“In the Premier League, we can only finish fifth or sixth, I think.” As Jose Mourinho looked ahead to his Manchester United side’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, he once again underlined his belief that the Europa League final on May 24 is his club’s only realistic target for the rest of the season.
Against such a background, he has no excuse now not to shuffle his pack. With an exhausted first-team squad needing to be rotated ahead of their crunch final with Ajax in Stockholm, the honour of being the final team ever to face Spurs at White Hart Lane could be shared by an unfamiliar group of United youngsters.
“I have to give some minutes to everyone because we have only 15 players, we don’t have more,” added Mourinho this week, but the truth is that he has many more. As Axel Tuanzebe showed in his full debut against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last week, there is a fair amount of talent at United’s beck and call should Mourinho want them.
Ahead of Thursday’s nail-biting draw with Celta Vigo, United’s first team were joined in training by Matty Willock, Scott McTominay, Matthew Olosunde and Demi Mitchell as Mourinho prepared the quartet for the possibility of involvement in Sunday’s fixture.
And with the likes of Ander Herrera, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Matteo Darmian needing to take a rest after heavy workloads of late, there is a fair chance that Tuanzebe will be joined on the list of debutants when United return to north London.
Goal takes a look at United’s young hot shots.
Twenty-year-old Willock went up against brothers Chris and Joe last week when playing for United’s Under-23s against Arsenal, a team he himself played for until signing for the Red Devils in 2012.
The big-striding mobile midfielder also grabbed local headlines in January when netting a 93rd-minute winner against Liverpool’s U23s at Anfield, which gave Nicky Butt his first league win in charge of the reserves.
With his ability to cover ground well, Willock has caught the eye despite the second string’s struggles this term. He has already been a part of the matchday 18 for United of late, playing the part of an unused substitute in the 0-0 draw with West Brom at Old Trafford on April 1.
A native of north-east London and former Arsenal youngster, Willock would surely relish the chance to make his debut in the final-ever game at White Hart Lane.
McTominay returns to north London just a week on from making his United debut off the bench late on in the defeat to Arsenal, and while he remains an outside shot for a start against Spurs he could well be involved once more.
Having grown almost a foot taller in the last 24 months, McTominay has suffered from psychical issues as his body adapted. But he has since been used regularly as a centre forward to make more use of his height having previously been more accomplished as an attacking midfielder.
Now 20, McTominay has joined Devonte Redmond in becoming a real mainstay of United’s attack at reserve level.
Another who has adapted to a new position, Demi Mitchell has revelled in the move to left-back under Nicky Butt since the United academy chief asked him to fill in due to a series of absentees.
With Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Guillermo Varela and Joe Riley all out on loan and Tyler Reid sold to Swansea City, Butt found himself short on left-back options in the autumn and turned to Mitchell as a result.
The diminutive 20-year-old started as a winger and occasional striker, but has settled in superbly in the back line and also recently succeeded Joshua Harrop as United’s first-choice penalty taker at reserve team level.
New Jersey native Matthew Olosunde has made the right side of United’s U23 defence his own since arriving at the club last spring, with his marauding style making him a real threat on the attack too.
A USA international at U17 and U19 level, Olosunde plays with real authority in the right-back slot and has also played on the wing on occasion, particularly under former reserves boss Warren Joyce.
With Axel Tuanzebe having covered for Antonio Valencia so well at the Emirates last week it seems unlikely that Olosunde will be pressed into a 90-minute appearance at White Hart Lane, but the 19-year-old would make for a great utility option off the bench if called upon.