Kobbie Mainoo has been a revelation for Manchester United since making his first Premier League start in November, and we’ve analysed what he brings to the team.

As Manchester United threatened to throw away another two-goal lead, this time to Luton Town, some of their most experienced players were losing their heads at Kenilworth Road. Casemiro probably would’ve been sent off if he’d so much as breathed on another player before his half-time withdrawal, Harry Maguire was treading a fine line himself, and Bruno Fernandes seemed incapable of making the right decision.

Sunday’s eventual victory was chaos. United were two up by the seventh minute, making it their earliest 2-0 lead in an away game in Premier League history. Their start was ruthless, pulsating and effective; but that only lasted about 10 minutes.

They were a shambles for the rest of the first half, their final ball generally disappointing and finishing wasteful, whereas Luton grew in confidence knowing things could only get better after their dreadful start.

Luton Town vs Manchester United xG race

Erik ten Hag’s side weren’t as bad in the second half, but they were unable to kill the game off, their 2-1 victory nowhere near as convincing as it should’ve been. Essentially, it was a performance we’ve seen time and time again from this United team; they show flashes of real quality but these are overshadowed by vast periods of listlessness or sheer incompetence.

But over the past two months or so, one individual has been standing out for his ability to stay calm when all else around him is threatening to go up in flames.

There won’t have been many headlines dedicated to Kobbie Mainoo on Sunday considering Rasmus Højlund was the one who scored both of United’s goals, but the 18-year-old’s performance was something to behold.

Mainoo combines a velvet touch with the kind of composure and assuredness you only see in truly special footballers. It’s like time slows down for him when the ball arrives at his feet and he seems to have this innate understanding of how long he should hold on to the ball for, knowing he has the distribution skills to pick out a pass as well as the technical ability to dribble out of danger.

Luton experienced this first hand on Sunday; even the home fans couldn’t help but applaud him at times, as his silky touches married with a surprising degree of strength that ensured Luton players were largely chasing shadows when Mainoo got on the ball.

The supreme ball control he boasts makes Mainoo so difficult to dispossess, with his little right-foot-to-left-foot shimmy becoming something of a trademark – he used it again to evade Tahith Chong and Alfie Doughty in the 38th minute on Sunday before carrying the ball into the Luton half.

Kobbie Mainoo screenshot vs Luton

We also saw it a couple of weeks ago against Aston Villa when United were seemingly heading for a 1-1 draw at Villa Park. Mainoo was fed into space in the right side of the final third and quickly closed by two defenders – he shifted the ball from right foot to left, the latter nudging the ball first-time to Diogo Dalot, whose subsequent cross was headed home by Scott McTominay.

Kobbie Mainoo screenshot vs Aston Villa

These are displays of flair that you’d have come to expect from Paul Pogba during his time at Old Trafford, except Mainoo already appears far more comfortable – and willing – to be the one taking up possession in deep areas, getting the ball off the centre-backs like a long-awaited heir to Michael Carrick.

But in terms of technical style and agility, Mainoo’s nothing like Carrick. His six completed dribbles on Sunday was the most by a United player in a Premier League game since Pogba recorded seven against Norwich City in April 2022; Mainoo’s teammates only tallied five combined at Kenilworth Road, not only putting into perspective the talent he has, but also his bravery and composure in what certainly wasn’t a comfortable game.

It’s easy to forget how new he is to Premier League football as well. Granted, he’d have likely broken into the team much earlier than he did were it not for the injury that ruled him out of the first three months of the season, but he didn’t make his first top-flight start until the 3-0 win at Everton on 26 November, producing the goods in another testing environment.

In all competitions this season, Mainoo has started 13 times for United; they’ve won 61.5% of those games compared to 45.5% when he’s not been in the starting XI. Of the 22 matches Mainoo hasn’t started, United have lost 50% (11). They’ve lost 23% of the fixtures he’s started.

Of course, the games he’s started include the likes of Wigan Athletic and Newport County among the opponents, teams United should beat regardless, so we can only read so much into the figures. However, they’re still indicative of the importance he’s already taking on.

