Rashford to Smith Rowe: Rating Manchester United and Arsenal’s recent youth academy graduates

Manchester United and Arsenal – giants of yesteryear, strugglers today. The Red Devils are (sort of) back to being good as they are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table at the time of writing, but Arsenal are all the way down in 10th.

The simple truth is – neither side is half as good currently as they once were. One of the key factors in their respective downfalls has been their poor transfer business.


United have spent nearly £650 million in transfers in the last five years alone, and almost all of their arrivals have not warranted their transfer fee. £94.50m for Paul Pogba, £76.23m for Romelu Lukaku, £40.23m for Nemanja Matić, £30.60m for an absolute flop of an Alexis Sánchez (who was later swapped for a similarly flopping Henrikh Mkhitaryan), £53.10m for Fred, £78.30m for Harry Maguire, and most puzzlingly, £35.10m for a bench-warmer in Donny van de Beek.

Warming-up to warm up the bench. (Photo by Phil Noble – Pool/Getty Images)

Arsenal have not spent as much as the Red Devils, but they have somehow managed to do even worse. They spent a whopping £190m on Alexis Sánchez, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, SokratisPapastathopoulos, Shkodran Mustafi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Danny Welbeck, and ended up letting all of them go for free. This, of course, does not include their massive wages. On top of all of that, they sent £72m down the drain on Nicolas Pépé recently.

Clearly, neither side have done a good job of buying new players, so their youth academies have often been called into action to provide fresh first-team talent. Here, we will take a quick look at all the academy graduates from United and Arsenal in the last five years, and finally try to see which youth system has produced better talent of late.

Note that the players must have made upwards of five first-team appearances after debuting in or after January 2016 and joined the academy prior to 2011 to be in this list.

Scott McTominay

Scott McTominay (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2002
Debut: 7 May 2017 (vs Arsenal)
Present Club: Manchester United

The first graduate on our list is Scott McTominay, who joined the United youth setup at the tender age of six. After impressing in the under-19 and under-21 sides during the 2016/17 season, McTominay was called up to the senior squad for the final few matchdays of the Premier League. He came on as a substitute against Arsenal and started the last match of the season – a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace.

After scoring his first senior goal during the pre-season tour of the United States, McTominay went on to make 13 appearances in 2017/18 as he signed a contract until 2021 with an option to extend for one more year. Following the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, McTominay fell out of favour, but slowly clawed his way back into the first team, signing another contract extension until 2023 and finally scoring his first competitive goal in his 41st appearance.

The Scottish international started the 2019/20 season as a key fixture in midfield, scoring a couple of crucial goals too, but a knee ligament injury in late December saw him sit out for nearly two months. After returning from injury, he was reinstated as a starter, and he scored a memorable goal against Manchester City from about 40 yards out following a mistake from Ederson which helped United complete a league double over their local rivals.

So far this season, McTominay has made 25 appearances for United, scoring five times. His strikes have included a quickfire brace against Leeds United, which saw him become the first Red Devils player to net twice in the first three minutes of a match, and the winner against Watford in the FA Cup when he was handed the captain’s armband for the first time.

McTominay signed yet another contract extension in early 2020 which will see him stay at the club until 2025, so he is set to continue to serve United well for a long time.

Rating: 7.5/10

Joe Willock

Joe Willock (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2004
Debut: 20 September 2017 (vs Doncaster Rovers)
Present Club: Arsenal

Joe Willock joined Arsenal’s youth academy with his older brothers when he was less than five-years-old. He has been in North London ever since, making his debut for his boyhood club in the Carabao Cup. Towards the end of the 2017/18 season, Willock made his Premier League debut against Newcastle United.

In the following campaign, the young midfielder netted his first senior goal against Vorskla Poltava in the Europa League. A few months later, he bagged his first brace against Blackpool in the FA Cup. September 2019 was Willock’s best month at Arsenal – he signed a long-term contract, scored another goal in the Europa League (this time against Eintracht Frankfurt) and netted at the Emirates for the first time in the Carabao Cup.

After making 44 appearances in 2019/20 (mostly under Unai Emery), Willock has not been used so often by Mikel Arteta, but is an integral part of their Hale End European conquerors. He will hope to break into the core first-team set-up soon.

