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20/12/2023 15:18

Man United starlet Kobbie Mainoo did what Cristiano Ronaldo did at Liverpool

The inclusion of Kobbie Mainoo’s name on the teamsheet at Anfield will have offered MUT supporters reassurance.

Mainoo is so green he was one day old when Wayne Rooney  returned to Everton as a 19-year-old. Like Rooney, Mainoo has the character and quality to handle testing occasions.

The 18-year-old has started at a raucous Goodison Park, braved the deafening din at Galatasaray and an initially febrile Anfield. Mainoo passed all three tests.

He was as assured of starting against Liverpool as his more senior teammates. Though the timing of Mainoo’s cameo against Bayern Munich was an admission of defeat, it was also a warm-up act for a second start on Merseyside in as many months.

Mainoo was one of the youngest on the pitch but also one of the wisest. His line-breaking ball to Alejandro Garnacho   was the pass of the match. But for his academy teammate’s failure to position his body in front of Trent Alexander-Arnold, he might have notched a first career assist

Figures at United say Mainoo might have been poached by Manchester City yesteryear when the academy was in a state of flux. Gary Neville said after Mainoo’s man-of-the-match performance at Everton last month “he looked like a Manchester City player”. If a United fan can swallow their pride, they will recognise that as a compliment.

Mainoo could be mistaken for a midfielder developed by Barcelona or Ajax. Where United once prided themselves on developing strapping and imposing midfielders ranging from Nicky Butt to Darron Gibson to Paul Pogba, they have adapted as the game has evolved. Mainoo to United is what Pedri is to Barcelona and what Frenkie de Jong was to Ajax.

One hurdle to Erik ten Hag implementing a clear style at United is he has lacked a dictatorial midfielder after the 100-day pursuit of De Jong came to naught. As recently as last December, Ten Hag left the door open to De Jong. Realistically, De Jong is wedded to Barcelona, however shabby their treatment was of him last summer.

Christian Eriksen was the stop-gap. A short-term fix recruited on a free who brought an air of sophistication to an area where, whatever the combination, United had lacked a midfielder who treasured the ball since Michael Carrick.

In Mainoo, Ten Hag has a long-term solution. Ten Hag was preparing Mainoo not just for a role in the squad but in the first team before he was collateral damage in a Casemiro challenge against Real Madrid.

Mainoo started next to Casemiro that stifling evening in Houston back in July, with Mason Mount pushed further forward and Bruno Fernandes on the right. Given the uncertainty over Casemiro’s future and the possible unsuitability of Mount in a United shirt, that quartet may never be trialled again.

Mainoo and teammates line up in Houston
Mainoo and teammates line up in Houston

If Casemiro is in danger of representing the past at United then Mainoo is the present and the future. His development is the new blueprint for budding teenagers hoping to walk from the academy building, past the fountain of youth and to the main hub that hosts the first team at Carrington.

Eriksen is back in training and remains an invaluable option in midfield, where his game-changing prowess was pivotal in United’s only Champions League group stage win against Copenhagen. He has 18 months left on his contract and is as ideal a mentor for Mainoo as Carrick was to James Garner.

Ten Hag named Mainoo on the bench in only his 13th game in charge against Newcastle United with Eriksen unwell. That changing of the guard is well underway.

Watch and learn: Eriksen is a worthy mentor for Mainoo
Watch and learn: Eriksen is a worthy mentor for Mainoo

At Anfield, the grandstanding referee harshly booked Mainoo for a committed but accidental foul on Wataru Endo in the 27th minute. Mainoo did not concede another foul all afternoon before he made way for Hannibal Mejbri in the 82nd minute.

Mainoo was not born at the time but some in the away section of the Anfield Road End will have been present when a 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo offered them a gladiatorial salute as he made way in the January 2005 win.

Mainoo did not have the privilege of exiting the pitch with United ahead yet offered a valedictory rallying cry en route to the touchline. His name has to be on the teamsheet again at West Ham on Saturday.

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