Of late, Louis van Gaal has been gaining rare plaudits for his apparent faith in youth. I believed this willingness to promote youngsters, along with his ‘chest out, walk tall’ demeanour, would suit Manchester United to a tee when he was announced as the new manager in June 2014.
Jesse Lingard, Tyler Blackett, Saidy Janko, Andreas Pereira, Reece James, Paddy McNair, Tom Thorpe, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Donald Love, Joe Riley, Marcus Rashford, Regan Poole, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and James Weir have all graduated to the first-team in some capacity under Louis van Gaal.
Some have had more success than others. Some had none.
Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are now establishing themselves as first-team squad members, having thoroughly impressed.
Reece James, Saidy Janko and Tom Thorpe turn out for Wigan Athletic, Celtic and Bradford City via Rotherham United, respectively.
It’s been like this for a while at Manchester United. Youth graduates get their debuts in low key cup-ties, only to be forgotten months down the line.
United’s academy had been more of a money-making machine than player-churner over the past decade. It had also been mentioned they could make a fair amount of money by selling academy products each year, instead of emphasising the need to develop them for their own benefit.
Danny Drinkwater is flying high with Leicester City, Gerard Pique has more silverware than the Queen with Barcelona, whilst Paul Pogba will forever be remembered as the one that got away.
However, it might now seem as though the focus has been shifted back onto making real use of the youth academy, with Louis van Gaal heavily reliant upon it of late.
Local boys Rashford and Borthwick-Jackson have taken their rare opportunity with some stand-out performances. Warrington-born Lingard has gone on to make one of the three attacking midfield berths his own over the past six months.
Nevertheless, had it not been for injuries, I think it’s fair to say that neither Rashford, Borthwick-Jackson nor any of the other recent debutants would have been given a shot at the first-team at this stage of the season.
This apparent faith in youth has been out of necessity, and it was certainly not in touch with Van Gaal’s past record when it comes to promoting youngsters.
Had he actually believed the likes of Rashford, Borthwick-Jackson and Fosu-Mensah were of the right calibre to challenge first-team members, they’d have been in the starting line-up before Christmas.
Having had a torrid run of results, the first-team was in dire need of fresh legs. An injection of youth would have lifted the spirits prior to our defeat at Stoke City, say.
Louis thought better of this, though, which is quite surprising given his trophy-laden career is full of success stories when it comes to handing youngsters their chance.
It’s a story that our Louis is well known for repeating, as having Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Xavi, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta, Thomas Muller and David Alaba in your list of debutants is quite the accolade.
On the other hand, his record when it comes to handling senior players is patchy at best.
Prior to his arrival at Old Trafford, he made enemies in Lucio, Rivaldo and Luca Toni during his managerial career.
Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson referred to Louis as ‘The Hitler of Brazilian players’ following their time together at Barcelona.
Add to this the way he’s exiled Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez, Rafael da Silva, Victor Valdes and Angel di Maria to an extent during his United career, and a pattern occurs.
Hugo Borst, during his brilliant ‘O, Louis’ biography, seems to back up the thought that Van Gaal believes youngsters obey his orders better compared to the older generation.
This makes his refusal to turn to the youngsters when things got tough before Christmas, not when injuries forced his hand after the New Year, all the more surprising.
He’d have bought himself some more patience by placing faith in the youngsters at an earlier stage, and benching the then underperforming senior players.
Had he done, you could picture him at the end of season gathering, potentially revelling in his vindicated decision saying ‘Here, Louis van Gaal identified the problem areash, now thish ish how Louis van Gaal turned it around’ with a large glass of red wine in his hand.
Unfortunately, Louis will never be able to say this.
Louis van Gaal, an advocate of giving youth their chance throughout his career, and manager of a club so entwined with their youth-promoting history, only turned to this method when his hand was subsequently forced.
It’s a question of what might have been for The Iron Tulip who could, and maybe should, have been perfect for United.
This piece was first published in Red News Issue 233 on 03/04/2016.