United offloads youth to signal shift in policy
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Manchester United was minutes away from announcing a blockbuster move for Radamel Falcao in the final hours of the transfer window when the club released a statement that went largely unnoticed.
One of the team’s promising youngsters, striker Tom Lawrence, had been sold to fellow Premier League side Leicester.
The 20-year-old Lawrence made his senior debut for United in one of the final games of last season, a 3-1 win over Hull in the Premier League when Ryan Giggs was interim manager. It was to be his only match in the famous red shirt.
Lawrence was one of four young British players to leave Old Trafford on deadline day, the same day United completed the signings of established internationals from Colombia and the Netherlands to take the summer spending of new manager Louis van Gaal to 150 million pounds ($250 million).
Long held up as a breeding ground for home-grown talent — the “Class of 92” that came through the ranks included Giggs, David Beckham, the Neville brothers and Paul Scholes — United this time has resembled Real Madrid of a few years ago, seeking short-term gain by signing “galacticos” like Falcao and Angel Di Maria.
“What will happen in the future now, nobody knows,” Mike Phelan, a one-time assistant to former manager Alex Ferguson, said Tuesday. “But that thread has been broken now.”
Following Lawrence out of United on Monday was 21-year-old defender Michael Keane on loan to Burnley, 20-year-old midfielder Nick Powell to Leicester and, perhaps most tellingly, 23-year-old England forward Danny Welbeck.
With Falcao, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie ahead of him in the list of strikers, Welbeck was surplus to requirements as far as Van Gaal was concerned and tied up a last-gasp move to Arsenal for 16 million pounds ($26.5 million).
Beckham is among those to bemoan his departure.
“He has been there since he was 8, his heart was in Manchester,” Beckham told the BBC on Tuesday. “I am sure he is obviously sad to leave Manchester United.
“Arsenal have a very good, young, talented English player but to see him leave Manchester United — as a Manchester United fan — is obviously sad.”
There is unlikely to be an academy graduate in United’s first-choice lineup this year for the first time in a generation. Giggs’ retirement last season ended two decades of unbroken involvement of that “Class of 92,” which blossomed under Ferguson and inspired United to a haul of trophies and the top of English football.
Under Van Gaal, and probably the coaches that succeed him, a new route is being taken with instant success imperative. That could mean youth development is eschewed, although 20-year-old Tyler Blackett has started matches in defense this season because of injuries and unavailabilities.
Developing young players is what Van Gaal has done throughout his career, however. He won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 with a young team and he brought youngsters through during his time at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
At those clubs, he started out as coach from a position of relative strength. Not so at United, which is reeling from its worst-ever finish of seventh in the Premier League and isn’t in Europe this season.
So, players like Welbeck are looking elsewhere for game time, which suits England coach Roy Hodgson just fine while he presides over a shallow pool of talent from which to select his squads.
“When you are a player of his caliber and you find yourself at Man United with such enormous competition for places, you don’t always get the starts that you would like,” Hodgson said Tuesday, a day before a friendly against Norway at Wembley Stadium.
“I think it’s good for him now that he’s going to a club where hopefully he will get more starts and playing time.”
Another young England player, 25-year-old Tom Cleverley, also left United because of a lack of opportunities. He went to Aston Villa on a season-long loan to play for manager Paul Lambert, who is known for giving youth a chance.
“Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going,” Phelan said. “Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?
“It is a difficult one because youth is always the future.”