For the first time since before Christmas, a wave of optimism has swept through Old Trafford and United fans alike, brought about by the exuberance of youth.
Louis Van Gaal might have been absolutely lambasted by the media and supporters for not keeping with the club’s tradition of playing attacking football but he has maintained United’s record of giving players who have come through the club’s youth system a chance in the first team.
Since his arrival in the summer of 2014 the Dutchman has given debuts to Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Reece James, Saidy Janko, Tom Thorpe, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Guillermo Varela, Donald Love, Joe Riley, Marcus Rashford, Regan Poole and most recently Timothy Fosu-Mensah and James Weir in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Arsenal.
Admittedly some of the players on that list have already left the club and several others are unlikely to carve out long term futures for themselves at Old Trafford with fierce competition in their positions and the imminent return of a horde of more established, expensive stars who have fallen victim to the club’s recent injury crisis, one of the worst in living memory.
Make no mistake, this is no repeat of the Class of 92, which was a once in a lifetime achievement but the players who have come into the team have by no means disgraced themselves, some of them have actually done quite well.
The most obvious one is Marcus Rashford who has had an absolute whirlwind of a week, sat in the crowd at Old Trafford on Thursday night ahead of the game against Midtjylland nearly every fan in the stadium was expecting Anthony Martial to start up front as had been confirmed earlier on MUTV.
So you can imagine the surprise bordering on disbelief, when shortly before kick-off it was announced that an 18-year-old kid who most people had never heard of was to lead United’s attack in a European game where we needed to overturn a first leg defeat. A quick check of Twitter told me that Martial had been injured in the warm up and I braced myself for a disaster.
Watching Rashford early in the first half, he looked like a boy who needed to fill out significantly before he was ready for the first team. I expected their defenders to bully him, or even worse kick him out of the game. With the score tied at 1-1 at half-time and United needing to score twice to go through and avoid extra-time it looked like it would have to be one of the senior players making an impact in the second half to avoid another disaster.
Step up Marcus Rashford, the teenager took two well-taken finishes in the second half to send United on their way and looked more and more assured as the game went on. Another couple of goals from Herrera and Depay made it look like it had been a routine victory and set up a tie with Liverpool in the next round.
Most fans will have imagined or hoped that Martial would have been back in the side for Sunday’s visit of Arsenal. Doing the business against an average team from Denmark is all well and good, but to do it against a team that are (were) going for the league title is another thing entirely. When I heard he was starting again I thought it would be a game too far him and that Arsenal’s attack would absolutely maul our patchwork defence.
I love being wrong, of course Rashford bagged himself another couple of goals and earned himself a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd when he was substituted. What a way to break into the first team, an England call-up for the European Championships this summer is being discussed and the young man from Wythenshawe is being talked about with more excitement than any other English prospect since perhaps Wayne Rooney himself. If he keeps his feet on the ground and is handled properly there is no reason why he can’t be a big part of United’s plans for a generation.
Rashford isn’t the only one living in dreamland, Joe Riley looked decent on Thursday night from left-back, eager to get forward and be positive even when things weren’t going United’s way in the first half. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has done well playing against some household names during his recent run in the side and looks as if he could be the long term back-up to Luke Shaw. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is also one of the most promising defenders to come out of Holland in recent years having been poached from Ajax.
All in all, the future is beginning to look very promising and this is why United need to stick with Van Gaal for the time being. Jose Mourinho who is being mooted as his successor is more of a buying manager and never sticks around longer than about three years. Changing the manager now would be counter-productive and would mean another period of upheaval which would leave us no nearer to challenging for the title. Throwing money at more players isn’t the answer and the club needs to revert back to its old philosophy of blooding young players with shrewd signings and making big money buys when only necessary.
The next few games are crucial if United are to have any chance of finishing in the top four and they still have to go to City and Spurs. But, if they can put a run of wins together and get results in both those games then they stand a chance, just keep winning and see what happens. If he gets into the Champions League or wins a trophy it will be harder to sack Van Gaal especially since it is rumoured that a large faction of the board don’t want Mourinho and Ed Woodward will be reluctant to take responsibility for another failed appointment that will ultimately weaken his own position at the club.
The past week could just be another false dawn in the reign of Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United or it could be the start of something special. If some of the youngsters that have been given an opportunity this season can command a place in United’s first team in years to come and the likes of Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj catch fire and fulfil their undoubted potential then maybe, just maybe, United could be a force to be reckoned with once again.