'A simple formula' - How Man Utd revived their ailing academy

Mason Greenwood James Garner Angel Gomes Manchester UnitedGetty composite

If you wander through the corridors at Manchester United’s Carrington training base, you’ll be reminded of just how successful their academy has been over the years.

The walls are adorned by colossal pictures of former graduates such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Marcus Rashford, veritable role models for those young hopefuls heading out to train each day.

The talent keeps rolling off the Carrington conveyor belt, too. Brandon Williams has been this season’s outstanding success story, pushing his way into the first team, and there are plenty more where he came from.

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However, United are aware they need to keep evolving if they are to keep producing players of enormous potential.

After all, the club has come in for criticism for its handling of the academy in the last five years. There have been accusations of underfunding, resulting in a failure to upgrade its facilities.

It's also been alleged that before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to Old Trafford last year, the academy had been ignored by every manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

“I think that's harsh on (Louis) Van Gaal and (Jose) Mourinho – and David Moyes to a point," former midfielder Nicky Butt told MUTV.

"They didn’t come in to Man Utd and go, ‘Move [the Academy] to one side, disrespect Man Utd [and its traditions] and we’ll do it my way.' They never did that – it’s a myth."

Nicky Butt

Each of those three managers can certainly lay claim to having given academy graduates a chance. After all, it was Van Gaal who handed Rashford his debut, while Mourinho had a special relationship with Scott McTominay which led to the Scotland international becoming a first-team regular.

However, there has also been scrutiny over the way in which the academy has been run in the past five years. For example, following the departure of Brian McClair in 2015, United went a year without an academy head.

They also saw several recruitment targets join local rivals Manchester City. The situation got so bad that even some of United's former players were deciding to send their children to City's academy because of the Abu Dhabi-backed club's state-of-the-art training complex, as well as the promise of a place at a private school.

It became blindingly obvious that United could no longer rely on their long and illustrious history to attract the world's top young talent to the club, so changes were made following McClair’s departure and they’re slowly starting to reap dividends.

Meetings were held about raising standards, departments were reviewed, new staff were brought in, roles were changed and Butt was put in charge of the academy four years ago.

That same summer, Nick Cox arrived from Sheffield United and he succeeded Butt at the helm last year, after the treble-winner was made head of football development.

A raft of changes have been made during this period, particularly in terms of player recruitment.

Many of Ferguson's scouts retired at the same time as the Scot, so new faces and new ideas were required. United also embraced the kind of advanced technology that has allowed them to continue working even during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Hannibal Mejbri Manchester United 2019-20Getty Images

There is now a belief at United that they can compete with any club in Europe when it comes to signing the game's most promising players.

Last summer, they beat off interest from Arsenal, Liverpool and Barcelona to sign Hannibal Mejbri from Monaco, while highly rated centre-forward Dillon Hoogewerf also arrived from Ajax.

“It’s quite a simple formula really," Cox explained to Goal. "If you look at every successful United team, the components are a core of local talent supplemented with one or two exceptional talent outside of our catchment area, whether that be nationally, within Europe or worldwide."

The formula certainly seems to be working. This summer, teenage right-back Marc Jurado is expected to join from Barcelona in the summer, while Joe Hugill is close to finalising a deal with United despite intense interest elsewhere in the 16-year-old Sunderland striker.

United believe they are being rewarded for investing in their facilities, backing Under-23s manager Neil Wood and Under-18s counterpart Neil Ryan financially when required, and adopting a “clear and together” ethos at under-age level.

There are also daily conversations between first-team coaches and those at development level, which not only boosts internal communication, but also shows the players that there is a clear link between the youth teams and the senior squad.

Brandon Williams Man Utd

The Under-23s have noticeably benefited from the greater sense of unity at Carrington.

They were on the cusp of promotion when the league was halted and are waiting to hear if they will be awarded a place in the top tier next season.

However, promotion would just be a bonus for Wood and his coaches, as their primary goal is getting players into the first team.

Those players have been told to stay fit during the lockdown in case they are needed by Solskjaer when the first team return to training – further evidence of the joined-up thinking now prevalent throughout the club.

As for the Under-18s, league results have been mixed, but Ryan's side had made it through to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, which is a noteworthy achievement, given United haven't reached the final since 2011 – further evidence of the previous problems at Academy level.

Still, whether or not the U18s eventually make the final, or the U23s secure promotion, the main takeaway is that the changes United have made at under-age level are working.

The Academy will not be judged on trophies but how many players reach the senior squad, so it is worth noting that since the start of Solskjaer’s reign, 10 academy graduates have made their debuts, chief among them Mason Greenwood.

Consequently, there's a real feel of renewed vibrancy around the club this year. Indeed, there may soon be some new pictures adorning the walls of those corridors at Carrington.