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Williams case shows Solskjaer isn't holding Man Utd's youngsters back - he's protecting them

13:14 GMT+3 07/11/2019
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Brandon Williams Man Utd
The 19-year-old defender looks a better bet than either Ashley Young or Luke Shaw at full-back but his development is being carefully managed

Ever since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was given the Manchester United job on a permanent basis, the narrative being pushed at Old Trafford was of a club going back to its roots.

Under the management of one of the heroes of the 1999 treble-winning team, the focus would be on young, British players, meaning more chances for the club's academy stars.

Up until now, that has proven a half-truth.

Certainly, the summer signings of Harry Maguire, Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have all been in keeping with the party line.

All three have impressed thus far, making the new recruitment strategy look like a rip-roaring success when compared to the hit-and-miss approach employed during previous transfer windows overseen by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

England duo Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho remain the priority targets for the next two windows, so, in theory, over half the first team could soon be young and British.

However, there has been criticism from some quarters over Solskjaer’s other commitment, to giving those from the academy the opportunity to nail down a place in the starting line-up.

The argument has some merit, but largely misses the point.

The current climate at Old Trafford right now is miserable, with United currently 10th in the Premier League table, 10 points off the top four.

Consequently, focusing on youth right now would not just be a gamble, it would be an internecine move for both the club’s short-term prospects and the career development of fragile youngsters.

Donald Love, Tyler Blackett, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are all better suited to playing elsewhere, but that is not because they weren't given game time by previous managers. Indeed, having to endure Louis van Gaal’s order-ridden anti-action will not have helped them develop in any positive way.

A young player can be vulnerable as he makes his way into the professional world. A poor performance can be shrugged off by a headstrong veteran, aware that one bad outing might simply be that.

In the age of social media, though, a young player is one bad performance away from a string of death threats. It is therefore easy to see why giving youth a chance was not as easy as it was during the glory years.

To that end, Solskjaer has handled his young players adroitly.

Mason Greenwood has been talked up as the best finisher at the club, so it might seem counterintuitive not to throw him onto the pitch with half an hour remaining when United need a goal.

However, a 17-year-old does not deserve the pressure of being cast as some sort of saviour.

James Garner is a fine prospect but won't learn much from being regularly over-run or out-muscled by more experienced midfielders while he looks forlornly to Fred for help.

It is worth remembering that of the Class of '92, only Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville were regulars as teenagers. Paul Scholes did not truly establish himself until he was almost 22.

Expressing confidence in young players and their talent, but not treating them as a quick fix, is the sensible course of action in the long term.

Brandon Williams is a fine example of an academy graduate benefiting from such a prudent approach.

The versatile defender is right-footed but has emerged as a credible alternative to Ashley Young and Luke Shaw at left-back. However, Solskjaer has been unwilling to play him in the Premier League.

Williams did well against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup and has proven a rare shining light in an otherwise dull Europa League campaign but against Bournemouth last weekend, Young was again given the nod, and produced another predictably tepid display.

Young’s limitations are obvious. As a converted winger, he dutifully attempts to do a job that is too late for him to learn to the required standard. Shaw, for whatever reason, is not fit enough to fulfil his potential.

Williams held Callum Hudson-Odoi at bay against Chelsea, and demonstrated an attacking intent with his right foot not seen since Denis Irwin was in the position.

He is faster than both Shaw and Young, and appears able to perform at top speed for the whole match. Coupled with obvious technical ability, he is demonstrably the better choice for the team right now.

Except, of course, in the context of what has been a largely punishing Premier League campaign to date.

By contrast, on Thursday night, when United host Partizan in the Europa League, the pressure will be off again. It will be another ideal opportunity for Williams to gain more experience away from the unforgiving Premier League environment.

The biggest weakness for United is the midfield, and until that is addressed, goalscoring creativity will be stifled and defensive protection will be insufficient. Securing positive results will continue to be a struggle unless the coaching changes sufficiently, or the right players are brought in this January.

There is nothing to be gained in turning to youth now in a desperate bid to turn things around.

In that sense, Solskjaer isn't holding United's youngsters back – he's protecting them.