Few would have envied Manchester United being the first team to go to Goodison Park since Everton were hit with a 10-point deduction, but Kobbie Mainoo – making his full Premier League debut – produced a performance well beyond his years to steer Erik ten Hag’s men to a commendable victory.
Manchester United and youth development are intrinsically linked. The blooding of young players is ingrained in the club’s identity arguably unlike any other team in England, to the extent that they claim to have had a homegrown player in every matchday squad going back to Saturday 30 October 1937. That’s roughly 86 years and one month.
Legendary former managers Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson were firm believers in giving young players chances, and the latter’s trust in the ‘Class of 92’ proved the foundation of their Premier League dominance until 2013.
So, when a talented youngster comes through the system and breaks into the first team at Old Trafford, it hits different, as the kids would say, and for quite a while now fans have been waiting for Kobbie Mainoo to get his chance to shine.
He was a key part of the United side that won the FA Youth Cup in 2022 and his performances in the various academy sides over the past few years had caused a real stir; he played with a kind of effortless maturity that’s difficult for experienced players to exhibit, let alone teenagers, yet he combined that with the kind of silkiness that was stylistically reminiscent of Paul Pogba.
Of course, this was all at reserve or youth team level; the leap even to League One or the Championship can be too much for some, particularly if they’re ill-equipped physically. But there always looked to be something special about Mainoo, who was one of those players that just seemed to have more time on the ball than anyone else.
He was involved in 15 matchday squads last season and made three appearances across all competitions, including his full debut in the EFL Cup, but there was a real sense in pre-season that his prominence was going to go up a few notches in 2023-24. While you obviously have to be careful about making significant conclusions from pre-season matches, Mainoo started their first three friendlies and then stayed with the first team to face Real Madrid when most of their other young players went off to play against Wrexham.
Mainoo kept his place in the team when most of the senior players returned to play Arsenal in their third friendly, and the 18-year-old ran the show in the first half against a Gunners side that was almost full strength, playing a key role in the creation of Bruno Fernandes’ goal in New Jersey.
“Honestly, Kobbie is a great player,” Fernandes told MUTV after that game. “He shows great resilience, he’s always ready to work. His capabilities are high and everyone can see it [his talent]. He’s good on the ball, strong, he can defend and attack – you see that in how he attacked the space for my goal. He’s still pretty young, but we see a bright future for him and hopefully he will get more minutes, more time, and he will be a great player for us.”
Again, he remained in the starting XI against Real Madrid, forming a midfield with Casemiro and Fernandes as Erik ten Hag named a lineup that would’ve looked at home in the Premier League, but cruelly an early collision with Rodrygo condemned Mainoo to a lengthy absence. Given the other injury and suspension issues United have had in midfield during the early stages of the season, it’s fair to assume Mainoo would’ve been used regularly, and perhaps he’d have resolved some of the problems they seem to have had in defensive midfield.
But he wasn’t seen again in first team action for one day short of four months. What an impression he made, though, highlighting in the 3-0 win at Goodison Park on Sunday what United had been missing as he made his full Premier League debut.
Deployed just in front of the defence, Mainoo frequently made himself available for possession to the United defenders and André Onana. His composure and assuredness on the ball meant he nearly always knew what he needed to do as soon as he’d received it, whether that was a first-time pass to relieve pressure, or to take a touch and turn before carrying the ball forward.
His 61 touches was bettered by only four players in the United team, but that quartet all played 90 minutes and none went over 68 touches; Mainoo’s 61 came from 72 minutes on the pitch, and the fact he saw so much of the ball not only conveyed his coolness, but also the faith his teammates have in him, which is notable considering his defensive midfield role isn’t one youngsters are regularly entrusted with at this level.
He was right into the thick of the action as well. Inside the first 30 seconds he was receiving the ball from Diogo Dalot about 35 yards from his own goal with Everton players closing.
He laid off a perfectly weighted short first-time pass to Scott McTominay, got it back again and flicked away another first-time pass back to Dalot with the outside of his foot.
It was not the introduction of a nervous youngster, that’s for sure, and his demeanour barely changed for the next 72 minutes.
Mainoo’s 38 completed passes was the third highest in the United team – again, the only players with more played the full game – while his 82.6% pass accuracy was the best of their starting XI, and it wasn’t like he was only making five-yard passes backwards to the centre-backs; only Fernandes (20) and Marcus Rashford (15) made more passes in the final third than Mainoo (10).
But what might make Mainoo a huge asset in particular is the fact he combines good passing ability with the confidence and capability to run with it too. In fact, in the build up to Alejandro Garnacho’s astonishing overhead-kick opener, Mainoo received the ball from Victor Lindelof and waited to see how intense the press was before deciding if he needed to offload again; he then turned away from two Everton attackers and carried possession forwards before finding Anthony Martial.
That was one of 12 carries – defined as a movement of five metres or more with the ball – recorded by Mainoo in the game, a tally bettered by only five players, all of whom played the whole game. The United youngster carried the ball 144 metres over the course of his 72 minutes, the fifth most of everyone on the pitch.
But the defensive side of his performance also warrants praise because were it not for his decision to rush back behind Onana during one threatening Everton attack, United wouldn’t have had anyone to clear off the line to prevent a certain goal, and soon after he made an excellent block to deny Dwight McNeil as well.
Gary Neville said it best on Sky Sports’ commentary just after half-time: “It’s the 18-year-old in the red shirt who looks the most experienced player out there.”
The area Mainoo was playing in has been a problem for United this season. Casemiro hasn’t been as effective as last term, showing signs of age, while the only other obvious player for that role, Sofyan Amrabat, has had his own fitness issues and looked uncomfortable with the pace of the Premier League. Scott McTominay has also been used there throughout his Manchester United career but just isn’t cut out to be the tempo-setter in front of the defence.
Of course, Casemiro wasn’t Ten Hag’s first choice for that role. He wanted Frenkie de Jong and United only settled on the Brazilian after a move for the former Ajax midfielder failed to gain traction. In terms of playing style, Mainoo is much closer to De Jong than Casemiro is, with the England youth international’s biggest assets being his technical and playmaking abilities.
With Casemiro potentially out until January, Mainoo looks likely to get a proper run in the team and the opportunity to establish himself as a regular. Considering his age and inexperience, however, caution must be preached; after all, this was one game and Everton are one of the Premier League’s least-intense pressing sides.
On average, this season they’ve allowed their opponents 15.1 passes before engaging with a defensive action (PPDA), with only three teams taking a more relaxed approach to winning the ball back high up the pitch, and that was plain to see at times on Sunday even in front of a raucous Goodison Park crowd that was reeling from the club’s 10-point deduction. Essentially, if Mainoo does get a run of games, he can expect most teams to be quicker at applying pressure than Everton were.
It’s also important to say Mainoo hasn’t suddenly fixed United. Everton still created plenty of chances on Sunday and those in attack for Ten Hag weren’t exactly rampant. But amid all the noise and emotion at Goodison Park, the teenager transmitted such class and poise when many expected Ten Hag’s side to be suffocated by the occasion, as they so frequently have in recent years – he set the tone.
It’s early days, granted, but in Kobbie Mainoo, United’s proud academy tradition looks to have found another poster boy.