Kobbie Mainoo: The next Man Utd breakout star tipped to follow Alejandro Garnacho into Erik ten Hag's first team

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The midfielder made his United debut aged 17 and will be one of the players to watch during the Red Devils' pre-season campaign

The FA Youth Cup has been the launching pad for many successful Manchester United careers, and everyone who followed the team's run to the 2022 trophy talked about two players in particular. It was difficult to ignore Alejandro Garnacho, who finished as United's top scorer, firing the Under-18s to glory with two goals in the final against Nottingham Forest. But behind him was the more unassuming yet equally influential Kobbie Mainoo, who orchestrated United's play from deep and held everything together.

Garnacho galvanised big crowds at Old Trafford with his talismanic displays in the Youth Cup and has catapulted himself into the hearts of the wider United support with a stunning breakthrough season in 2022-23. The Argentine is a star in the making and loves the limelight.

Mainoo is a very different character, but albeit at a steadier pace, he is following in Garnacho's footsteps into Erik ten Hag's side. After getting his first taste of first-team football last season with a smattering of appearances, the 18-year-old will be one of the players to watch in United's pre-season campaign, which begins on Wednesday against Leeds in Norway and will take the team across the United States.

  1. 'He's a cracker'

    'He's a cracker'

    Mentioning Mainoo's name to anyone around United generally provokes a huge grin. There is tangible excitement about the 18-year-old's progress and what he could achieve with the club. "He’s a cracker, he really is," a club source tells GOAL. "Balance, movement, doesn't panic under pressure. Out of the lot who won the Youth Cup, him and Alejandro were always going to be the ones [to make it].

    "He'll definitely be around the first-team squad next season or he'll be playing first-team football somewhere on loan. And he'll knock it out the park. He’s such a big lad. He's got balance, movement, he doesn't panic under pressure. He’s superb."

    It might sound strange for Mainoo to be described as big. He stands at just 5'9 (175cm), making him the same height as Lisandro Martinez. But he compensates with remarkable physical strength honed in the gym after being encouraged to bulk up by coaches.

  2. Thriving in older age groups

    Thriving in older age groups

    Mainoo was born in Stockport to Ghanaian parents. He often returns to Ghana to visit family, but he is an England Under-19 international and wants to represent the Three Lions at senior level.

    He was discovered by United while playing for Cheadle and Gatley Junior Club, and became part of the club's academy aged nine, though he continued to represent his local club until he was 12. United encourage their youngsters to keep up their normal football activities as they want to promote a healthy childhood. The club believes United can be a great addition to a player's childhood, but should not define it.

    Mainoo was encouraged to train with older age groups to test himself and get more experience, and he was one of the youngest players in the Youth Cup team, beginning the campaign when he was 16. He still started all six games in the cup run and was one of the most important players forU18s coach Travis Binnion.

  3. Testing himself all across midfield

    Testing himself all across midfield

    Mainoo played as a No.6 under Binnion, but last season for the U21s he was tasked with playing all over midfield, as a No.8 and as a No.10. He has even played on the wing. The idea was to give him as much experience and confidence in different roles, as that will make him more equipped to come off the bench for Ten Hag's side.

    "His talent is so high they'll push him around, try him in different positions play him on wings to give him that technical challenge," explains another club source. "In the first-team central midfield is such a competitive position, if you’re going to come off the bench often it might be on the wing for 10 minutes, so if he’s used to doing it in the U21s then it’s easier to do it at Old Trafford as and when he needs to.

    "He would define himself as a No.6 but he may end up being a No.8 or a No.10. It's not fully defined what his best position is, but if you asked him he’d say No.6 or No.8."

  4. Enhancing his reputation in Spain

    Enhancing his reputation in Spain

    While Garnacho joined United's first team on their pre-season tour of Australia last year, Mainoo stayed in Manchester. But he remained in Ten Hag's thoughts, and was named on the substitutes' bench for the Premier League game against Newcastle in October.

    He didn't get on the pitch, but the fact he was called into the squad for such an important game was an indication of how highly Ten Hag thought of him. Mainoo then joined the first team on their training camp in southern Spain in December during the World Cup, along with a number of his FA Youth Cup-winning team-mates.

    The trip might not have seemed like a success on some levels. It was supposed to be a warm weather training camp but it rained throughout, while United lost both their friendly matches, against Cadiz and Real Betis. But for Mainoo it was a big success, and he scored in the 4-2 defeat against Cadiz, returning to Manchester with his reputation enhanced.

