History beckons for Manchester United’s new kids on the block
Published 30/08/2011 | 02:01
Eight-two is a youth-team scoreline and in essence Sunday's massacre at Old Trafford was a youth-team match, one that Arsenal lost comprehensively on and off the pitch.
The average age of both teams was 23 but that is the only point of reference connecting Manchester United and Arsenal. One was the product of a honed, definable system, the other a collection of individuals who seem to have been selected almost at random.
Arsenal have been this way before. A decade ago, they were humbled 6-1 at Old Trafford and a year later they returned to Manchester to take the championship. The season of the Invincibles — tough, hardened footballers — was still to come.
To borrow Alan Hansen's phrase, it is Arsene Wenger, not Sir Alex Ferguson, who has won nothing with kids.
Ferguson has always been obsessed with developing his own footballers in part because they were easier to mould in his own image. “Orange-juice heroes” he called them, in contrast the more difficult figures of Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath who drank something altogether stronger.
It was said that the making of the Lisbon Lions was that the Celtic team that won the European Cup were all born within 30 miles of Parkhead. The Manchester United team that in the space of a week demolished Tottenham and humiliated Arsenal is united not by geography but by age. David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Nani — a veteran at 24 — were all born while Ferguson was managing Manchester United.
Their youth gives them a shared purpose but alone it would not have forged the side that drove Wenger towards his deepest humiliation as a football man. It was the way they were brought up.
Cleverley, like Welbeck and Evans, has been part of the fabric of Old Trafford since they were 12 years old. But everyone who comes to Manchester United is lectured about the club's history, whether it is sitting through a film of the Munich disaster with Sir Bobby Charlton or being told of more recent heroics informally by Ryan Giggs.
“I grew up around Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham,” said Cleverley, who ended an astonishing afternoon by being called into Fabio Capello's England squad for the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales.
“I have been at the club 10 years now. I know what it is like to be at Manchester United and nerves do not come into it. “I have been coming to Old Trafford for 10 years and have always looked on thinking one day I want to be on that pitch. At the minute it is happening but I have got to work hard to stay there. We know each other's games inside out. We are a young, high-energy team and, hopefully, we will keep putting on performances like that.”
Smalling and Jones were bought for a combined fee of £31m. But they came from Fulham and Blackburn. The Premier League is a small world, especially for young English footballers, and they would have known the dressing room they were joining.
Ferguson remarked before a slaughter he seemed not to entirely enjoy that one of Wenger's problems was that he had tapped a deep seam of talent in France and Francophone Africa that now appears “to have dried up a bit”.
It is worth recalling that what Arsenal suffered on Sunday, they have dished out before. In a League Cup tie in January 2007, their young footballers inflicted Liverpool's heaviest defeat at Anfield since the Mauretania was tying up at the Mersey Docks.
Rafael Benitez, horrified by the humbling, ordered a total overhaul of Liverpool's youth policy, which now in the shape of Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jay Spearing is beginning to bear fruit. This might be the kind of catalyst Wenger's regime requires.
Jack Wilshere, one of Arsenal's many absentees on Sunday and one of the most glittering products of their academy, benefited hugely from his loan experience at Bolton, as did Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge.
What this astonishing beginning has demonstrated is the importance Ferguson places on the club's summer tours, which Wenger has until recently treated with disdain but which allow young players to be blooded in big stadia and before capacity crowds.
The summer was a time when Ferguson decided to reject Wesley Sneijder's stratospheric wage demands before wondering if he already had Scholes's replacement close at hand in Cleverley.
The head injury Javier Hernandez sustained in America meant he had a choice of Dimitar Berbatov or Welbeck as Wayne Rooney's partner. Berbatov seemed the safer, more logical option but Welbeck's performance against Barcelona in Washington had stuck in the United manager's mind. It was the same with Cleverley.
“I knew I had to work hard in pre-season and impress the manager,” he said. “Hopefully, that is what I did. He has rewarded me by giving me a chance and I just want to stay there and win trophies.”
Ending the barren, trophyless run was what Arsenal's season was supposed to be about. Old Trafford changed that. Now, it is not about whether Wenger can win but whether he can survive.