Manchester United tried so, very hard to throw away two points against Wolves on Thursday.
Leading 2-0 for most of the match off early goals from Marcus “Tequilla” Rashford and Rasmus Højlund, United, as they are wont to do this year, missed a bunch of chances to ice the match and inevitably gave Wolves a way back. First, a soft penalty on Casemiro made it 2-1. Then, after Scott McTominay added a third, Wolves hit United on a corner kick and equalized in stoppage time. Once again, it looked like United had managed to snatch defeat (or a tie) from the jaws of victory.
But then United’s latest starlet, Kobbie Mainoo, stepped up and calmly did what so many of his teammates could not. He effortlessly dribbled past several Wolves defenders and expertly curled the ball past keeper José Sá to win the match.
Cue the mass hysteria. Mainoo’s teammates mobbed him and gave him a prolonged ovation in the dressing room after the match. There was also mass hysteria amongst the pundit class, with Andy Townsend calling him wise and mature beyond his years while Rio Ferdinand compared him to Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf.
So is all of this praise warranted? Or is it just another case of an overhyped prospect that will inevitably get found out like so many before him?
There’s long been a tendency for supporters to overrate academy and youth players. Whether it’s a case of hope, delusion or deference (surely, United wouldn’t sign a player unless they had potential, right?), we’ve had plenty of prospects that have been built up as future world class superstars. For instance:
Adnan Januzaj was so heralded, he was compared not one or two but three legends: Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs.
More recently, United had players who were set to be the next Arjen Robben, Giggs and Scholes (again) and even Paul Gascoigne. And yet, those players: Tahith Chong, Anthony Elanga, Angel Gomes and Ravel Morrison, are all under contract with other teams now.
This season, United have been particularly ruthless in shipping out academy and reserve players. In the summer transfer window, United cleaned house, selling several youngsters, including Charlie Savage, who joined Reading, Noam Emeran, who signed with Groningen and two Ethans, Laird and Galbraith, who went to Birmingham City and Leyton Orient, respectively.
There were two headline grabbing deals in the summer involving players once thought to have futures with the first team. First, United sold highly regarded midfield prospect Zidane Iqbal to Utrecht for a relatively paltry £850,000 along with a buy-back clause and a hefty 40% sell on clause. Then they sent Marc Jurado, who came to the club in a much ballyhooed pre-Brexit acquisition of talented Spanish youngsters (the others were Alejandro Garnacho and Alvaro Fernandez) to Espanyol for a small fee but with a substantial sell-on clause.
In the just-passed January transfer window, the clear out continued, as United loaned out the aforementioned Fernandez to Benfica but included a fairly low buy-option (a £5.1 million figure that becomes mandatory if he starts at least 50% of the available matches). United also sold Norwegian starlet Isak Hansen-Aarøen, who has been compared to countryman and Arsenal skipper Martin Ødegaard, to Werder Bremen — with sell-on and buy-back clauses. Meanwhile, Hannibal Mejbri, a player long seen as a future star and had played well in spurts this season when given time, was loaned to Sevilla with a fairly low buy-option (£17.2 million). Considering how his loan spell seems to be off to a bad start, that option might be moot.
With Mainoo, however, it feels like the high expectations are justified. He is very comfortable on the ball and good at keeping it under pressure. He’s clearly a good dribbler and with goals in each of United’s last two matches, he could develop into a scoring threat from midfield a la Keane or Scholes. His was a good passer when he played for the U-21 team and has an 85.5% pass success rate in the league — better than Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes.
That pass rate only tells part of the story. After all, you can always inflate your numbers by playing short passes back to the goalie. Instead, as The Busby Babe points out, when he drops between opposing players to receive a pass from a center back, he has enough awareness, skill and confidence to be able to keep the ball and move or pass it forward— an invaluable trait in the modern game. Many of his teammates can’t do this and simply pass it back to whoever gave it to them or send it all the way back to the keeper because they’re afraid of being dispossessed in a dangerous area. This is why United wanted de Jong so badly and why they can struggle to play the ball from the back.
As The Athletic points out, “Mainoo is already United’s best midfielder when it comes to receiving and passing under pressure.” Erik ten Hag also pointed out Mainoo’s growing importance to the team. “Mainoo is simply everything a modern midfielder needs to be,” said ten Hag after the match. “It’s great to see and I hope he stays as calm as he is. He is determined, has character and I hope he continues to develop.”
That calmness is another reason why he seems like the real deal. After United shipped that second goal, they seemed to tighten up and panic. You got the sense that if Wolves got another good opportunity, they would equalize, and sure enough, they did. The only question was whether Wolves could get another goal and win the game against a clearly demoralized United.
But then Mainoo decided he wasn’t going to let his team drop points. Showing a level of poise that seemed to be in short supply amongst his teammates, Mainoo scored his goal and then held up his hand as if to say “don’t worry guys, I got this.”
United have needed a guy who can say “don’t worry, I got this” for a while now. If Mainoo continues to develop and improve, then there’s no reason why he can’t be that guy. With his passing, ball playing ability, dribbling and scoring touch, he could be the player Paul Pogba should have been.
Hopefully, that’s where the similarities end.