Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will continue the difficult balancing act of integrating Manchester United’s exciting young talent into a first team still struggling to find consistency when they take on Aston Villa on Sunday.
United faced a marathon trek to play Astana in Kazakhstan on Thursday although, having already qualified from their Europa League group, the United manager was able to rest his entire first team squad.
Striker Jesse Lingard was the only regular first team player to make the trip as Solskjaer kept one eye on the Villa game and an increasingly frustrating domestic campaign.
United are presently nine points off the fourth and final Champions League place occupied by Chelsea, where Frank Lampard has illustrated youth can flourish. Solskjaer fielded a team on Thursday with an average age fractionally over 22 and the majority acquitted themselves well despite a 2-1 defeat.
Right-back Ethan Laird, midfielder Dylan Levitt and centre-back Di’Shon Bernard, who was unfortunate to score an own goal, all made debuts and were singled out for praise by the manager.
Solskjaer spoke of possibly allowing a number of the youngsters to leave in the January transfer window to gain valuable first team experience on loan elsewhere. “I think some of these might benefit from going out on loan,” he said. “Of course, they need men’s football and it was a first taste of it for some of them. Some of them are also knocking on the door for us. Some of these have done themselves a good favour.”
But, while the Norwegian’s selection continued his admirable reliance on the club’s youth production line, it did raise the broader issue of how easy it will be to ease such precocious talent into United’s current first team.
Striker Mason Greenwood and midfielders Tahith Chong, James Garner and Angel Gomes have all made substitute appearances in the Premier League this season while injuries have seen left-back Brandon Williams start two, and have a further couple of outings off the bench.
Greenwood, 18, has been a particular success coming on as a substitute in 10 Premier League games this season and scoring five goals across all competitions.
His latest, and the first in the league, came in the thrilling 3-3 draw at Sheffield United last Sunday when Solskjaer’s team came from two goals down to lead at one stage, having scored three times in seven minutes.
Williams, 19, also scored during that spell while the third goalscorer – 22-year-old Marcus Rashford – meant the three United scorers had an average age of under 20.
But that game also illustrated the concerns Solskjaer must overcome in introducing such youngsters into his side. United were overwhelmed for 70 minutes by their opponents, and eventually failed to hold onto a 3-2 lead, thanks to some deeply average displays from more senior players – notably England defender Phil Jones who was substituted at half-time by Solskjaer.
Harry Maguire, an £80 million ($103 million) summer signing from Leicester, has also been criticised for some indifferent form and a failure to lead by example.
Injuries in midfield, notably to the French World Cup winner Paul Pogba and, more recently, young Scotsman Scott McTominay, have added to the impression an unhealthy emphasis and level of expectation is being placed on some of the United youngsters with a possibly long-term damaging impact on their development.
Solskjaer will be hoping the return of Pogba – possibly against former manager Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next Wednesday – will bring some much-needed experience and stability to the heart of his team, and help the young talent around him.