Rating: 6.5/10

Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2005
Debut: 25 February 2016 (vs FC Midtjylland)
Present Club: Manchester United

Marcus Rashford started off as a goalkeeper at the young age of five for Fletcher Moss Rangers, but his talents on the ball were soon noticed and he was sent further up the pitch. Two years later, after spending a week training at Manchester City’s academy, he joined the Red Devils’ youth system.

After thoroughly impressing all of his coaches and quickly rising up the ranks, Rashford made his debut for United against FC Midtjylland amidst an injury crisis at the club when 14 senior players were out injured. After scoring a second-half brace, he went on to make 18 starts in the remainder of the 2015/16 season, returning with eight goals, including the winner in a Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium.

The arrival of José Mourinho saw Rashford become an integral player in the Manchester United squad even though he was just a teenager at the time. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović meant that Rashford was mostly deployed as a winger, but even then he made 53 appearances in the 2016/17 season – more than any other United player – winning the Europa League at the end of it.

After scoring 13 goals and setting up six others in 52 appearances in 2017/18, Rashford was given the number 10 shirt, becoming the third academy graduate to wear it. Although United had a relatively disappointing season, Rashford enjoyed it as he assisted six and scored 13 goals again, this time including a last-minute tie-winning penalty against Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League.

After signing a four-year contract extension prior to the 2019/20 season, Rashford added 22 goals and seven assists to his tally from 44 outings, missing a few due to injury. So far this season, he has 14 goals and five assists in 30 appearances, meaning that he is only six games away from playing his 250th match for United at just 23 years old.

To add to all of that footballing talent, Rashford has shown his humanitarian side this year as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK hard. His campaigns have helped thousands of children who rely on free school meals all around the country, garnering deserved universal plaudits and seeing the Englishman appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

A great footballer, and an even better man.

Rating: 10/10

Reiss Nelson

Reiss Nelson (Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images for ICC)

Joined Academy: 2007
Debut: 6 August 2017 (vs Chelsea)
Present Club: Arsenal

The next Arsenal player in this list is Reiss Nelson, who spent 10 years climbing up the ranks of the Arsenal academy. He made his competitive debut in the 2017 Community Shield after joining the senior squad for the pre-season. He went on to make his Europa League debut and start a Carabao Cup match in the subsequent months, finally getting a Premier League appearance in January. He also represented the under-23s as Arsenal won the 2017/18 PL2 with Nelson named as the Player of the Year.

After spending 2018/19 out on loan at Hoffenheim where he scored seven times in 29 appearances, Nelson returned to London to find Unai Emery at the helm. The Englishman was immediately trusted by his new manager as he was given two starts in the first two Premier League matches of the season. He finally scored his first Arsenal goal in their 5-0 Carabao Cup victory over Arsenal, but two separate injuries saw Nelson miss four months of action until football was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After often being brought on as a substitute by Mikel Arteta, Nelson finally scored his first Premier League goal when he was handed a start in the Gunners’ 2-1 win over Liverpool. He did not take part in Arsenal’s FA Cup win but did score a penalty in the shootout when Liverpool were defeated in the Community Shield. Like Willock, the 21-year-old forward has often been used in Arteta’s Europa League expeditions this season but is yet to really break into the first team.

Rating: 6.5/10

Mason Greenwood

Mason Greenwood (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2007
Debut: 6 March 2019 (vs Paris Saint-Germain)
Present Club: Manchester United

Mason Greenwood joined United’s development school in Halifax aged six. The only way has been up for him ever since, and after he finished as the top scorer of the U18 Premier League North despite being eligible for the under-16s, he was called up to the first-team pre-season tour of the United States.

Although José Mourinho did hand him a couple of friendly appearances, he never used him thereafter. So, his competitive debut came as a substitute in Manchester United’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg tie against Paris Saint-Germain, making the pass to Diogo Dalot prior to the handball decision which led to the famous penalty. In the last match of the 2018/19 season, Greenwood started for the first time in a 2-0 victory over Cardiff City.

After scoring a couple of times in the pre-season of 2019/20 and coming off the bench in the first four league matches, Greenwood became the youngest player ever to score for United in a competitive match when he netted against Astana in the Europa League at the age of 17 years and 353 days. The youngster thoroughly impressed thereafter, finishing the season with 17 goals and a couple of assists from 49 outings.

