Manchester United need a youth revolution — and Sir Dave Brailsford can deliver it

Sitting in the directors’ box at Luton Town on Sunday, a few rows below Harry Styles to whom the Sky Sports cameras kept returning to find, Sir Dave Brailsford cut a low profile as he looked on studiously through a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.

Brailsford was the only one present of Manchester United’s new three-man power committee designed to reshape and revitalise the club. The other two – Joel Glazer and Sir Jim Ratcliffeare billionaire businessmen, but it is Brailsford who has the background steeped in sporting success, and so it is not hard to surmise that it is Brailsford who will be the most influential figure in the future of United over the coming months and years.

Brailsford showed no reaction to the wild game unfolding in front of him. He was stoic as Rasmus Hojlund raced through to put United into the lead; he was motionless when Luton’s Carlton Morris replied and the tin roof nearly lifted off Kenilworth Road; he was unmoved by the chaotic way United saw out this victory, accruing enough needless yellow cards and glaring missed chances to put together an exhibit on how not to kill off a football match. Somehow, they won 2-1.

United held on to continue their surge towards the Champions League places (REUTERS)
United held on to continue their surge towards the Champions League places (REUTERS)

Brailsford sat quietly throughout, occasionally wringing his hands or fiddling with the ring on his finger. He may not be an expert when it comes to football but he would not have found it difficult to draw a few conclusions from United’s unconvincing win.

Chief among them was the stark difference between the performance levels of United’s experienced pros and their bright young crop. Hojlund is in sensational form, having now scored in his last six games, and this was another match-winning performance by the 21-year-old. His composure for his first goal after only 36 seconds was that of a ruthless goalscorer, and his improvised chested finish for his second a few minutes later was equally well taken.

“We are very happy with our recruitment, that we recruited the right character because he can perform under stress,” said manager Erik ten Hag afterwards. “And when things go against him like in the first half of the season, he has the abilities to have a strong character, to be resilient, to be determined and score goals and that is what we saw when we scouted him.”

Around Hojlund, United’s brightest lights were all young players. In a game lacking control, the 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo provided spots of it in another performance that suggested he will be United’s heartbeat for many years to come. His ability to receive the ball in tight spaces and keep it was exceptional. Then there was Alejandro Garnacho, who was wasteful in front of goal but a constant threat, and Diogo Dalot, who provided impetus up the right side.

Whereas the senior pros lost their heads at Kenilworth Road. Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Casemiro were all booked for desperate challenges in the first half – the Brazilian’s was the most debatable, but then he could have been sent off for a second booking after lunging in on Ross Barkley. So it was no surprise when Ten Hag made the decision to replace them, to save those yellow cards from becoming red.

Bruno Fernandes struggled to impact the game, while Victor Lindelof and Jonny Evans both gave away clumsy fouls when they came on. Christian Eriksen was not even brought on from the bench.

United’s senior players struggled as Ten Hag’s side lost control at Kenilworth Road (Action Images via Reuters)
United’s senior players struggled as Ten Hag’s side lost control at Kenilworth Road (Action Images via Reuters)

On this evidence, the future of this team appears reliant on the blossoming of youth, and Brailsford will no doubt understand that. In the cycling world he rebuilt a squad at Team Sky, later Ineos, around young talent after the early success of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and he helped bring that talent to the fore, most notably managing Egan Bernal, the youngest winner of the Tour de France for more than a century. Brailsford knew the value of building a development squad stacked with talent, and he scoured Britain, mainland Europe and South America for the best prospects.

While running OGC Nice – another Ineos project – Brailsford was central to the hiring of Francesco Farioli, the club’s 34-year-old head coach, one of the youngest managers in top-level European football. Now Brailsford is thought to be closing in on the hiring of Dan Ashworth, Newcastle’s technical director, perhaps best known for reshaping England’s footballing ‘DNA’ by rebuilding the FA setup from its youth teams upwards, a pipeline that has been credited for helping to establish such a strong pool of English talent compared to a decade ago.

United’s squad requires tough decision-making and Brailsford can lead the revolution (Getty Images)
United’s squad requires tough decision-making and Brailsford can lead the revolution (Getty Images)

It is not just about encouraging youth to flourish. Some hard decisions will need to be taken about the future of some of United’s expensive senior figures who are not consistently delivering, and Brailsford knows how to be ruthless with his older statesmen. Froome, his greatest champion, was axed from the Tour de France squad without ceremony. Brailsford doesn’t do sentiment, and as he watched the game almost motionless, with a fixed stare, it seems he doesn’t do much emotion either.

If this win showed anything it is that United will not win anything without kids. Increasingly, they look like a team who need to rebuild around their young players, and to strip away some of their senior figures. Brailsford might not know football’s intricacies, but he is exactly the right man for that task.