“A glimpse of the future” was Ryan Giggs' description postmatch on Tuesday night, having watched two of his young Manchester United stars shine on debut. Giggs, the club’s manager until the end of the season, has spoken much of “the United way” and other such concepts over the past few weeks. In what was likely his final home match as a United player himself, the greatest of the club’s Class of ’92 servants offered an insight into what he has been referring to.
United are famous for their youth production and faith in such talents. Even in years when the crop was not of the highest standards, young players have been handed at least an introduction to first-team action. Indeed, the top divisions of English football are littered with talent produced within the club’s Carrington academy, and there is a feeling that another generation of talent is on the cusp of making it big “in house” at Old Trafford.
Heading the group is Belgian Adnan Januzaj, the undisputed bright light of what has been an often gloomy season for the Red Devils. Brought into the matchday squad for Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in 2012-13, the 19-year-old has quickly become a key member of the first-team and may still attend this summer’s World Cup. It was perhaps fitting that, as Giggs offered up his vision into the years ahead, it was Januzaj who claimed the club’s official Man of the Match award.
United had been flat in defeat to Sunderland on the weekend, and Giggs’ response could not have been more dramatic. Out went several of the biggest names of the club’s recent past and, instead, a forward line consisting of Januzaj, Tom Lawrence and James Wilson took to the field. There had been hints at inclusion for the latter pair, both making their senior debuts for the club, but few had expected such major involvement. Ninety minutes later, though, their manager's courageous selection was entirely justified.
Of the pair, Wilson stole the headlines with a brace of goals to crown his first senior outing in the famous red shirt. Just 18 years of age, his arrival at first-team level has been anticipated for quite some time. Nicky Butt, talking to Bleacher Report last month, said of the young striker that "he could be as good as anyone who's played for this club in a long, long time." Coming from someone who has played alongside the likes of Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Giggs himself, it is a considerable compliment.
Butt is well-placed to make such comparisons. The former England midfielder is now a first-team coach at United, but spent much of the season heading up the club's under-19 outfit in their UEFA Youth League campaign. Wilson was the undoubted star of that side, with five goals in six games leaving him as joint top scorer from the competition’s group stage.
The England youth international showed those predatory instincts on Tuesday night, with his positioning and fast reactions coming to the fore as he opened his Manchester United account. His first was the better finish of the two, swivelling to strike powerfully with his left foot. His second was a result of his desire to be in the right position. Wilson’s finishing (including a penchant for the spectacular), intelligence and speed stand out at youth level, and he has now made a promising start to transferring those skills to the senior ranks. With age, his tall and slight frame will fill out, giving him all the assets needed to be an excellent striker. He enjoys a battle, and that competitive nature will only serve him well in the years ahead.
Lawrence’s rise, though, has been much more of a shock to those at United. At the start of the campaign, the 20-year-old was far from a guaranteed starter even at U21 level. His season, and possibly career, changed with a two-month loan spell at League One side Carlisle in December and January. The Welsh attacking midfielder impressed in the third tier and, right at the end of the January transfer window, made the step up to Championship level with Yeovil. Once more, he quickly demonstrated that he could be an influential player at that level. In just a few months, he had altered perception of his potential and has now been rewarded for his excellent season.
While Wilson collected goals for his showing, it was the Welsh attacking midfielder whose all-round game was perhaps more impressive. In the early stages, his nerves were evident. However, after a brief dribble and rasping shot on the quarter-hour mark, he settled nicely into the game. Linking well with Shinji Kagawa and Januzaj in particular, Lawrence demonstrated a willingness to take on an opponent, fine passing skills under pressure and defensive discipline. For a first showing at this level, in an inexperienced forward line, it was quietly impressive.
Both players now face an interesting few weeks ahead. Wilson, who has been below peak fitness since hobbling off for the U21 side against Liverpool last week, has the final of the Premier League competition at that age group to prepare for next week. There, United will face a Chelsea side packed with talent and potential. Lawrence, too, may be involved in the clash, having been reintroduced following his loan spell at the semifinal stage.
The latter, though, has the more pressing task of sorting a contract extension to deal with. His current ties with the club expire in June and, prior to his loan successes, it may have been expected to be his last with the club. Impress he did, though, and a new agreement is now expected to be forthcoming in the near future. Lawrence still has much to prove, but is showing enough development to convince the club’s hierarchy that he may just have a future as a Red Devil.
Giggs’ own future at Old Trafford is also yet to be resolved but, in offering a chance to the club’s youth, he has ensured that his brief tenure as a manager will be fondly remembered by the club’s support. Wilson's is doubtless a name that will be heard many times in the coming years, while Lawrence can only be commended for the efforts he is making to prove himself a United player.
With Michael and Will Keane, Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira all doubtless hoping that the coming 12 months will bring their own opportunities at Old Trafford, the horizon undoubtedly has a positive gleam for the time being. The mantle of guiding through such players will soon be passed to a new coach and is a factor that will weigh heavily in the decision-making process. Whoever does take the reins has some interesting building blocks to work with as they set about the inevitable Old Trafford rebuild this summer. Youth talent, perhaps, can once more provide the club with a platform upon which to rise again.
For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.