Erik ten Hag warned that playing for Manchester United is not for everyone – it is a poisoned chalice because of the added pressure. Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of talent have failed to cope over the past decade but their very own Kobbie Mainoo is embracing it.
It was Ten Hag’s first visit to a Football League club since arriving at United. There are more unwelcoming stadiums than the DW Stadium, although few could claim to be as cold. Often the issue that creates United’s inconsistency revolves around the mentality of the team, as they struggle to put a run of victories together. A trip to a mid-table third-tier team desperate to rattle a very fragile team was not the most enticing encounter for a side in constant transition. It was a night for cool heads, something the temperature aided.
Any Premier League team should be able to visit Wigan and come away victorious. They had only ever lost once to the Latics in 19 matches, courtesy of a goal from now manager Shaun Maloney, nor have they lost against lower league opposition in normal time in the FA Cup since 2010 when the Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford shocked Old Trafford. Fear could not come into the night.
It is difficult to be an 18-year-old footballer at the best of times. Every performance at United is reviewed in microscopic detail, especially when things are not going well. Mainoo, from nearby Stockport, has been brought up alongside United’s decline from consistent title challengers to battling to stay in the top six. He knows the heights United desire to reach.
Knowing that he was coming into a team with a gaping hole in midfield would have intimidated many teenagers but Mainoo has settled into his role quickly. Against Wigan he was the deepest of a midfield three, behind Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes, the same two that started alongside him on his Premier League debut against Everton. That trip to Goodison Park was, arguably, United’s most complete of the season as they brushed aside the Toffees in a cauldron as fans seethed about the club’s 10-point deduction.
Mainoo was often found in between United two experienced centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Jonny Evans, dropping deep to collect the ball. He was eager to have possession, knowing he has the capability to instigate attacks with his passing by breaking in the lines.
Nor is it a bad thing to occupy the space in front of Varane and Evans because they know exactly where a defensive midfielder should be to help provide the protection they require, a shield that has often been lacking, even when Casemiro was in the side. When Martial Godo led a one-man counterattack, he put United in trouble. The winger made it into the penalty area, making the away fans uneasy but Mainoo had tracked him all the way and put in a clever block, without diving in.
It is imperative that teammates from all over the pitch help Mainoo to settle, adjust and learn from mistakes because the role he plays is pivotal for United. He only needs to see what Rodri does for Manchester City and how much he is missed when absent. After Diogo Dalot’s opener, Fernandes was quick to accost Mainoo and explain what more he wanted from him. He was then passed on to Ten Hag for a few more words of encouragement and a merited pat on the back.
Without Champions League football, the league and FA Cup are the two things left to focus on. They will have fewer games than their rivals, permitting Ten Hag to rotate less and create an XI that could take the club forward, in addition to summer signings. The bench was full of young players, all seven outfield options having progressed through the club’s academy, indicating the limitations of United’s squad at the moment. Mainoo’s seamless transition in difficult circumstances will give those substitutes hope they can seize any opportunities that come their way.
Ten Hag has potentially stumbled across an effective midfield trio. Mainoo offers the stability, McTominay the physicality and energy to get forward and Fernandes the cunning with the ball at his feet. They complement each other well. Mainoo is 12 games into his senior career and is learning quickly, coming close to the first goal of his career with a low drive from the edge of the box which was expertly stopped by Sam Tickle. It showed he knows how to work in more advanced areas, having played much of his youth career further forward.
United, as demanded, were dominant. Their only issue was an inability to take their chances but everything between the boxes was working as Dalot pushed into space, Marcus Rashford hugged the touchline and Fernandes created chances. Mainoo offered the security that allowed others to have freedom to cause problems for Wigan as they were unable to cope with the movement.
There was no trepidation as United eased their inferior opponents aside on a night where Mainoo’s fearlessness of youth set the tone. Playing without alarm could be key to a resurgent second half of the season.