Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer win with kids?
Nemanja Matic recently dropped a shock prediction that Manchester United will struggle to seriously challenge for the title due to lack of experience in the squad. “Quality and experience brings you the title. In this squad we have quality and no experience,” he told the Daily Mail.
Matic's comments rekindled memories of TV pundit Alan Hansen who criticized then-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with a comment that went down in football folklore - “You can’t win anything with kids”.
He was eventually left embarrassed by Ferguson and his famous fledglings who went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup that season with a team whose average age was 26 years and 137 days.
After United’s failure to win the 1994-95 title, Ferguson shipped out several senior pros and constructed a new, vibrant United with a youthful nucleus made up of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs.
To oversee a similar transformation, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has indicated a return to that policy by handing opportunities to emerging talent such as Scott McTominay, Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe ,Angel Gomes, James Garner and Tahith Chong.
The signings of Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James and Harry Maguire further amplify the radical shift in their transfer approach. Instead of signing big names who United have tended to pursue in recent years, the focus has shifted to building a young hungry squad, with a strong British core.
Ferguson’s purchases tended to be young emerging players- works in progress whom he nurtured into global superstars. Since Ferguson's departure, that approach was shunned for short-term, instant gratification and immediate achievement. The shift under Solskjaer points to a philosophical reboot.
Taking a risk
There is little doubt that Solskjaer's reliance on youth is a huge gamble.
Alan Hansen recounts how Ferguson, despite blooding in several youngsters, had developed a balanced, structured team with a mix of experience and raw, young talent. “Even after that year, when he brought those five or six sensational kids through, Sir Alex always went for experience.
"And don’t forget that the spine of that team included Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Eric Cantona. “That team was a fantastic example of how to build a formidable spine and fill in everything else around it "The kids were great, but so were the goalkeeper, two center-backs and the center-forward.”
Nemanja Matic,who is likely to be the oldest member of Solskjaer's youthful side this season, echoed similar sentiments.
United's biggest worry, and the hole they have never filled since Michael Carrick's departure, is in midfield. And, after the departure of Ander Herrera, it leaves the United midfield looking very thin. Question marks linger around Fred and Andreas Pereira. Solskjaer believes James Garner can fill the void left behind by Carrick.
The defense looks fortified after the acquisition of a promising right-back and a very good centre-back. Solskjaer seems to be comfortable with the strike force at his disposal. However, given Mason Greenwood's age and inexperience and Anthony Martial’s erratic form, the onus would be on Marcus Rashford to hit double figures this season.
The fact that United are in a transitional year without Champions League allows some breathing space to the youngsters and as Solskjaer himself admitted that they're some distance from challenging for the big titles again.
However, in the absence of Champions League football, several summer targets have expressed their reservations about joining United. Therefore, qualifying for the Champions League is the absolute minimum target for Solskjaer.
One player who could rock the boat and therefore whose future must be resolved quickly, is Paul Pogba. Solskjaer’s re-build will never be a success if he hangs on to players against their will. So if the right valuation comes in for Pogba, Solskjaer should take the money and re-invest in youthful talent, confident in the knowledge that history shows, you can win things with kids.
However, it remains to be seen whether Solskjaer will be given the same leeway as Ferguson if he fails to achieve the absolute minimum target.