Man United's academy system is producing players but not stars
Louis van Gaal has often favoured youth over experience and has frequently celebrated his blooding of future stars like Patrick Kluivert at Ajax, Xavi at Barcelona and Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich. Young players are less likely to question him and, equally, playing them can give the illusion of happier futures, even when a club languishes in the doldrums.
And the latter point is salient when it comes to Manchester United's current crop of kids. There is little expectation they will ever match the achievements of the aforementioned trio, or of Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, United's self-styled "Class of '92". But it is in their hands that Van Gaal's uncertain future might now lie.
On Monday at Shrewsbury Town, United's starting XI included young defenders Guillermo Varela (22-years-old) and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson (19), plus midfielder Jesse Lingard (23). Van Gaal later brought on debutant defender Joe Riley (19), midfielder Andreas Pereira (20) and striker Will Keane (23), making six graduates from the youth ranks.
That so many featured was necessary because United had travelled to Shrewsbury missing 14 first-team players, and Van Gaal grimaced on the New Meadow bench as Borthwick-Jackson, Lingard and Keane added to that casualty list when suffering fresh knocks.
But, having jettisoned the likes of Robin van Persie, Rafael, Angel Di Maria, Jonny Evans, Nani, Tom Cleverley and Javier Hernandez last summer, the manager might now have to reach further into the reserve and youth ranks to find players for vital upcoming fixtures.
Thursday offers a chance to overturn last week's embarrassing 2-1 Europa League defeat to Midtjylland, while beating Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday could help bridge a gap a six-point gap to the top four.
Borthwick-Jackson, the left-back proving himself an adept replacement for broken leg victim Luke Shaw, would be particularly missed if he is unavailable. Of the 10 academy graduates given full debuts by Van Gaal in his 19 months in charge, the left-back currently appears the brightest prospect.
Van Gaal has given opportunities at an admirable rate, though names likes Tyler Blackett and Saido Janko, both of whom debuted at the start of the 2014-15 season, have receded in the memory while Paddy McNair, who shone in defence in the winter months of that campaign, has been unable to build on that promise.
United's current boss is unlikely to be missed when his time comes but, at a club that still prides itself on bringing through young players, he has at least upheld one club tradition: The celebrated statistic that United have had a youth-team graduate in every first-team squad since October 1937.
In local terms, Manchester City's deep financial commitment to sourcing young talent, as evidenced by the opulent youth and reserve-team stadium built at their Etihad Campus, has United second-best in their own city.
And the FA Youth Cup, won ever year from 1953-58 by Matt Busby's "Babes," and twice in the 1990s by "Fergie's Fledglings," has recently been dominated by current holders Chelsea, who have won four finals since 2010.
United last won the competition in 2011 but, aside from Lingard and Keane, both back at the club after a succession of loans in the lower divisions, those who played in that final against Sheffield United never graduated to play regularly for Sir Alex Ferguson or his successors David Moyes and Van Gaal.
Among that generation, the names of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison stand out. The failure to convince Pogba to sign a new contract before he joined Juventus four years ago is painful now that the Frenchman is the most sought-after midfielder in world football, and has been linked with a £100 million move to City.
Morrison, hailed as United's most-talented midfield prospect since Scholes and in whom Rio Ferdinand this month said Pogba was in awe, is at Lazio but rarely playing competitive football. It is the latest of a series of wrong moves for the 23-year-old, with whom Ferguson finally lost patience in January 2012 and jettisoned to West Ham, from where he was eventually cut adrift by Sam Allardyce.
Successors to those lost stars may soon be in short supply at Old Trafford, if this season's FA Youth Cup is anything to go by. Last month, Chelsea travelled to Altrincham, where United's representative teams play, and won 5-1 in a fourth-round tie. Any previous dominance of the club's academy over its peers now firmly lies in the past.
It is into that setting that Nicky Butt steps after he was named last week as the club's head of coaching. Having come through the system himself, the distinguished academy graduate appears an ideal choice to keep the old fires burning.
But any flush of romance is dulled by the fact that his predecessor Brian McClair had announced his departure 12 months before this appointment. Butt has been on United's coaching staff since October 2012 and his position came only after an approach to John McDermott, academy manager at Tottenham, was rebuffed in January.
That state of affairs, as well as this month's departure of U18 coach Paul McGuinness after more than 25 years at the club, hardly suggests great cohesion within the United development department. And beyond the difficulty of catching back up with Chelsea and Man City, Butt's task may be made yet harder.
Should Jose Mourinho, a manager who infamously ignored a golden crop of Chelsea youth and instead played battle-hardened imports, succeed Van Gaal then United's academy graduates may find it yet more difficult to break through.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.