The two brightest rising stars in Manchester United’s youth academy. Two home-grown talents in a club famous for nurturing home-grown talents, managed by a coach passionate about home-grown talent. Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong seemed to have the world at their feet at Old Trafford.
At nineteen (Gomes) and twenty (Chong) years of age, this was expected to be the breakthrough season for the gifted youngsters. Yet here we sit, less than a week before Christmas, with both players’ contracts about to expire this June, both being free to start talking to other clubs in January, and neither having shown more than a fleeting glimpse at first team level of what all the fuss is about.
Cue a home Carabao Cup match against League Two side Colchester in the middle of a busy Christmas period. Surely this is one of those perfect opportunities for breakthrough players to do just that – break through. But whilst Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams and James Garner grasped the nettle, Gomes and Chong were nowhere to be seen.
So, what has gone wrong?
Why have Manchester United not tied down the future of these two talented youngsters? Have they become too demanding? Are their heads not in the right place? Or have they simply failed to live up to their potential?
The Greedy B*stards Theory
United have made what the club feels are substantial contract offers to both Gomes and Chong, but the fact that neither player has signed theirs suggests that they either want considerably more than what is on the table, or that they genuinely want to leave Old Trafford for pastures new.
It is hard to imagine that Angel would want away from the club he has been at since he was six years old. Yet there have been signs before that his loyalty comes at a price. According to reports at the time, the club were forced to fork out a hefty £17,000 per week contract – rising to £25,000 with bonuses – to secure the then 17-year-old Gomes’ signature on his first senior contract.
And now, two years on, sources from inside Old Trafford have told the Manchester Evening News that once again, Gomes feels ‘underwhelmed’ by the offer that is on the table, and that Barcelona are waiting in the wings to secure his signature, just as they were during the previous contract talks.
Maybe. Can’t read my poker face.
Meanwhile, Chong is engaged in his own standoff with the club and has his own top drawer suitors – Juventus.
In the post-match press conference after the FC Astana game in which Chong played badly and missed the easiest of easy tap-ins, Olé Gunnar Solskjaer was asked about the young Dutchman’s future. ‘We’ve offered him a very good contract and the ball is in his court.’ came the reply.
A day later, Tahith himself was asked to comment. ‘Yes, they offered it, but at the moment the season is in full swing…I keep all options open.’
These didn’t seem to be the words of a young man ready to commit his future to Manchester United.
Chong does not have such a long history as Gomes at Old Trafford. He could be said to be more a product of Feyenoord’s youth system, having only joined the Reds at 17. It would therefore perhaps be less surprising if he were to move on than is the case for Gomes.
The Italian media have regularly discussed Juventus’s interest in the player and the Turin club are aware that they may be able to sign him on a free in the summer, as they did with Paul Pogba. There have even been reports that rather than allow this to happen, United would be prepared to trade Chong in a swap deal for Juve’s Mario Mandzukic. It sounds unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
The Too Much, Too Soon Theory
If anyone was destined to be club captain, it was surely the part-English, part Portuguese playmaker Gomes, who has exceeded expectations at every level. When godfather Nani predicted he would become a United legend, nobody laughed.
Angel made his under-18’s debut at just 14. At 15, he became the youngest player to score a hat-trick at academy level – and he even did so coming on from the bench. He became the youngest ever winner of the Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year award, and in 2017, at 16 years and 263 days, he became the youngest player to make his first team debut since Duncan Edwards. He has already captained England at Under 16, Under 17 and Under 18 levels.
His performances to date for United’s first team, whilst not spectacular, have been promising and fans have responded positively to what they have seen. But there is one issue that may be in danger of interrupting the player’s inexorable rise to superstardom: his physical development.
Nobody can predict with any certainty how a young player’s body will grow and puberty is a fickle friend. There were concerns that an 18-year-old Scott McTominay would, at 5ft 6 inches, be too short to be a professional footballer, but the youngster shot up 10 inches practically overnight. Gomes’ height, on the other hand, has hardly changed. Whilst being short is not necessarily a footballer’s death sentence, 5ft 3 inches is particularly small – compare with Maradona at 5ft 5 inches and Alexis Sanchez at 5ft 6 inches for example – and the player is far from stocky either.
Chong, meanwhile, is tall enough but also yet to bulk out and still looks physically fragile for the rigours of the Premier League. We cannot say whether that is a concern for United’s coaching staff, but it could well be an issue. His recent form in first team matches, which has been extremely disappointing, may also be troubling the coaches. When we all thought he was going to go from strength to strength after bursting on the first team scene last season, he seems to have gone backward. Tahith finds himself in a sort of footballing limbo where he looks too good for the under 23s, but not good enough for the senior side.
So where does this leave us?
At this stage, the gloves seem to be well and truly off. Gomes has been frozen out of participation in even the least important first team matches and The MEN confirms that this is not down to injury: the player has been training as normal. He, the under-23’s captain, was even excluded from the under-23’s game on Monday night. Does Olé Gunnar Solskjaer want to teach the player a lesson? Or is he resigned to losing him? Ultimately, the only conclusion you can draw is that Manchester United do not feel the player is worth what he is demanding.
Chong, on the other hand, was at least on the bench for the AZ and Colchester games despite his inept performance against Astana. It is of course dangerous to draw too many conclusions from that, but it could perhaps suggest that the club hierarchy feels that this youngster’s wage demands are not that out of proportion to the value the manager places on him.
‘I can’t see a better place for a young lad that’s come through the ranks in the academy to play first team football’ said Solskjaer when asked about the pair by The MEN. ‘[H]opefully they can see that when young lads take their chance, they’ll get more opportunities.’ In other words, boys, whatever your pedigree and reputation, you simply haven’t lived up the price tags you’ve placed on yourselves. And frankly, without knowing what those numbers actually are, most fans would probably be in agreement with Olé on that one.