It was said with a wry smile, but Michael Carrick hinted at one of the few silver linings in a distinctly overcast season for Manchester United when discussing the crop of youngsters who have been forced to answer Louis van Gaal’s numerous SOS calls this campaign.
“That’s the beauty this season,” Carrick said. “We’ve played a lot of lads who maybe wouldn’t have been close to getting a chance, but they’ve got the chance and a lot of them have taken it.”
Marcus Rashford, the Manchester-born 18-year-old who was almost tempted away to Manchester City as a schoolboy, may make his Premier League debut against Arsenal tomorrow having marked his first senior appearance for United with two crucial goals in Thursday’s 5-1 Europa League victory against FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford.
But for Anthony Martial complaining of a tight hamstring in the warm-up – the French forward is 50-50 to face Arsenal – Rashford would have been consigned to the substitutes’ bench and unlikely to have stolen the show with two goals in front of the Stretford End.
“He has trained with us quite a lot this season, so I’ve seen plenty of him,” Carrick added. “He’s lively, he’s pacy and he is enthusiastic.
“To get two goals it’s the stuff of dreams, to see his reaction and what it means to him. They were massive goals for us and he stepped up
“He found out he was playing 10-15 minutes before the game, maybe that helped him a bit, he didn’t have too much time to think about it.”
When speaking to The Independent earlier this month, United manager Van Gaal did not hide from the reality that his decision to hand senior debuts to the likes of Rashford, plus the defenders Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Guillermo Varela, Donald Love and Joe Riley, had been forced by the loss of several senior players.
“I think it is very important to play young players,” Van Gaal said. “But I have taken a risk because when you have a lot of injuries, you have problems.
“But a player’s chances are not just about his ability, also about his attitude – how he deals with negative things because it is not always sunshine and hallelujah.”
The promotion of several youngsters to Van Gaal’s squad – centre-half Axel Tuanzebe is the next in line having made the bench at Crystal Palace earlier this season – has underlined the club’s view that their efforts to recruit the best young players will be bolstered by the opportunities offered to those who climb the ladder in the youth ranks.
Carrick, a graduate of West Ham’s famed youth set-up, admits that young players can been thrown into the firing line too early, but that the best ones always survive their early difficulties.
“I think Cameron [Borthwick-Jackson] is a prime example of that,” Carrick said. “If you ask him, he probably wasn’t hoping to be around the first team this season, but he gets his chance and he’s looked comfortable and at home.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you throw them in. You don’t want to be throwing them in all at once, but I suppose you see who can deal with it and who can’t. Most of them have.”
With David de Gea set to return in goal against Arsenal, United would still be without 13 first-team players if Martial fails to recover from his hamstring problem.
The casualty list may diminish by the time Van Gaal and his players begin preparations for the Europa League last-16 tie against Liverpool – the first leg at Anfield looms large in less than a fortnight – but it is likely that the likes of Varela, Borthwick-Jackson and Rashford will remain part of the squad for that tie.
Jesse Lingard, another who has been promoted to the first team on a regular basis this season, has moved one step ahead of his younger team-mates, having dislodged the £25m summer signing Memphis Depay from Van Gaal’s starting line-up.
But United will undoubtedly face Arsenal with their most inexperienced squad for such a fixture since Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a team of youngsters at the old Highbury in the League Cup in November 2001 – a game won 4-0 by the home side.
After suffering a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in October, however, Carrick admits that United must avenge that loss in order to revive their hopes of closing the six-point gap between themselves and the top four.
“It’s a big game for us,” the midfielder said. “Hopefully we can get some more bodies fit and some strength in depth back, but it’s always a big game against Arsenal and we’ll be ready to go.
“But fourth place opens up if we win. Week-to-week it changes quite a bit.
“We’ve obviously let some points slip away in the last couple of weeks and, but for that, we would have been right in there. That’s frustrating, but if we win on Sunday, it looks different again.”