Why Kobbie Mainoo is causing a buzz at Man Utd and can count Bryan Robson among his admirers

Kobbie Mainoo chases down a ball

Mention Kobbie Mainoo at Manchester United and it is interesting that some will admit the classy young midfielder is precisely the sort of talent they may have lost to Manchester City a few years ago, when the Old Trafford club’s academy was in a state of flux.

While City were chucking millions at their academy and vacuuming up the country’s best young players in the process, United’s famed youth structure, much like the club as a whole, was not in the best of places.

There was recognition of as much and serious efforts and investment made to get the set-up back on track. That Mainoo was not prised away and is now knocking on the first team door points to some of the academy’s improvements.

None of which means Mainoo is destined for the top but Alejandro Garnacho is no longer the only academy graduate currently being championed by United manager Erik ten Hag.

The buzz around Mainoo is gradually growing louder and anyone who watched this unassuming 18-year-old in action against Arsenal at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Saturday night will understand why United have little interest in loaning him out next season, despite a clamour of interest from Championship and League One clubs.

Kobbie Mainoo

Manchester United are keen to keep the spotlight off Kobbie Mainoo but behind the scenes they are raving about him – Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

There are plenty of teenagers who would have been overawed at the prospect of playing in front of 82,000 people at the home of the New York Giants NFL franchise against a midfield comprising Martin Odegaard, Kai Havertz and £105 million man Declan Rice. But Mainoo did not only take it all in his stride, he flourished in the spotlight.

Asked to anchor the midfield, with Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount either side, Mainoo oozed composure as he dropped into the space between centre-halves Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez to collect possession and help United build up from the back. And his creative instincts and vision were evident in the pass that released Fernandes to score United’s first goal in the 2-0 win and again when he drove from deep and clipped a pinpoint 30 yard pass in behind for Antony to chase.

United are reluctant to draw too much attention to Mainoo. He had been scheduled to appear alongside Varane, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot at a commercial event in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where the squad were staying on the first leg of their US tour, but it was ultimately decided that it was better he sit it out. Yet top players know a talent when they see one and Fernandes was not about to downplay Mainoo’s promise when asked about him in the wake of the Arsenal game. “He’s a great player,” United’s new captain said. “He’s good on the ball, strong, he can defend and attack. He’s still pretty young but we see a bright future for him.”

Some United supporters were surprised to see the club sell Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage to Utrecht and Reading respectively this summer but that was in part because Mainoo was already considered ahead of both players in terms of his development. That Mainoo was preferred against Arsenal to Donny van de Beek, who did not play a minute against Mikel Arteta’s side, spoke volumes for how highly Ten Hag rates him and his chances next season are likely to improve further should United cash in on Brazil midfielder Fred this summer.

Donny van de Beek

Mainoo was preferred to Donny van de Beek – Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

Bryan Robson, the former United captain and England midfielder, likes what he sees.

“He’s calculated and he’s reading the game, doing things in his own time,” Robson said. “He closes down really well, receives the ball and changes the pattern of the game, quickens it up when he wants to and he’s using his football brain. I’m quite impressed with him.”

Mainoo turned 18 only in mid April but he already has a man’s physique and, given the intensity and physicality of the Premier League, that is a valuable asset when allied with such natural comfort on the ball and high technical ability. It helps that he has always been “playing up” so to speak. He was playing regularly for the Under-18s when just 16 and was the second youngest member of the FA Youth Cup winning team last year when United beat Nottingham Forest 3-1. United’s coaches were impressed with the maturity he showed in EFL Trophy games last season when he coped comfortably with the physicality and aggression of League One teams.

It was on a winter training camp to last December, when Ten Hag took a young squad to Cádiz in Spain when most of his senior stars were at the World Cup in Qatar, that the manager got a much closer look at Mainoo. He liked what he saw and was impressed enough to hand the midfielder a surprise first team debut, against Charlton Athletic in the Carabao Cup, just two months later. Mainoo has not looked back since.

An England Under-19 international, Mainoo was born and raised in Stockport and played for Cheadle and Gatley Juniors before being spotted by United, where he has been since the age of nine. Eligible to play for Ghana, through his father, Mainoo is known to be a regular visitor to the African country given his family heritage there.

One thing that has struck Ten Hag is Mainoo’s calm character. United’s academy coaches and technical director Darren Fletcher have long been impressed by Mainoo’s attitude and application and it is reassuring for the club that he has such a good head on his shoulders. That has not always been the case down the years with some of the club’s brightest young prospects. Adnan Januzaj was as good an example of that as any and even Garnacho has required a quiet word or two, not least on last summer’s tour to Thailand and Australia when the Argentina winger was late for a couple of team meetings.

Mainoo is not someone who is likely to get ahead of himself but his feet are already doing the talking.

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