner.
It was easy to buy into this plan. As a true fan, you could even accept that United might not make the top four this season, because it was going to be a transitional year, the year in which these young mavericks were let loose on the Premier League, much like 1993/94 when Sir Alex Ferguson put his faith in the Class of ‘92. This was going to be pretty exciting.
Now of course that may all still happen, and maybe I’m being impatient, but we are now four games in, and struggling, and yet of these young pretenders who lit up the pre-season tour – only Greenwood has seen minutes on the pitch, and they have been scarce (47 minutes – an average of 12 per game).
I understand “easing them in gradually” but that’s fine if the first team is performing. It isn’t. When Solskjaer finally decided to drop Jesse Lingard after three poor performances, he didn’t turn to the like-for-like replacement in Angel Gomes, he called instead upon veteran Juan Mata. When Anthony Martial was injured, Solskjaer had a like-for-like replacement at centre forward in Mason Greenwood, or a like-for-like replacement on the left wing of Tahith Chong. Yet he chose to reinstate another underperforming 24-year-old, Andreas Pereira. And when those two players (Mata and Pereira) in turn were subbed after 68 minutes, they were replaced not by any of the youngsters, but by the player who was dropped in the first place, Lingard, and another veteran, Nemanja Matic. Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford put in one of his worst performances in a United shirt, but was not taken off for the precocious Greenwood, who only finally got on the pitch with 8 minutes to go and had time for just a couple of touches and one quick goal attempt, which was arguably the best piece of attacking play the entire team had managed in the second half.
So why is Solskjaer hesitating to introduce the fresh blood he supposedly has faith in?
Victor Lindelof is underperforming at centre back. Solskjaer has shown intent in putting Axel Tuanzebe on the bench ahead of the likes of Phil Jones, but now the time has come to put him in the starting line-up alongside Harry Maguire to see what he can do. Lindelof was one of United’s better performers in the second half of last season, but his frailty in the air is starting to become a problem and will now be targeted by opposing teams. I don’t normally advocate chopping and changing centre back partnerships before they have had a chance to gel, but it’s early enough in the season to experiment and the only way we’re going to see if Axel can take the step up is to give him a run of a few games.
As for Mason Greenwood, it’s time to unleash him. Ten minutes is not long enough. Start him in the next game against Leicester. If Martial is fit, rest Rashford for a game and let’s just see what Mason can do with the full 90. Rashford is inconsistent and plays at his best when he has a point to prove, so I say give him some competition and allow Greenwood to stake his claim. Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi were all good enough at 17, so why shouldn’t Greenwood be?
If this is really a transitional season when the Class of ‘19 are brought through, then Solskjaer also needs to put his faith in youngsters in those key slots in the middle of the park. If he wants to continue with 4-2-3-1, trust Gomes in the number 10 role, or in a 4-3-3, put Garner alongside Pogba and McSauce.
At age 21, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James have been United’s stand out performers so far this season. AWB had only 35 Premier League games under his belt when arriving at United and James, of course, had none. Their performances alone should encourage Solskjaer to really go for it, throw some of the others in at the deep end and see what they can do. Otherwise, what’s the point of this season and of this (lack of) transfer policy?