“If you are good enough, you are old enough.”
That phrase has been the mantra for Manchester United for decades. A club that is immensely proud of its academy, plenty of players have made the jump from the youth setup to the first team at a young age. For over 4000 straight games, the Red Devils have named an academy product in the matchday 18.
The latest youthful phenom to come up through the system is Brandon Williams, who has gotten a few chances in the team this season. However, after yet another strong showing versus Burnley on Saturday afternoon, it’s clear the 19-year-old should now be United’s first choice left back for the foreseeable future.
The rise of Williams
After emerging through the ranks of the aforementioned academy, Williams made his debut for the first team in September, coming off the bench in United’s Carabao Cup third round victory over Rochdale. His first start for the club came in the Europa League a week later when the Red Devils took on AZ Alkmaar.
Williams got most of his minutes in those two cup competitions, being able to adapt to football at the highest level while put under less pressure. He was getting used to playing against grown men who were simply bigger and stronger than him, gaining crucial experience along the way.
Those impressive performances ultimately led to him getting opportunities in the Premier League. He managed two incredibly brief camoes versus Liverpool and Bournemouth early on, only featuring for a combined ten minutes in those games.
However, circumstances would allow Williams the biggest chance of his career. Luke Shaw was out injured, and his replacement Ashley Young was also unavailable for selection due to suspension. Red Devils manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had no other choice than to turn to Williams, giving him the start against Brighton & Hove Albion.
The youngster made the most of it. His energy had an immediate impact on the team, as Williams quickly started flying forward down the wing. With him much higher up the field, the left back became another option to pass too, helping alleviate the pressure on the midfield.
When he did get the ball, Williams was able to create on the sidelines. He’s a quality crosser, able to consistently whip in passes into the area. That put immense pressure on the opposing backline, who wanted to drop deep and sit back in their own penalty area.
United went on to win the game, and Williams solid showing meant he was starting once again a week later versus Sheffield United. It would be this contest were the youngster took another big step in his career.
The Red Devils found themselves down 2-0 in the second half, and were being completely outplayed at Bramall Lane. Devoid of any ideas in the final third, Man U seemed set for another disappointing loss.
That would change in the 72nd minute after a moment of magic from Williams. A cross from Daniel James made its way across the penalty area before eventually finding the left back at the far post.
Williams reacted quickly, turning his body before unleashing a volley with his weaker right foot that flew into the bottom corner. His goal kickstarted a comeback for the Red Devils, who eventually secured a point on the night.
He had been out of the team in the following weeks, but the hectic holiday period allowed him another opportunity to start away at Burnley yesterday. Williams would have his best game in a United shirt so far, bossing proceedings all afternoon.
The Red Devils have become notorious for struggling against teams parking the bus, but the young left back was key in changing that on the afternoon. He would just not stop bursting forward, making overlapping runs time and time and time again. With Marcus Rashford usually cutting inside, that left space on the wing for Williams to run into.
His crossing was on point as per usual, and he would’ve gotten an assist or two if someone could just get on the end of his passes into the area. Williams was making the right decisions as well, completing the easy sideways pass when need be. He also got the job done defensively, helping United secure a crucial clean sheet.
Fans recognized his superb performance, as Williams was voted United’s man of the match courtesy of a poll on Twitter. Now, those same supporters will hope the left back can keep his spot in the starting lineup when the Red Devils take on Arsenal on New Year’s Day.
The fall of Shaw
The only sad thing about his rapid rise is the fact that the main reason why Williams got a chance was due to the sharp decline of Luke Shaw.
Coming to Old Trafford as a teenager for a record breaking fee at the time, Shaw had the potential to become the best left back on the planet. After a strong start, a horrific leg injury kept him on the sidelines for an extended period of time. He’s never truly recovered from that incident, with the Englishman becoming increasingly injury prone ever since.
The pressure was put on Shaw to make the left back spot his own this season, but he’s failed to do that. He can’t stay on the field on a consistent basis, already missing a number of games this campaign. It’s not like he’s been that great when he’s on the field either.
Shaw looks like a shell of himself nowadays. He seems to be labouring when playing, struggling to get up and down the pitch as much as before. His end product is poor as well, as most of his crosses either hit the first man or sail over everyone. Shaw doesn’t make up for those flaws on the defensive side either, unable to shut down the top tier attackers in the league.
He is still only 24, but many have enough of Shaw, and think it’s time the club move on from him to Williams.
As he is so young, Williams still has plenty left to learn.
An early issue is his tendency to pick up yellow cards, as he has been booked in each of his Premier League starts. He’s been smart enough to never get a second and get sent off because of it, but tendencies like these are hard to break out of after a while.
Williams also needs to improve defensively in some aspects. He’s good enough at the moment in one vs one duels, but his positioning is what needs work. The youngster sometimes strays away from the rest of his backline, making it tough for United to pull off a successful offside trap.
Thankfully, these developments will come in due time with experience. You can’t learn if you don’t make mistakes, and Williams has already shown that he can learn from past errors. Solskjaer has publicly stated that he’s ready to trust the youth, and he needs to prove that by playing the 19-year-old left back.
Williams can truly become something special at Old Trafford, and now’s the perfect time to let him shine.