There are occasions in which you are instantly captivated by the talent of a footballer you are laying eyes on for the first ever time.
18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo’s full Premier League debut for Manchester United in Erik ten Hag’s side’s 3-0 triumph over Everton at Goodison Park was one of these instances, with the teenager delivering a classy display at the heart of the Red Devils’ midfield.
Calm and composed in possession, electing to play progressive passes whenever possible as opposed to settling for the easy ball, Mainoo also demonstrated an innate ability to read danger off the ball and snuffed out a number of promising Everton attacks attacks.
Since this inspired Goodison bow Mainoo has gone from strength to strength, making a further seven Premier League starts, with his stunning injury time winner in a thrilling 4-3 win for United against Wolves at Molineux his finest moment in a red shirt yet.
With central midfield having been a problem position for Man Utd arguably since the days when Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were strutting their stuff in the engine room under Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s easy to see why the emergence of Mainoo is garnering excitement amongst the club’s support.
We take a look at Mainoo’s story to date and the attributes he offers this Man Utd team in our latest instalment of In Focus…
To start playing in the Premier League for my boyhood club has been amazing. I am just trying to get a good run of games in and win more games.
- Kobbie Mainoo after his starring role in Man Utd's 4-3 win over Wolves at Molineux, TNT Sports.
Hailing from Stockport, Mainoo played for local boys club Cheadle & Gatley before joining Man Utd’s academy at the age of nine.
Developing into one of United’s most exciting young prospects, Mainoo regularly played above his age level, and was the second youngest member of the club’s FA Youth Cup winning side of 2022.
His impressive performances within Man Utd’s academy last season saw him named Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of the likes of Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and current teammates Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho.
Making his first two senior appearances for Man Utd last season – in an EFL Cup tie against Charlton and a Premier League match against Leicester - Mainoo was already so highly thought of at Man Utd’s training centre at Carrington that Erik ten Hag opted to take him on the club’s pre-season tour of the United States in the summer.
The youngster made a notable impression in Man Utd’s midfield, prompting talk he could be set for an extended run in the first team, before suffering a cruel ankle injury in a friendly against Real Madrid in Houston in late July to leave him sidelined for over two months.
This delayed Mainoo’s inevitable first team breakthrough, with the teenager proving more than worth the wait with his standout performance in United’s morale-boosting 3-0 victory at Everton in November.
The prodigious midfielder has since become a regular starter for United, with the youngster arguably the first pick in Erik ten Hag's engine room at present with Casemiro his latest partner having returned from a hamstring injury.
Mainoo’s impressive breakthrough has caught the eye of a number of iconic figures of Man Utd’s past, who have heralded him as a potential future mainstay at Old Trafford:
"It looks like he's got the world at his feet for the next 10 years."
[Following Man Utd's 4-3 win at Wolves, Sky Sports]
“I am not saying he is the same ability or that player yet, but there are signs, he gives me vibes of Clarence Seedorf the way he can manoeuvre in tight situations, and the way he manipulates the ball, uses his body at times and shifts it."
[Following Man Utd's win at Wolves, TNT Sports]
"He [Mainoo] looked like he always had time on the ball today, his decision-making, in terms of when to go long and when to go short, in terms of off the ball as well. What an all-round performance."
[Following Premier League debut v Everton, Sky Sports]
With a rich history of blooding academy players into the first team, Man Utd will be hoping Kobbie Mainoo is the latest academy star to enjoy a distinguished career at Old Trafford.
Mainoo's full debut for Man Utd coincided with undeniably one of the Red Devils' all-time great Premier League goals, as fellow academy graduate Alejandro Garnacho opened the scoring at Goodison in the 3rd minute with a sensational overhead kick.
Mainoo and Garnacho have been arguably two of United's brightest performers in what was has been a disappointing season so far, with the promising pair providing a youthful freshness to the side.
With the Red Devils having endured a difficult start to the season to say the least, with Man Utd currently sat seventh in the Premier League and already out of the Champions League, perhaps manager Ten Hag has decided it could be worthwhile to turn to the younger, less blemished members of his squad to help come out the other side of this rocky period.
In this regard, the performances of Mainoo and Garnacho at Goodison this term are not those of players who appeared overly concerned about making mistakes or losing their place, but rather hungry to make an impression and prove they belonged at the level.