Since his full Premier League debut, Fernandes (27) and Dalot (25) are the only United players who’ve been involved in more open-play sequences ending in a shot (excluding taking the shot or creating the chance) than Mainoo (23), demonstrating his value in possession.

man utd open-play build-up involvement

Readjusting these numbers on a per-90 basis, though, Mainoo is way clear at the top of United’s standings, with 2.37 per 90.

man utd open-play build-up involvement per 90

Further to that, in his 11 league appearances, Mainoo has been pressured – defined as being approached by an opposition player who has the aim of winning the ball or limiting passing options – 19.6 times per 90 minutes. That’s the fourth most in the United squad (minimum 170 minutes played) this season, highlighting how Mainoo operates in busy, congested areas of the pitch.

And yet, the rate at which he turns over the ball is very respectable. Those 190 pressures against Mainoo have yielded a turnover rate of 10.5%; of the three United players to be pressured more on average this season, only Lisandro Martínez – who, as a centre-back is less likely to come under intense pressure – has turned over possession less frequently (5.8%).

What we also have to take into account here is the fact Mainoo is a progressive player; no United midfielder is averaging more successful passes forward under pressure per 90 minutes than Mainoo (3.92) this term. Someone with a positive mindset like this is generally likely to give the ball away more often than someone who consistently plays conservative passes, yet the 18-year-old’s ability to retain possession is very impressive.

Mainoo doesn’t only progress play with his passing, though, as his display against Luton showed. Since his first Premier League start, 57% of his carries – a movement of five metres or more with the ball – have taken the ball up field; over the same period, Manchester City’s Rodri (57.9%) is the only nominal defensive midfielder (minimum 45 minutes played) in the Premier League to have progressed the ball with a greater proportion of their overall carries.

Kobbie Mainoo progressive carries

A player’s statistical output can be heavily influenced by the style of the team they’re playing in, however. This is probably why Mainoo doesn’t stand out in most top-line statistical metrics and so it could also be argued we’ll never see him reach his full potential as a tempo-setter or midfield dictator in this United team because they just aren’t a side that controls games.

Only Tottenham (220) and Liverpool (214) have recorded more transitions reaching the penalty area – instances of getting into the box against a transitioning defence – than United (195) in the Premier League this term; they rank fifth for shots from fast breaks (20), have had slightly less possession (50.87%) on average than Fulham (50.92%) and faced the third-most shots in the entire division (400).

Manchester United shots faced

It’s also difficult to know whether this is by accident or by design. After the recent 4-3 win over Wolves which was, incidentally, settled by Mainoo’s brilliant solo goal, Ten Hag maligned United’s inability to see the game out.

“I said I have mixed feelings about this [game] but I am very pleased with the team performance and some individual performances from our side,” he said. “It’s more things like: switching off, reading the game. It’s about when you are up, keeping the ball. Save the ball. We want to go too much for another goal instead of keeping the ball and letting the opponent run. Now we are going for goal, too much risk, losing the ball and we encourage opponents.”

However, if Ten Hag is truly preaching ideals about control in training, then United are proving pretty hapless at carrying out those instructions in matches.

That’s obviously not to say Mainoo can’t be effective in this United side; he already is because teams who play this way still need talented footballers and good passers, both of which accurately describe him. It’s just that in a team that tries to play with greater control, he’d almost certainly see even more of the ball, which would only be a good thing.  

In that respect, it’s not outlandish to suggest Mainoo will quite probably be a regular starter for England before he’s 20 if he stays fit, and should he choose to represent the country of his birth at senior level as he has done at youth level. Gareth Southgate’s side are more pragmatic than United and generally use possession to facilitate that, but against the best teams in international football, it’s in midfield where they’ve come unstuck.

They barely had a kick after going ahead early on in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, which they ultimately lost on penalties, with the Azzurri looking far more accomplished as a football team. And during the 2-1 defeat to France in the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals, although England were probably the better team for much of the game, they began to slow in midfield towards the end.

Mainoo wouldn’t necessarily instantly transform England into tournament winners, but in terms of technical ability and poise, they don’t really have another player like him for the defensive midfield role. While Southgate recently expressed doubts over the teenager being a defensive midfielder in the long term, it just might be that the Three Lions are currently set up to maximise his talents in a way United arguably aren’t.

But the fact is he’s still blossoming at United, with his effortless talent on the ball helping him display a maturity that even teammates 10 years his senior should aspire to.

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