Angel Gomes is proving Man Utd wrong for not giving him more opportunities - England U21s star would have fit perfectly into Erik ten Hag's new vision

Angel Gomes England 2023
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The midfielder looked destined to make it at Old Trafford, but a lack of first-team games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led to him forging his own path

England's run to the semi-finals of the Under-21 European Championship has been led by many familiar Premier League faces, with Emile Smith-Rowe, Anthony Gordon, Morgan Gibbs-White and Jacob Ramsey grabbing the headlines.

But there has been an equally pivotal contribution from a player who caused a real stir in youth football, yet three years ago decided to leave the country to earn the opportunities that he was lacking but knew he deserved.

Angel Gomes was a thrilling attacking midfielder as a teenager for Manchester United's age-group sides, and made his first-team debut under Jose Mourinho aged 16. But scant opportunities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led to him look abroad to prove himself, and he has done that after a stellar second campaign with Lille, reinventing himself as a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez.

And he is thriving in the same role now for England. He has knitted Lee Carlsey's side's play together and dictated their moves from deep, displaying remarkable calmness on the ball even when under immense pressure and an ability to switch the play with long, pinpoint passes.

Watching Gomes glide past opponents with ease while effortlessly bringing the ball out from defence and into midfield, it is difficult not to think that United failed to recognise his talents and did not nurture him as they should have. Here is a player who could have fit right into Erik ten Hag's side, taking on a similar role to Christian Eriksen but without the fitness concerns surrounding the 31-year-old, who struggles to finish matches and who faded badly in the final stretch of last season.

United spent most of last summer trying in vain to convince Frenkie de Jong to come to Old Trafford, but in Gomes they had a gem of their own who they should have been able to nurture into a top talent themselves.

  1. Dribbling his way out of trouble

    Dribbling his way out of trouble

    Gomes started England's opening group stage games against Czech Republic and Israel, as well as the quarter-final against Portugal (he was rested for the third group match against Germany as the Young Lions had already qualified for the knockout stage) and has been sitting deepest of the four midfielders, often playing in between the centre-backs.

    Against Portugal, he received a short pass from goalkeeper James Trafford and was immediately surrounded by two forwards, but calmly shielded the ball before dribbling his way out of trouble. It was a sight to behold for United fans who watched their team panic any time they were asked to play out from the back last season, particularly in the final two months after Lisandro Martinez's injury.

    He also made his share of tackles and interceptions, but was equally comfortable in the opponents' half, offering team-mates passing outlets, taking one touch to control and then spraying a pass downfield or wide to launch an attack.

  2. The journey from No.10 to No.6

    The journey from No.10 to No.6

    Gomes never considered being a No.6 when he was in United's youth teams, when he predominantly played in the No.10 role behind the striker. And he says he enjoys his current role more than trying to finish off attacks, despite his old team-mate and mentor Marcus Rashford recently asking him if he ever gets bored.

    Gomes told The Daily Mail: "Marcus was asking, 'do you not find it boring though? You can’t attack.' I said that no, I don’t, but if I had your pace and attributes then I would! One hundred per cent I enjoy it more. I’ve always appreciated players behind me, the deep-lying midfield.

    "Deep down, growing up I was probably more of a No.10. I could play off the left, coming in, and I was tricky. I still have that in my game if I was to do it again. It’s still there. But I’ve also got the maturity as a No.6… I know what the guys further up want, because I’ve played there.

    ‘Me and (England U21 team-mate) James Garner actually played there in the UEFA Youth League for United. But thinking about playing there in a first team? Probably not. Due to styles of play, what coaches want and what coaches think is required to play there."

  3. Not about assists and goals

    Not about assists and goals

    He may score fewer goals than he did as a teenager, but Gomes understands the game better now while he feels just as important, in both a Lille team that finished fifth in Ligue 1 last season and an England side hoping to win the U21 Euros for the first time in 39 years.

    "I’ve been a key player for the team, I’ve been able to play and impose myself on the majority of the games," Gomes said. "It’s difficult. Whoever watches knows how well I’ve played in games but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people go off who’s scored or assisted. If we win and I play well then that’s great for me.

