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24/07/2023 17:30

Kobbie Mainoo deserves the role Manchester United struggled to fill last season

Recent Manchester United pre-season tours have marked a breakthrough for an academy starlet: Andreas Pereira in 2018, Mason Greenwood in 2019 and Zidane Iqbal in 2022. Or perhaps it’s a false dawn.
2023 is becoming the summer of Kobbie Mainoo. That Mainoon will be in a Houston hotel while most of his FA Youth Cup-winning teammates are in San Diego preparing for cameos in a Disney+ episode of Welcome to Wrexham highlights his progress. Forget Andy Cannon and Jacob Mendy, Mainoo may be pitted against Bellingham and Camavinga at another stadium that will host World Cup matches in three years.

Amid the enthusiasm surrounding Mainoo, Erik ten Hag is keeping his emotions in check. He paused to chat informally with some of us in the mixed zone at the MetLife Stadium on Saturday evening and a colleague quipped how assured Mainoo looked. “You think?” Ten Hag replied.
It almost gave the impression Ten Hag was not convinced. This grounded nurturing of youngsters worked at Ajax and Mainoo plays with the grace and poise of those who preach the gospel according to Johan Cruyff. Mainoo’s father half-jokingly advised a United staff member not to be afraid of “giving him a clip around the ear” to ensure Mainoo gets up to speed. He has.

Anyone who has watched Mainoo closely will have wanted him to come up against Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard rather than Fabio Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe in East Rutherford. That must have had a bearing on Ten Hag’s decision to start Mainoo in a team that was three players shy of his strongest available XI.

It was telling Mainoo was selected for the third friendly running despite the availability of Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Scott McTominay. Mainoo has developed a swift telepathy with Mason Mount, cut from the same cloth, and he threaded another perceptive pass for Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
More impressive than the pass was Mainoo’s approach. He demanded the ball from Tom Heaton in line with the curve of the ‘D’, his first touch and turn were in one smooth motion before he accelerated away from Kai Havertz and advanced an attack with a ball from United’s third into Arsenal’s.
Heaton played the ball to Mainoo on two more occasions and he drifted wide to the right before laying the ball off for Bruno Fernandes to larrup it in for the opening goal. Fernandes avuncularly placed his hands on Mainoo’s head in celebration.
Fifteen months ago, Fernandes was asked on Twitter which academy player he was looking forward to playing with in the future and replied, “James Garner.” Fernandes then never played with Garner.
United gathered feedback from Nottingham Forest staff on Garner’s performances during his season-long loan and were informed he would not pass muster at United. Ten Hag had already concluded that, so Garner was sold. Mainoo has already banked competitive minutes alongside Fernandes and signed a new contract on Ten Hag’s watch.

Mainoo is having a fine pre-season so far
Mainoo is having a fine pre-season so far

Mainoo was fluid against Arsenal, once dropping so deep United practically shifted to a back three, and floating to the right to occupy pockets that allowed Antony to move closer to goal. Ten Hag was aggrieved Mainoo was not awarded a penalty when he appeared to be tripped by Eddie Nketiah.
United have won their three friendlies without Casemiro as a starter and without conceding a goal. The acid tests will come in August and beyond but United are evolving under Ten Hag 12 months after he ambitiously planned to operate minus an out-and-out defensive midfielder.

Mainoo is warming up for a responsibility Frenkie de Jong might have assumed. United mould midfielders differently to the days of Paul Pogba and McTominay when there was still a major emphasis on physicality. Mainoo and the slick Dan Gore, also in the tour squad, are at ease collecting the ball from their own third with the task of carrying it into the opponent’s third.

That is not a skill McTominay will ever master. McTominay is neither a defensive nor an attacking midfielder and lacks an outstanding attribute to render the identity crisis moot. Fred has attempted to evolve but his successes are as memorable as his failures and the 30-year-old is free to leave.

The days of McFred are over
The days of McFred are over (Image: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Ten Hag has masterfully phased out McTominay and Fred as a combination. Their sole start together was in Ten Hag’s first match in charge against Brighton and they were schooled by Moises Caicedo. Fred may not play for United again and McTominay was restricted to 16 starts last term.

Already, one can envisage United targeting a specialist defensive midfielder next summer, empowering Mainoo and selling McTominay, who now occupies the squad player role that was always his ceiling. McTominay is an asset worth retaining for the forthcoming season unless a club offers £30million but the beginning of the end is underway for him at United.

Ten Hag described Casemiro as the “cement between the stones” last season yet when he or Eriksen were absent those foundations were built on sand. Eriksen missed 10 weeks with an ankle injury and Casemiro was suspended for eight games. The former’s injury in late January prompted the 11th-hour loan move for Marcel Sabitzer.

With Eriksen unwell and McTominay suspended for the insipid home draw with Newcastle in October, Ten Hag drafted Iqbal and Mainoo into the matchday squad. It was already clear United would require a young and dynamic midfield addition for Ten Hag’s second season but also a fifth midfielder. Mainoo quickly usurped Iqbal last season and he now has McTominay in his sights.

It does not feel like a false dawn

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