Few would have envied the task of Manchester United, being the first team to visit Goodison Park since Everton faced a 10-point deduction. However, Kobbie Mainoo, making his full Premier League debut, showcased a performance that exceeded expectations, guiding Erik ten Hag’s men to a commendable victory.
Mainoo’s Rise: Youthful Dynamo Making Waves at Old Trafford
The connection between Manchester United and youth development runs deep, woven into the club’s identity unlike any other team in England. They proudly assert having had a homegrown player in every matchday squad since Saturday, October 30, 1937, spanning approximately 86 years and one month.
Legends like former managers Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson firmly believed in providing opportunities to young players. Ferguson’s trust in the ‘Class of 92’ laid the foundation for their Premier League dominance until 2013.
When a talented youngster emerges from the system and makes it to the first team at Old Trafford, it carries a unique significance. For a while, fans have been eagerly awaiting Kobbie Mainoo’s chance to showcase his skills.
A key member of the United side that clinched the FA Youth Cup in 2022, Mainoo’s performances in various academy teams over the past years generated excitement. His play exuded a mature ease that is challenging for even experienced players to demonstrate, let alone teenagers. Yet, he blended this with a silky style reminiscent of Paul Pogba.
While these accomplishments were at reserve or youth team levels, the leap to League One or the Championship can be daunting for some, especially if they lack physical readiness. However, Mainoo always appeared to possess something special, standing out as a player who seemed to have more time on the ball than anyone else.
He featured in 15 matchday squads in the previous season, making three appearances across all competitions, including his full debut in the EFL Cup. However, there was a palpable sense during the pre-season that his prominence would significantly increase in the 2023-24 season. While caution is warranted when drawing conclusions from pre-season matches, Mainoo not only started the team’s initial three friendlies but also remained with the first team for the Real Madrid encounter, unlike most other young players who faced Wrexham.
Maintaining his place in the team as senior players returned for the third friendly against Arsenal, the 18-year-old took charge in the first half against a nearly full-strength Gunners side. He played a crucial role in creating Bruno Fernandes’ goal in New Jersey.
“Honestly, Kobbie is a great player,” Fernandes expressed to MUTV after the 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.“
Kobie Mainoo was Fantastic Against Everton
However, he didn’t feature in first-team action for just one day shy of four months. Yet, when he finally returned, the impact was remarkable. His full Premier League debut in the 3-0 victory at Goodison Park on Sunday vividly showcased what United had been lacking.
Positioned just ahead of the defense, Mainoo consistently made himself a viable option for possession for both the United defenders and André Onana. His composed and assured demeanor on the ball meant he almost always had a clear plan as soon as he received it—whether executing a first-time pass to alleviate pressure or taking a touch, turning, and carrying the ball forward.
While Mainoo’s 61 touches were surpassed by only four players in the United team, it’s noteworthy that those four played the full 90 minutes, with none exceeding 68 touches. In contrast, Mainoo achieved his 61 touches in 72 minutes on the pitch. This not only underscores his calmness but also reflects the trust his teammates place in him. This trust is particularly remarkable given that the defensive midfield role, which Mainoo occupies, is not commonly entrusted to young players at this level.
He was actively involved in the thick of the action from the outset. Within the first 30 seconds, he received the ball from Diogo Dalot about 35 yards from his own goal, with Everton players closing in.
He skillfully executed a precisely weighted, short first-time pass to Scott McTominay, received the ball once more, and deftly flicked another first-time pass back to Dalot, using the outside of his foot.
It was certainly not the debut of a nervous youngster, and his demeanor remained composed for the entire 72 minutes.
Mainoo’s 38 completed passes ranked third highest in the United team, with the players ahead of him having played the entire game. Furthermore, his pass accuracy of 82.6% was the best among the starting XI. Importantly, he wasn’t limiting himself to short passes backward to the center-backs; in fact, only Fernandes (20) and Marcus Rashford (15) made more passes in the final third than Mainoo (10).
Kobbie Mainoo is An Efficient Ball Carrier As Well
What sets Mainoo apart as a potential significant asset is his ability to blend excellent passing skills with the confidence and capability to carry the ball. A notable instance occurred in the build-up to Alejandro Garnacho’s remarkable overhead-kick goal. Mainoo received the ball from Victor Lindelof, assessed the intensity of the press, turned away from two Everton attackers, and advanced with possession before finding Anthony Martial.
In total, Mainoo registered 12 carries in the game, defined as movements of five meters or more with the ball. This count was surpassed by only five players, all of whom played the entire game. Throughout his 72 minutes on the field, the young United player covered 144 meters with the ball, ranking fifth among all players on the pitch.
The defensive aspect of Mainoo’s performance also deserves commendation. His quick decision to track back behind Onana during a threatening Everton attack proved crucial, as it ensured there was someone to clear the ball off the line, preventing a certain goal. Additionally, he showcased defensive prowess by making an excellent block to deny Dwight McNeil shortly after.
Is Kobbie Mainoo The Future of Manchester United?
Gary Neville captured it perfectly 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 position Mainoo occupied has posed challenges for United this season. Casemiro hasn’t been as effective as in the previous term, displaying signs of aging. Sofyan Amrabat, the only other apparent choice for that role, has faced fitness issues and appeared uncomfortable with the Premier League’s pace. Although Scott McTominay has been deployed there throughout his Manchester United career, he doesn’t quite fit the mold of a tempo-setter in front of the defense.
Certainly, Casemiro wasn’t Erik ten Hag’s initial choice for that role. The preference was for Frenkie de Jong, and United turned to the Brazilian only after the pursuit of the former Ajax midfielder faltered. In terms of playing style, Mainoo aligns much more closely with De Jong than Casemiro does, with the England youth international’s standout qualities lying in his technical prowess and playmaking abilities.
With Casemiro potentially sidelined until January, Mainoo seems poised to secure a substantial run in the team, providing him with the opportunity to establish himself as a regular presence. However, given his age and relative lack of experience, it’s crucial to exercise caution. After all, this was just one game, and Everton is known for having one of the least intense pressing approaches in the Premier League.
On average this season, they’ve allowed their opponents 15.1 passes before engaging in a defensive action (PPDA), ranking among the teams with a more relaxed approach to winning the ball back high up the pitch. If Mainoo continues to get playing time, he can anticipate facing teams that apply pressure more quickly than Everton did.
It’s essential to note that Mainoo hasn’t miraculously solved all of United’s issues. Everton still managed to create numerous chances on Sunday, and Ten Hag’s attacking players weren’t exactly dominating. However, amidst the chaos and emotion at Goodison Park, the teenager exuded class and composure when many expected Ten Hag’s side to be overwhelmed by the occasion—a scenario that has unfolded frequently in recent years. He set the tone.
While it’s early days, Kobbie Mainoo appears to be another poster boy for United’s proud academy tradition.