Following United’s high level burst of retail therapy towards the end of the transfer window, those same organs of the media that had been slating the club for a lack of star players suddenly switched their guns in the other direction: not on themselves, which would have been my preference, but on the club’s alleged abandonment of its famous youth policy in favour of a city or Chelsea-style orgy of splurging on expensive overseas talent.
On the face of it, it might seem they have a point. The sale of Danny Welbeck to Arsenal appeared a flagship statement of intent: United’s most noted home grown talent of late, Mancunian and United to the core (despite his apparent recent claim that he’d always dreamed of playing for Arsenal, which seems more of an attempt to curry favour with sceptical North London supporters than anything else – I mean, who the hell dreams that?) had been allowed to leave the club. Tom Cleverley also departed on loan, though it seems I’m in a very small minority of United fans disappointed that it didn’t work out for him. Meanwhile, Tom Lawrence, regarded until recently as a serious first team prospect, departed for Leicester for a paltry one million quid.
Those who wanted to heap further fuels on the self-created bonfire of United’s soul pointed out that, in addition to those three, a number of players had also left on loan: Varela went to Real Madrid for a season, Henriquez to the less glamorous destination of Zagreb with Nick Powell joining Lawrence, at least temporarily, at Leicester. Michael Keane joined Burnley on a shorter term loan deal, while Charni Ekangamene had already departed in a permanent deal to Waragem. And if you wanted to stretch a point, you could also add that Bebe and Macheda could both be counted as promising young talent (I know) who’d made their way out of the club during the summer months.
The argument, however, is about as convincing as Qatar’s case for hanging onto the World Cup. If you don’t count players who were already on their way out prior to Van Gaal’s arrival, it amounts to a mere three players from the club’s youth set-up leaving on permanent deals, one being someone many United fans wanted to get shut of anyway. As for loans, they always happen at this time of year and, thus far, there have been no more players leaving on temporary deals than is normally the case. In fact, when you consider the numbers David Moyes sent out of the club in January, it’s pretty small beer.
The fact is that United’s senior squad for the coming season contains eight players who have been at the club since before their eighteenth birthday while others, such as Tyler Blackett and Reece James, have featured in the senior squad already this season. A young man called James Wilson is lurking on the sidelines, the removal of Chicharito, Welbeck and Henriquez all immediately elevating him in the queue for a place among United’s forwards. And rightly so – he’s as good a teenage striker I’ve seen since Rooney. In other words, when it comes down to it, United have far more home-developed talent either in the first team squad or knocking on the door of it than any other top English team, and that’s using the word ‘top’ in its very broadest sense.
Van Gaal is a manager who, throughout his career, has been committed to the development of young talent. His Ajax side that won the Champions League contained eight players (of the thirteen that featured in the final) who had come through the club’s academy; he’s a man who, at Barcelona, was often criticised for favouring young talent at the expense of star players – in the process he had a high profile spat with Rivaldo while raising the profile of a couple of unknowns called Xavi and Iniesta. Ditto Bayern Munich, where Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber were elevated to the first team as teenagers, while a young Toni Kroos champed at the bit, another player whose early development was overseen by the current United boss.
Above it all, though, Van Gaal is a pragmatist. He knows United needed at least two or three high profile signings to help him ensure qualification for the Champions League next year. It’s where the club needs to be and the kind of short-term injection of high profile signings was preferable to a situation where, for the second season running, we relied on players who may or may not have developed sufficiently in order to make it. Unlike periods in our history where we were able to absorb young talent into an already highly functioning squad, we’re not in a position to take those kind of chances now. Put simply, it would have been foolhardy to have passed on Falcao simply to keep Welbeck at the club, on the off-chance that he finally began to score goals at a decent rate. A regrettable but undeniable truth.
Van Gaal, while committed to youth, isn’t the kind of man to put all his eggs in one basket, especially as that basket currently has quite a few holes in it. In United’s situation at the moment it just wouldn’t be wise to trust purely to the development of young talent. That doesn’t mean that either the club or Van Gaal have abandoned their natural commitment to it. On the contrary, when the international break is over and Lingard, James, Blackett and others get the opportunity to train alongside the likes of Di Maria and Falcao, it can only benefit them. United’s youth policy is not only safe in Van Gaal’s hands – it’s in the most capable hands in the business.