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Manchester United look to return to youth under Erik Ten Hag

22 April 2022 - 00:50 By Reuters
Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag prior to the TOTO KNVB Cup final against PSV and Ajax at Stadion Feijenoord in Rotterdam on April 17 2022.
Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag prior to the TOTO KNVB Cup final against PSV and Ajax at Stadion Feijenoord in Rotterdam on April 17 2022.
Image: Geert van Erven/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Manchester United appointed a new manager in Dutchman Erik ten Hag on Thursday with some very familiar language used to announce his arrival from Ajax.

“During the past four years at Ajax, Erik has proved himself to be one of the most exciting and successful coaches in Europe, renowned for his team’s attractive, attacking football and commitment to youth,” said United's football director John Murtough.

It is the same rhetoric that former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer frequently turned to when talking about United's 'DNA' — attacking football and youth are seen by the club's hierarchy as embedded in United's ethos from the days of Matt Busby to Alex Ferguson.

The 'Busby Babes' of the 1950s established United as a post-war power in English football before their progress was wrecked by the Munich air disaster. The 'Class of 92' under Ferguson created an era of domination of the English game out of a team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 and went on to win the Champions League as part of a treble of trophies in 1999.

Ajax are likewise known for a production line of young players and for a commitment to aesthetically pleasing, positive football and by poaching their manager, United clearly hope to tap into that tradition.

United are rightly proud of their record of producing home-grown talent — in 2019 they celebrated 4,000 straight matches in which at least one youth graduate was represented in the first team or match-day squad, a run that goes back nine decades to before World War 2.

Even in the midst of their current troubles, placed sixth in the league and beaten 4-0 by Liverpool on Tuesday, the club can point to the success of reaching a record 15th FA Youth Cup final — they will face Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford on May 11.

United have not come close to winning the league since Ferguson retired in 2013 and understandably there is a strong desire to recreate the formula for success that the Scotsman found from academy products such as David Beckham and Paul Scholes. But cases of success coming from a single generation of youth team players are extremely rare in the modern game and United would be wise to recall another skill of Ferguson's — buying young talent from other clubs.

Wayne Rooney was just 18 when Ferguson signed him from Everton, Roy Keane was 21 when he moved to Old Trafford from Nottingham Forest and Rio Ferdinand 23 when he signed from Leeds United.

Though Ten Hag's Ajax team, now top of the Dutch table, features some home-grown talent, the core of his side has been bought from elsewhere and that is likely to be the path that United go down as they look at a rebuild ahead of next season.

It would be no surprise if some United academy products find themselves with opportunities next season — winger Anthony Elanga has been given chances under Ralf Rangnick this season, central midfielder James Garner has impressed on loan at Nottingham Forest and Spanish born winger Alejandro Garnacho is also highly rated. But if United are going to rebuild successfully with younger players next season, they are likely to need to provide Ten Hag with hungry talent, proven at a high level.

Some of the players who have been linked with United in media speculation certainly fit that profile with Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham (18) and West Ham United's Declan Rice (23) both options for midfield. Benfica's 22-year-old striker Darwin Nunez has impressed many in the Champions League this season and United's defence could also benefit from some younger, faster options.

There should be plenty of space for new faces with Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani all seeing their contracts expire on June 30 while Nemanja Matic has confirmed he will leave the club.