    "All eyes are on the Premier League and rightly so. That’s the pinnacle, the highest level at the moment. As long as you’re doing well then there’s no reason why you can’t get to where you want to. It’s about being happy within yourself."

  4. Destined to make it at United

    Destined to make it at United

    The fact Gomes talks about happiness is telling. Even though he is a key player in a strong team in one of Europe's top five leagues and last season swapped shirts with Lionel Messi, it must feel like a step down from United.

    Gomes was supposed to triumph at United and had all the makings of a Red Devils star. The son of journeyman Portuguese footballer Gil Gomes, former United winger Nani is the midfielder's godfather. Carlos Quieroz, Sir Alex Ferguson's trusted assistant manager, is a close family friend.

    Gomes, who was born in London but grew up in Salford, a stone's throw from Old Trafford, joined United's academy aged six. In 2017, aged 16, he won the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year award, which has so often been the first step on the path to an exceptional career with United. Previous winners include Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Wes Brown and Rashford. Alejandro Garnacho, United's latest youth star, won it in 2022.

    In May 2017, Gomes became the club's youngest debutant since Duncan Edwards when Mourinho brought him off the bench against Crystal Palace for two minutes in the final Premier League game of the season. It raised his profile, but Gomes only got one more opportunity from Mourinho, another two-minute outing against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup in 2018.

    The arrival of Solskjaer as coach offered hope of more opportunities, but Gomes played a grand total of 44 Premier League minutes under the Norwegian across four matches, plus two substitutes appearances in the domestic cups.

    He did make three starts in the Europa League, but once he began to stall on a new contract, he was effectively banished from the first team. His last appearance for United was a 10-minute outing against Norwich City in January 2020, and he played no part in their FA Cup run.

  5. Needing a fresh start

    Needing a fresh start

    When his contract at United ran out, Gomes joined Lille, turning down the offer of more money but fewer opportunities with United. "It’s such a special club but I just wanted to be able to play and express myself,” Gomes told The Independent in 2020. “I was offered a great contract, I had all my family and friends around me, but I decided that I was willing to sacrifice that to pursue a different path. It’s hard to understand how difficult a decision that was. I could have stayed and gone out on loan, but it just felt like I needed a fresh start."

    Lille's then-sporting director Luis Campos - now at Paris Saint-Germain - hailed Gomes as "one of the greatest European talents of today" upon signing him, but then sent him out on loan to Boavista in Portugal to ensure he continued to grow. Gomes shone in his usual attacking midfield role in Portugal, ending his first top-flight season with six goals and six assists. He returned to Lille stronger and wiser, although he started only 12 Ligue 1 games in what was a difficult first season in France, the team finishing 10th after winning the title the year before.

    Gomes has really kicked on in his second campaign and made 34 starts out of 38 in Ligue 1, missing just two games. He feels the trust of Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca, who has asked him to play in no fewer than six positions.

    "We have changed tactically, with the new coach and new ideas. What he asks of the team suits me well. Obviously, also the confidence that the coach has given me," Gomes told L'Equipe in March. "He also gave me an opportunity in positions that other managers didn't imagine for me because of my physique. It's about opportunities and confidence to be able to show what I'm capable of doing."

  6. Better suited to Ten Hag than Mourinho and Solskjaer

    Better suited to Ten Hag than Mourinho and Solskjaer

    Fonseca has made Lille much more confident with the ball and they finished 2022-23 having enjoyed more possession than any other side in Ligue 1. Carlsley's England team also seek to have the ball as much as possible, and it is clear that suits Gomes.

    So it is hard not to imagine how he might have fared under Ten Hag, who is United's most forward-thinking coach since Ferguson and does not just want his side to play on the counte-rattack like Mourinho and Solskjaer did.

    Gomes may have talked about needing a break from United but he has also spoken of his desire to return to his boyhood club. "Do I imagine myself coming back one day? Obviously, it’s home. I would love to come back," he told L'Equipe. "But you never know in football. I just have to keep my feet on the ground, and keep playing, making the most of it."

    Gomes is sure doing that in Georgia with England. And if he can help inspire Carlsley's side to glory, starting with Wednesday's semi-final against Israel, and further spread the word about the progress he has made since leaving Old Trafford, he might just earn his ticket back there.