With the likes of Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, Callum Gribbin and Mason Greenwood blazing a trail at Manchester United right now, it can’t be easy for some of the other young attacking midfielders who are jostling for position in the club’s youth ranks.
And yet even against such a backdrop Aidan Barlow has progressed in leaps and bounds in the past 18 months, to the extent that the Salford native was handed a first professional deal with the Old Trafford giants in December 2017.
The 18-year-old has been one of the stand-out performers at under-18 level of late, with his performances having gradually improved since new first-team coach Kieran McKenna was brought in from Tottenham in September 2016 to take charge of the academy side.
Barlow’s first full year with the under-18s saw him feature largely off the bench, but it didn’t stop him from making some valuable contributions. He netted a fabulous hat-trick in a 4-0 win against Newcastle at Altrincham’s Moss Lane stadium, and then followed that up by scoring twice in a play-off meeting with Liverpool in March 2017.
That double against United’s sworn enemy included one stinging low drive and another stunning effort which curled and dipped into the far corner of the net, and Barlow is no stranger to netting memorable goals such is his wonderful natural technical ability.
The youngster shows fantastic maturity, demonstrating quick feet and great composure under pressure. And while he is primarily right footed, he can deliver accurate passes over long distances on his left too. His excellent weight of pass is notable, and while he isn’t the tallest of 18-year-olds he does have great body strength which he often uses to great advantage.
Barlow really could be a gem of an attacker in the years to come, with his confidence and game smarts at a very high level. Few players of his age can claim to have his vision and he often seems to be able to plot his first touch long before the ball even arrives, allowing him to get one move ahead of his marker with comparative ease.
After his excellent progress in 2016-17, Barlow made it his goal to push towards a reserve-team place this season. “I just want to push on. It’s my second year and I must become a leader in the team, pushing to break into the under-23s team,” he told ManUtd.com last summer. “I have been around it before and got a few minutes away to Chelsea last year, which was good experience.”
And he has done exactly that, making his first start in Ricky Sbragia’s under-23s against Tottenham at Old Trafford in January following starring performances for both the under-18s and Nicky Butt’s under-19 side in the UEFA Youth League. In total he netted nine goals in 23 starts across the three categories and added many more assists. He also made his England under-18 debut against South Africa in September.
His versatility has helped him become such a feature in the youth ranks at a time when there is so much quality on offer to United’s age-group coaches. While he thrives most in picking up spaces between the lines as a number 10, he can also come off the wing or start in a deeper midfield role thanks to his naturally physical nature.
Competition for places will not stop Barlow from becoming a star. He has all the tools needed to be a household name of the future in the Premier League.