Kobbie Mainoo is the nutmeg king brimming with desire Man Utd need

In Depth
Kobbie Mainoo for Manchester United against Young Boys, Manchester, Leigh Sports Village, 8 December 2021.

Kobbie Mainoo is just 16 years old, and yet he has become one of the most important players in Manchester United’s high-flying Under-18 side.

He has steamrolled through the youth ranks in the past year, becoming one of the youngest players in the Under-18s, playing in the UEFA Youth League, and even making a handful of appearances in the Premier League 2, where most players are almost 20.

But while he may be playing with people a few years older than him, he should be seen as an example to those who are even more years his senior; so impressive is his technicality and his determination, that Manchester United’s first-team players should look at his attitude for guidance.

Mainoo can produce despicably outrageous nutmegs, shrug off anyone he wishes to win back the ball, and produce perfectly placed crosses. In short, he is full of the audacious desire Manchester United need.

Mainoo was born in Stockport in 2005. Previously a striker, his game changed as he has entered the more senior part of the youth set-up when he began playing with the Under-18s at just 15.

He moved into midfield. Whereabouts in midfield, you say? Well everywhere of course.

Alongside former Burnley youth player Dan Gore, Mainoo has formed a versatile and dominant midfield two that has helped power United to a first FA Youth Cup final in over a decade this season.

United won that 2011 edition of the tournament, with Paul Pogba part of the team who lifted the trophy at Old Trafford.

So, as you might imagine with Mainoo being a technically superior midfielder who also has a real physical presence and a jack-of-all-trades aspect to his game, he’s already been compared to the French World Cup winner.

Audacious

Stuff like his outrageous nutmeg in an Under-18s Premier League Cup match against Chelsea only reinforces those comparisons.

This was some of The Good Stuff™. The type of stuff that makes you involuntarily go “Ooooohhh.” The type of stuff that, if you were younger, would make you try to recreate it in the playground on that classmate you didn’t really like in an attempt to break his ankles – purely in the basketballing sense.

Trapped out on the left-hand side of the pitch, Mainoo was isolated. He had just received the ball with his back to one Chelsea defender and another shirt in blue menacingly walking toward him.

In that situation, your coach probably wants you to do one of two things. One would be to smash the ball across the pitch to the best of your ability, probably losing the ball but potentially finding a teammate. The second would be to hit it against the defender and take a throw-in.

What they don’t train you to do, however, is take the ball to the absolute edge of the pitch, keeping it on by a millimeter, and nutmeg your opponent as you fall to the floor, getting back up and running around him to bear down on goal.

That, of course, is what Mainoo did.

It was perfection. What made it better was that his marker had pushed him to the floor in the first place, causing Mainoo to have to think on the spot about what to do.

In that split second where he was falling to the floor, he must have noticed the body position of the defender, taken a gamble his legs would just be wide enough to poke a ball through, and opted to pull off the trick.

He did. Through the legs of his opponent the ball went, before he stumbled to keep himself upright with some leg movements that strongly resembled a baby horse walking for the first time.

Mainoo then galloped like a horse too, meeting the ball on the other side of the defender and running towards the box. Of course, that’s where the move ends, for the Chelsea player took him down immediately after Mainoo looked to have got away.

And fair enough, for under absolutely no circumstances can you allow a man to do what Mainoo had just done to him and get away with it.

The whole move represented an audacious desire to entertain. He refused to take the easy route, he refused to go down and he refused to go backward. Of himself, Mainoo demanded that he attacked and that he pulled off something worthy of his shirt.

Desire

What’s brilliant about Mainoo is that audacious desire does not end with tricks. In his ball-winning capacity as well as his general play, he is not afraid of doing the dirty work.

Take his recent assist for the England Under-17s, against France no less.

The ball doesn’t land at his feet at the edge of the box from a corner. Rather he chases after it, totally obsessed with winning the ball back.

So much does he desire possession that the fairly strong protest of one of the French defenders is laughable to Mainoo.

It seemed like the ball was lost when the defender cut across him, but Mainoo reaches it under pressure, touches it past his man, and floors the Frenchman with a simple, authoritative body check.

Next, he battled with another defender, who looked like a deer caught in Mainoo’s shining headlights. Mainoo opened his body up, inviting the defender in like a Matador waving a red flag in front of a bull.

The French player lunged in, but he fell right into Mainoo’s trap. He unleashed a ball into the box (yes, we’re ignoring the fact it took a deflection) and it was met by the willing boot of Arsenal’s Amario Cozier-Duberry.

England lost 3-1, but their one goal was all Mainoo; he was audacious in his desire both to win the ball and get the cross in. Without it, it simply wouldn’t have happened.

‘The Man Utd way’

Six thousand watched the FA Youth Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, as have a few thousand watched all the games that they’ve played in the famous stadium this season.

With the final also at the Theatre of Dreams, you would say it’s a safe bet to imagine around 10,000 will be at the final itself if the Manchester Police allow it.

United fans have flocked to their youth team, and women’s side too, in disillusionment with the senior men’s side. The other sides have been more successful, sure, but in truth, it comes from the attitude of the other teams which hold a damning mirror up the men’s.

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Manchester United's Kobbie Mainoo. Leigh Sports Village, December 2021.

READ: Seven insanely talented U-18 players that could save Man Utd’s future

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Mainoo’s audacious desire to not only do the technically outrageous and entertaining but also the hard work and midfield combat is an embodiment of the mythical “United way” that fans of the club have clamoured for from their players in the post-Ferguson era.

Pundits and rival fans have, with merit, questioned what on earth “the United way” is, and the answer is probably that no one really knows, or at least that no one can really codify it in a single sentence.

Because at the end of the day it’s not a list of checkboxes, but rather a feeling, and one that Mainoo looks like he gets.

Other Manchester United players would do well to look at him for guidance.

By Patrick Ryan


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