He started this season well with his first Champions League goal against RB Leipzig, but has failed to keep up to his lofty standards with just three strikes in 22 appearances. However, he remains an integral part of the squad, and with his versatility of being able to play anywhere in a front-three and behind the striker, he will continue to get a lot of starts for the Red Devils.

Rating: 8/10

Bukayo Saka

Bukayo Saka (Photo by Andrew Boyers – Pool/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2010
Debut: 29 November 2018 (vs Vorskla Poltava)
Present Club: Arsenal

Young Bukayo Saka was quite a talented footballer, and his qualities attracted interest from the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and Fulham. But, he was always an Arsenal fan, so he naturally chose to apply to the Arsenal academy in 2010.

After progressing through the ranks at the Hale End, including a couple of spells under the stewardship of Freddie Ljungberg, Saka made his Arsenal debut in the Europa League against Vorskla Poltava. Soon thereafter, he played a full match against Qarabağ and appeared in the Premier League against Fulham. For the remainder of the 2018/19 season, Saka represented the under-21s, but he was soon back in the senior fray.

Saka scored his first senior goal in the Europa League against Eintracht Frankfurt in September 2019, and was rewarded for that with a full Premier League debut against Aston Villa. Soon thereafter, he got an assist for Arsenal’s equaliser against United. With both Sead Kolašinac and Kieran Tierney out injured, Saka ably deputised at left-back, making 38 appearances in the 2019/20 season, quickly establishing himself as an important player under new manager Mikel Arteta as well.

After signing a new long-term contract in July, Saka has cemented himself as a key first-team player. This season, he has started all but three of the Gunners’ Premier League matches, scoring four times in the league already. Further, the teenager has proven himself to be a very versatile footballer, playing anywhere from left wing-back to right winger.

Rating: 8.5/10

Emile Smith Rowe

Emile Smith Rowe (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Joined Academy: 2010
Debut: 20 September 2018 (vs Vorskla Poltava)
Present Club: Arsenal

Emile Smith Rowe joined Arsenal’s Hale End academy when he was 10 years old, going on to make his first appearance for the under-23s just six years later. In July 2018, he was called up to the senior squad for a pre-season tour in Singapore. He scored and assisted in the International Champions Cup, penning a long-term deal to stay at the club soon thereafter.

Smith Rowe made his competitive debut in the Europa League, replacing Alex Iwobi as a substitute. This made him the first Arsenal player born in the 2000s. Soon thereafter, he started and scored against Qarabağ. Then, against Blackpool in the Carabao Cup, he scored his first goal at the Emirates stadium.

In January 2019, Smith Rowe was loaned out to RB Leipzig for the remainder of the season, but could only make three substitute appearances due to an injury. After returning to London, he could only make six appearances in the first half of the season, so he was sent away on loan again – this time to Huddersfield Town in the Championship. He made 19 appearances including 13 starts for them, scoring and setting up two goals each.

Injuries troubled the young playmaker once again when he returned to Arsenal for the 2020/21 season, but he was fit in time for the Gunners’ Europa League campaign, where he joined his fellow academy graduates in touring Europe. He scored a goal and got two assists in three appearances in the competition, but Mikel Arteta remained reluctant to deploy him in the Premier League.

After a bright start to their domestic campaign, Arsenal started struggling, in part due to their lack of creativity in midfield since star playmaker Mesut Özil was frozen out of the squad. Arteta took a big call on Boxing Day as he handed Smith Rowe his second Premier League start in a big match against Chelsea, but this decision was heavily rewarded as the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ helped his side to a 3-1 victory. He has made four more starts since, returning with three assists.

With Özil having left Arsenal for good now, Smith Rowe will not be facing any real competition in attacking midfield unless the Gunners sign someone new, so he should have a free run in the starting line-ups for a good amount of time.

Rating: 7/10

Conclusion

It is clear that both United and Arsenal’s academies are among the very best in the world, and they are both flourishing at the moment.

Marcus Rashford will forever be a prized gem of United’s youth system, but the likes of McTominay and Greenwood also have the potential to become legends at the club, while players such as Brandon Williams and Dean Henderson are waiting in the wings patiently to properly break into the first-team.

It is hard to refute, though, that in the last couple of years, Arsenal have churned out better talents – Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe being the obvious standouts. Although Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are yet to show the same calibre as the aforementioned pair, they too are fine players in their own right.

If only these clubs could get their transfer business right.

Stats courtesy Whoscored.com