The Manchester United vs Arsenal youth debate and who’s producing more stars for the future
MEN Sport Manchester United writer Dominic Booth and Football.London writer James Benge discussed the best young players at United and Arsenal and which team has the edge in each position…
DB: United obviously have a hugely promising goalkeeper contracted to the club in Dean Henderson. But now 22 and committed to Sheffield United until the end of the season – plus the fact David de Gea has just signed a bumper new contract – and there is some doubt over whether he’ll stick with United long-term. That’d be a huge shame as Henderson is an England Under-21 international and it cannot be long before he receives a senior call-up, despite his recent error versus Liverpool.
Further down the pecking order is Matej Kovar, the 19-year-old Czech goalkeeper who was signed by United 18 months ago and has been included in their Europa League squad this morning.
As mentioned, De Gea will take some shifting now that new deal is in the bag, but United have young options waiting in the wings.
JB: Unai Emery’s squad may not be overloaded with homegrown goalkeepers but there are a string of young prospects making their way up through Hale End who will eventually hope to put pressure on Bernd Leno.
In truth none of them are quite the sure thing that Dean Henderson is at Old Trafford but there is no little promise in Karl Hein and Arthur Okonkwo. The latter has caught the interest of RB Leipzig and Celtic in past years and is widely admired for his ability with the ball at his feet. The same is true of Hein, who signed his first professional contract in May.
He is also a natural shot-stopper, a stunning double save for the U18s against Brighton last season was worthy of David De Gea or any other top Premier League goalkeeper, and at 6ft 3in is a commanding presence in the penalty area. Expect him and Okonkwo to battle out for a starting spot in the U23s over the coming months with the winner well-placed to challenge Emiliano Martinez for the right to be Leno’s No.2.
DB: United’s youth system looks fairly well stocked in the full-back positions. Brandon Williams is a right-footed left-back in the mould of Denis Irwin, whose senior debut in the League Cup game against Rochdale recently was a long-time coming. He impressed in a 45-minute cameo and looks to be itching for more first team opportunities Ethan Laird is another superb prospect at right-back, while the likes of Reece Devine and Arnaud Puigmal are highly rated. In centre-back terms, Teden Mengi is by far the most promising, 17 years old and surely with a big future ahead of him.
JB: The Hale End academy has not had the greatest of recent histories in producing centre-backs and full-backs, many of the best that the Gunners have found in recent years have been repurposed attackers such as Ashley Cole and Hector Bellerin. It is not impossible to see the same happening with Bukayo Saka, who has played left back for England at youth level, but it is unlikely.
Meanwhile the Arsenal U18s are struggling to keep clean sheets and there are few in Steve Bould’s U23s who are knocking firmly on the door of the first-team. Zech Medley is perhaps the stand-out option but even where he is concerned there are no guarantees he will ever establish himself in Emery’s plans.
DB: This is the area in which United desperately need academy prospects to be stepping up, though they aren’t actually blessed with too many, James Garner aside. The 18-year-old made his debut as a substitute against Crystal Palace last season, but his involvement has been delayed this term. He’s not a Joe Willock or a Reiss Nelson type, more of a sitting midfielder who United’s coaches believe could emulate Michael Carrick in the future. Dylan Levitt and Aliou Traore are the other youngsters who’ll look to make their mark. Levitt has already been called up by Ryan Giggs to the Wales senior squad.
JB: Here is where Arsenal’s options start to swell. Perhaps most excitingly of all is the youngster who only just signed professional terms, Miguel Azeez. There are few youngsters like him at Hale End, perhaps even in English football. A tall, languid playmaker who is most comfortable at the base of midfielder he seems a perfect long-term fit for the Gunners.
There is also Matt Smith, James Olayinka and Robbie Burton, the latter of whom got praise from Unai Emery during the club’s summer tour.
Then there are the two youngsters who have already established themselves in the first team, Willock and Emile Smith Rowe. The former has made such an impressive start to the season that Gareth Southgate has already taken note and he is an increasingly familiar presence in Emery’s starting XI.
Smith Rowe has endured a disappointing 2019 but the regard he is held in should not be underestimated. He was arguably Emery’s favourite youngster last season and but for injuries would be playing a more significant role in the side this term.
Emery is certainly not short of options in this spot and for all the talent of a Scott McTominay United pretty clearly lack the weight of quality numbers.
DB: Mason Greenwood is the obvious name to cite here – everyone knows about the 17-year-old and his promise. Nelson, Willock and Saka are obviously in a similar category to him, but Greenwood holds the advantage in terms of his age. Time is very much on his side – and he’s already scored two goals in two senior starts this season, albeit none in the Premier League as yet. Tahith Chong is probably under a little more pressure to start producing in a first team shirt, given he’s a little older at 19. Otherwise, the names for the future are Largie Ramazani and D’mani Mellor, who are both scoring goals for United’s Under-23s at the moment.
I’d say United probably have more prospects in full-back and goalkeeping regions than Arsenal, though they lack the stand-out names in midfield and attacking areas – which is where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would really want to be blessed with choices at this stage in United’s rebuild.
JB: Perhaps the most effective approach here might be to write a full list of the many, many promising attacking youngsters coming through: Saka, Folarin Balogun, Tyreece John-Jules, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Gabriel Martinelli.
United fans are right to be excited by Greenwood but it is fair to ask whether he would even have been particularly noted if he were coming through the Arsenal system, such is the quality of players coming through. That is why Raul Sanllehi led a deliberate change in strategy, selling off senior players to make room for these young guns.
This is a unique, exciting generation with few equals in England or Europe, an area where United simply cannot compete.
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