Dutchman Ten Hag is a coach with a track record of developing young players, dating back to his time in charge at Ajax during which he helped to bring through the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, and he appears to be keen to have a similar emphasis on youth at Old Trafford with Mainoo perhaps primed for prominence.
Ten Hag said after United’s win over Everton: “We have to develop players. Kids have to deserve it. He [Mainoo] is a good boy, very mature. He showed it today, I like him.”
After already proving he is more than capable of playing in Man Utd’s first team, the next step for Mainoo will be showing he can deliver on a consistent basis.
Mainoo is just everything a modern midfielder needs to be.
- Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag after his side's 4-3 win over Wolves at Molineux, TNT Sports.
In a Man Utd team which has appeared so disjointed and defensively vulnerable so far this term, Mainoo has provided a cool head in the number six position, allowing skipper Bruno Fernandes with greater license to progress the play and make things happen in the final third.
The installation of Mainoo into holding midfield has therefore provided United’s engine room with a much needed sense of balance, with Casemiro having been sidelined with injury and summer loan signing from Fiorentina Sofyan Amrabat so far largely flattering to deceive in a red shirt.
A naturally progressive, attack-minded coach, Ten Hag’s first team selection of the season at home to Wolves in the Premier League saw United line-up in a forward-thinking 4-3-3 system, with one defensive midfielder in the form of Casemiro anchoring two advanced midfielders in Bruno Fernandes and new signing Mason Mount.
This approach appeared flawed from the outset, with the skillset of Casemiro as a more natural ball-winning midfielder as opposed to a deep-lying playmaker hindering the ability of the team to build out from the back and break through the opposition’s press.
31-year-old Casemiro is not the quickest either, and was often left exposed in counter-attacking situations at the beginning of the season with Fernandes and Mount regularly caught high up the pitch.
In academy graduate Mainoo, United have a defensive midfielder with the range of attributes required to play in Ten Hag’s ideal system, with both the ability to take the ball from the team’s centre-backs to progress the play, as well as the mobility and awareness to protect the back four.
The teenage prospect thus possesses comparable characteristics to Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who Ten Hag had previously coached at Ajax and publicly courted in the transfer market after arriving at Old Trafford last summer.
Relatively small in stature at 5ft 9in but strong on the ball and supremely athletic, Mainoo has also displayed impressive technical ability which was showcased in breathtaking fashion when sealing all three points for United with a wondergoal in their dramatic win at Molineux.
Having suffered a body blow in his pursuit of De Jong with a reported £72m deal eventually falling through last summer, Ten Hag may have just found a far cheaper alternative to the Dutchman who he can build his team around from within the club’s academy.
He is a big talent, really. He has everything to be special.
- Man Utd captain Bruno Fernandes following the Red Devils' victory over Wolves, TNT Sports.
As seems customary whenever a young English prospect bursts onto the scene, Mainoo has already been touted as a potential future star for Gareth Southgate’s national team.
Also eligible to play for Ghana, Mainoo has represented England at Under 17s, Under 18s and Under 19s level with 13 national youth caps in total.
Although just 18 years of age, as a defensive midfielder Mainoo occupies an area of the pitch in which the current England squad is perhaps thinnest on the ground in terms of depth.
Blessed with an abundance of outstanding attacking options and a plethora of elite full-backs, England manager Gareth Southgate does not have the same luxury in defensive midfield, with perhaps only Arsenal’s Declan Rice currently assured of a place on the plane to next summer’s Euros in Germany.
Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson are both established members of the international setup at St George’s Park, but with the former’s lack of game time at Man City in the first half of the season and the latter’s controversial switch to the Saudi Pro League with Al-Ettifaq last summer summer, the door could be ajar for a left-field option such as Mainoo to make a late dash to be included in the England squad time for the Euros.
It would be a bold call from the normally cautious Southgate to hang his hat on the teenager ahead of a major tournament, but stranger things have happened.
Regardless of whether or not the Euros will arrive too early for Mainoo to enter the international reckoning, the way in which he was able to dictate the play from a deep midfield position on his full Man Utd debut is something which has become less and less common amongst English players in recent times.
Should he follow this eye-catching performance up and continue to develop at his current rate, we could just be looking at a national star for years to come.
Kobbie Mainoo to be in England Euros Squad - 4/1
Could Gareth Southgate be tempted to fast-track Mainoo into the senior international setup should his impressive form for Man Utd continue?
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