Manchester United’s reliance on youth will pay more dividends than spending lavishly now


During the summer of 1995, Sir Alex Ferguson showed his ruthless streak in the most brutal and to many fans and experts alike also surprising way when he got rid of three of his most important players from the previous season — Mark Hughes, the club icon educated in the club’s own academy, Paul Ince, the combative midfield warrior, and Andrei Kanchelskis, the speedy Ukrainian winger who had just ended the previous season as Manchester United’s top scorer.

The rest is history, as we used to say. On the first match day of the 1995/1996 season, Manchester United lost 3:1 to Aston Villa away from home. As replacements for the discarded stars, Ferguson had brought in youngsters such as Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham. Beckham scored United’s consolation goal, but the loss made the former Liverpool defender now TV pundit Alan Hansen say the famous line “You’ll never win anything with kids.” Alex Ferguson and Manchester United went on to win the Premier League that same season, and the team went on to dominate the league for years.

But if Manchester United fans believed that Sir Alex was only following in the footsteps of his compatriot Sir Matt Busby, the Scottish manager who led Manchester United into Europe and modernity in the 1950s and 1960s through a commitment to youth, Ferguson was also inspired by someone else – someone further away geographically, but closer historically.

In May 1995, Louis van Gaal had sensationally led Ajax to triumph in the European Champions League beating mighty AC Milan 1:0 in the final. The victory was sensational not only because it was David’s fight against Goliath, but also – and especially – because Van Gaal’s Ajax team had an average age of 23. Dominating the team were young players such as Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, and Patrick Kluivert, the 18-year old match winner in the final.

Alex Ferguson has often spoken about the legacy of Matt Busby and Manchester United’s tradition of youth, but he has also admitted that part of the inspiration behind trusting the Class of ’92 came from Van Gaal’s success with his kids in May 1995.

During the summers of 2014 and 2015, Manchester United could be said to have abandoned the long-standing tradition of youth by spending close to £300 million, mostly on established stars such as Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, and Juan Mata, and most people, fans and experts alike, probably even Van Gaal himself, still believe it absolutely necessary to secure a world-class center back and a proven or very talented striker. Perhaps a goalkeeper, too.

It is hard not to agree. But it was also impossible for Alan Hansen in 1995 to believe that Manchester United could win anything with kids. It was impossible for people to imagine that Ajax could beat AC Milan the same year.

In all likelihood, it is going to be an impossible task for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United to challenge Chelsea with the current squad. But what if the summer of 2015 turns out to be a repeat of 1995? Remember what Bastian Schweinsteiger, the experienced German and World Cup winner, said when he had seen the new United kids in training? “I have seen a lot of young players in my career and I have to say that these young players are very, very good.”

Everyone knows that friendlies are not to be trusted, but still, the performance of Manchester United against FC Barcelona on the recent US tour, especially by some of the youngsters such as Depay, Pereira, Lingard, Shaw, and Januzaj, must have been very encouraging for Van Gaal.

My point is that habit – our innate propensity for the easy solution, for the secure path, for the obvious truth – makes us believe that Manchester United are in dire need of reinforcements. Maybe the argument is even rational. But sometimes, newness emerges unexpected and legends are created. That happened in 1995 with Ajax and Manchester United and with players such as Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids, Beckham, Scholes, and Gary Neville. Today, the Ajax manager of then is the Manchester United manager of now. Manchester United’s history proves that a gamble on youth can eventually be repaid tenfold; the same applies to Van Gaal’s history.

Is it possible to imagine that Van Gaal’s methods, his commitment to developing young players (at least those who can submit themselves to his “philosophy”), will start to pay its dividends at Old Trafford this season? Could it be that players like Smalling and Jones will finally transform themselves this season from (eternally) promising talents to established and truly reliable, perhaps even classy and dominant, center backs and thus step out of the shadow of Ferdinand and Vidic? And could it be that youngsters such as Januzaj, Pereira, Shaw, McNair, Blackett, and Lingard – or at least two or three of them – will have their breakthrough season and become vital cogs in the Van Gaal collective? As things stand now, Manchester United and Louis van Gaal need this to happen if they want to challenge Mourinho’s Chelsea.

As I see it, three things can happen.

1) Ed Woodward brings in a couple of more signings (and Pedro doesn’t count since he will be a direct replacement for Di Maria), for example a world-class central defender and a very good striker. Everybody expects it, not least the fans. Manchester United will then end the season as champions or runners up.

2) Or else Woodward doesn’t bring in more players. The above mentioned talents don’t show the much hoped for development, and Manchester United will end the season as number two, three or four.

3) Or, finally, no more players are signed, but the talents do in fact show the much hoped for development, and Manchester United will end the season as champions or runners up.

I bet the third option, the fairy tale option repeating 1995, would be the one most fans would love – also those who now demand more reinforcements.

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