  5. Feeling at home on his debut

    Feeling at home on his debut

    One month later, still aged 17, Mainoo was handed his first-team debut in the Carabao Cup quarter-final tie against Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford. It was not a barnstorming debut, but he looked comfortable with the step up in quality and coped well with the pace and physical battle.

    “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I have been at this club all my life and it’s all been building to tonight. And to have my family here watching me, surrounding me, it is just amazing," Mainoo said after the 3-0 win.

    “I’ve been in training with the lads quite a few times. They all made me feel welcome and all gave me words of advice and encouragement. So I felt at home. To stay around it and to keep on getting more games is the ultimate goal. I want to stay at this club; I’ve been here my whole life.”

  6. Blocking Maddison's path

    Blocking Maddison's path

    His debut naturally turned more attention onto Mainoo, and loan offers from a number of League 1 clubs came in during the January window. But United had liked what they had seen and decided it was in the best interest of the team and the player for him to stay where he was.

    A substitutes' appearance followed later in the month in the FA Cup fifth round against Reading, while he got his first taste of Premier League action against Leicester in February. He only had 10 minutes on the pitch, but was in the thick of the action around both penalty areas. He set up a half-chance for Wout Weghorst with a ball into the box, but his most eye-catching moment was against James Maddison.

    The England midfielder tried to give Mainoo the runaround and managed to dribble past him, but as he shaped to shoot on goal, the 17-year-old responded with a perfectly-timed slide tackle to block the effort.

  7. Following in the footsteps of Giggs & Rashford

    Following in the footsteps of Giggs & Rashford

    Ten Hag was clearly impressed and named him on the bench again for the Europa League play-off second leg against Barcelona - having also allowed the teenager to travel with the squad to the first leg at Camp Nou - and for the 0-0 draw against Southampton in March.

    An injury prevented Mainoo from playing any more for the first team, but his season ended on a high when he won the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award. Previous winners include Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Wes Brown and Marcus Rashford, while his immediate predecessor was Garnacho.

    "Kobbie has had an exceptional season and risen to every challenge that he has faced. He has been at the club from a really young age and has always been an exciting talent but, importantly, he’s shown the work rate and desire to succeed," said Nick Cox, United's head of academy.

    "Every time Kobbie has played for an academy side this year, he has performed to a very high standard and that has given him the platform to go and impress Erik ten Hag and the first-team coaches. His debut was a fantastic moment for Kobbie, his family and the dedicated staff who have supported him along the journey. To start a game for Manchester United, at the age of just 17, is a special achievement."

  8. Gentle encouragement from Ten Hag
    Getty Images

    Gentle encouragement from Ten Hag

    Ten Hag congratulated Mainoo on the award and said Garnacho was an example of how to earn more first-team opportunities. But in the Dutch coach's typically assertive way, there was also a warning that his journey was far from complete.

    "Like Alejandro Garnacho last season, you see the path is open, but they have to deserve their position," Ten Hag said. "I hope this trophy will motivate them and stimulate them to bring more, because that is necessary if you want to get a place in the first team, the first squad, of this club."

    Ten Hag has always been closely involved in the youth teams at his previous clubs, and his Ajax side that reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 drew heavily from academy players such as Matthijs de Ligt, Andre Onana and Donny van de Beek.

    Even before he took charge of United, Ten Hag had spoken to director of football John Murtough about his plans for the U21 team, believing it was "isolated". He told Dutch magazine Voetbal International: “For me, cooperation between all the different departments is crucial to get the right culture in a club. At Ajax, the reserve team came under the responsibility of the manager. That was the only way I could have influence on the flow of young, talented players towards the first team.”

  9. Can Mainoo crack America?

    Can Mainoo crack America?

    Mainoo and other United youngsters could not ask for a manager more interested in and committed to youth development. But Ten Hag has also made it clear he will not promote youngsters for the sake of it, stressing that everyone has to be worthy of their place in his team.

    It explains why he has drip-fed Mainoo his minutes rather than hand him a run of games. But it also means his development is being managed very carefully. Ten Hag will be watching him closely during pre-season, assessing whether he can go further in his team or whether he needs a loan move to develop further.

    The upcoming tour of the U.S. could be a huge opportunity for him. As well as allowing him to further integrate with the first team, it is the chance to test himself against top sides such as Arsenal, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. And if Mainoo's youth career is anything to go by, he is set to take America by storm.