Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United had many fans fearing for United’s youngsters; the Portuguese manager has a reputation for not giving youth a chance. This has proved to be somewhat unfounded, with Scott McTominay making a successful step-up to first-team football last season, and while there are a few good prospects within the United academy at present, Tahith Chong looks likeliest to be the next big homegrown star at Old Trafford.
The 18-year-old has been earning rave reviews for his performances for United’s reserve sides over the past couple of seasons; he even played for the club’s U-23 team last season despite only turning 18 in December. Mourinho has been deprived of a number of his first-team regulars during this pre-season due to the World Cup, and thus took along a number of youngsters to the United States, with Chong included in that lucky batch. The Dutchman made his debut for the club off the bench in a game against Club America, and he had an immediate impact, helping to create Juan Mata’s equalizer with a surging run and cross. He even managed to glean some praise from Mourinho, who stated after the game that:
“He was good. He came with the intention to show, and in a moment where we have no strikers on the pitch, Martial was the only one and then he left, so we needed people to create, have some initiative, which he did. The action for the cross for the goal is a beautiful action. He was enthusiastic, he was confident to play….when he makes the ball move and attacks people one against one, he has quality. He’s a good kid.”
Chong looks like having a bright future at the club, and we will now look at the qualities that will help him achieve this.
Chong primarily plays on the right wing, looking to cut inside onto his favoured left foot, but is comfortable across the attacking line behind a striker, having played on the left as well as a number 10. One of his biggest strengths in this regard is his dribbling ability. Chong regularly isolates an opposition player one-on-one, with the intention of dribbling past him; he attempted 9.7 dribbles per game on average over the last couple of seasons. His success rate (70.3%) is quite good for a player his age, although there is room for improvement.
Chong’s strength in this regard lies in his ability to go either inside or outside when isolated 1v1 against an opponent. It leaves the opposition player guessing and buys Chong a little extra time in which to make his move due to his unpredictability. Chong is also well-built for his age; at 6 feet tall and weighing almost 150 lbs, it is difficult to shake him off the ball, at least at the age groups where he has been competing.
Playing as an attacking midfielder, Chong was often tasked with providing the creative spark for United’s reserve sides. The stats suggest that he has done fairly well in this regard, averaging almost 34 passes per game with a 77.1% success rate. It is when these numbers are broken down that Chong’s true strengths are seen. He had an 81% success rate when delivering passes in the final third of the pitch, and an overall 78% success rate for passes made forward. This shows his ability at finding teammates accurately in dangerous areas, and therefore his potential impact on games.
Positioning and movement
The Curacao-born youngster is intelligent off the ball too, varying his positioning cleverly to be able to receive the ball in space or to create room for his teammates. His tendency to drift across the pitch helps in this regard; as the pitch and position maps provided below demonstrate, Chong is comfortable playing across the attacking line, which allows him to look for space across the pitch and not stay restricted to one flank.
Chong usually tries to receive the ball in space or on the turn, as these two scenarios allow him to utilize his speed and dribbling skills to get away from any opposition markers. One of his preferred moves is to come short before quickly laying the ball off and spinning into the space behind the opposition player.
This is probably the one area of Chong’s game that needs significant improvement. While he is adept at creating chances for teammates, the Dutchman rarely scores himself; a goals-per-game ratio of 0.23 over the last couple of seasons is testament to this. His shot accuracy is a concern as well, with only 48.9% of his shots on target. Chong does have the composure to finish when he does move into goalscoring areas, and as the images below will show, can score using both his left and right foot. It is a part of his game that needs some work, but the 18-year old has time on his hand to improve this facet.
Chong has the potential to be one of the most gifted players to emerge from the United academy in recent years. His combination of excellent dribbling skills, intelligent movement and flexibility to play across the attacking line make him the archetypal modern winger. While there are areas of his game that need to improve, there is no doubt that the youngster can reach the highest levels of the game as long as he receives proper guidance.