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Sep 9, 2011

Beware United's new kids on the block

ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.

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The transfer window has shut since the last round of Premier League games, with Manchester United one of the few clubs not to clinch any last-minute deals. United definitely got it right by doing their business well before deadline day. The likes of Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta may know the Premier League but they have no idea what life is like at Arsenal and they'll be asked to find out very quickly. Arsenal may have got more money by holding out before Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but they lost out on time to replace them.

By signing players early, you get all the potential difficulties out of way - particularly things like moving house and getting settled in a new area. The new United lads - David De Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young - have been involved through pre-season, they've got to know their new team-mates and the coaches - they feel part of the club. The impressive start United have had to the season shows how much it can help a team gel.

At half-time in the Community Shield, I thought Sir Alex had given up the ghost and just put the kids on to give them some experience. I'm sure he will probably turn around and say he knew how good they were but I don't think even he believed they could be integrated so quickly. That second-half performance against City will have made him think 'wow, they're all ready' and I'd agree that if they're good enough and confident enough, why not throw them in.

It's not quite right to compare the current crop to that amazing group that came through in the mid-90s, as they haven't come through United's academy. The likes of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and David Beckham had grown up together, playing together through the youth cups and the youth leagues and getting to know each other's game. The new lads have been headhunted really, having played at other clubs and already shown they can make it in the first team - that's why United have been prepared to pay so much for them. But in terms of their talent, the early signs indicate they could go on and replicate that generation's success.

It's really difficult to pick out which one of the young players has made the most impact so far but, personally, I think Chris Smalling has been a revelation. I don't think many people saw him as a natural full-back and he has said himself that he sees his future at centre-half, but he has obviously staked a claim to a starting spot on the right and his versatility gives his manager a fantastic option. As a manager, it's great if you've got young players who can play in two or three different positions and with Smalling and Phil Jones, Sir Alex has cover across the defence and in central midfield. They're not just one dimensional players and you can certainly see them playing for Manchester United for the next ten years. It's good timing too, with the more experienced players leaving they are the new kids on the block.

Seven years ago that was Wayne Rooney, but now he is one of the team's older heads. Rooney is not a kid anymore; he has vast experience, has scored 150 United goals and is coming to his absolute peak. For the next three or four years, the younger lads at the club will be looking to him to lead them. When Rooney is totally focused, he goes out there and he can lead them team all over the place - dropping deep, linking up, scoring goals, delivering the goods from set pieces; don't be surprised if he gets even better.

Marking Rooney on Saturday should be his England team-mate Gary Cahill and I think holding onto him was a great bit of business for Bolton. It sends a message out to the dressing-room about the club's ambition and also shows other players that even if they are thinking of moving, they won't be allowed to do so on the cheap. Cahill is a great player and in the future I've no doubt he can play for one of the Premier League's top four clubs. I like his attitude on the pitch and he's a good size for a centre-back - a big lad but an athlete; it's easy to see why Arsenal wanted him. He's got another season at Bolton now and who knows, maybe they can progress enough to convince him to stay there long-term.

Bolton are an established Premier League club now and they've got a very good manager in Owen Coyle - I must say I was really disappointed when they were battered by Stoke in the FA Cup semi-finals last year as I think they're better than that. The opening- day result against QPR was excellent, they've just been unlucky to find themselves against in-form sides in Manchester City and Liverpool since then. And now they have to face United too.

Coyle may give David Ngog his debut at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday. I think Liverpool must have seen something in Ngog as they persevered with him for quite a while. He gave flashes of why they were playing him, but at other times you questioned whether he was really good enough to be a Liverpool player. But going somewhere like Bolton, where he's going to play on a regular basis and have a player like Kevin Davies around him to create opportunities, you might find he starts to get among the goals more.

Ngog scored against United when Liverpool beat them a couple of years ago, but I'll be surprised if he's on the winning side this time. Man United don't often lose at places like Bolton; they don't often lose full stop. If United are a little bit below par, Bolton may fancy they can get a draw, but having seen how dominant Sir Alex's side have been so far this season, it's difficult to see anything other than a win for the league leaders.

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