Applying a greater narrative to occurrences on a football pitch is a trap often fallen into and one that, ordinarily, should be avoided. But you couldn’t help get the sense of a torch being passed when Angel Gomes replaced Wayne Rooney in the closing stages of Manchester United‘s 2-1 won over Crystal Palace on the final Premier League weekend on last season.
One left the field in what turned out to be his final outing at Old Trafford, the stage for 13 remarkable, record-breaking years; the other, the most outstanding talent seen in United’s prestigious academy in the last few years, entered to make his senior debut, aged just 16 years and 263 days old.
When he came on against the Eagles with two minutes remaining, Gomes became the first player born in the new millennium to play in the Premier League, and the youngest player to represent United at senior level since Duncan Edwards in the 1950s.
You might think these records would have weighed heavy on the youngster, that stepping out at the Theatre of Dreams in front of 76,000 might have daunted the teenager somewhat. But Gomes immediately looked at home. Although only a coupe of minutes plus stoppage time remained, he instantly set about involving himself as much as possible.
Stationed on the left wing, the 16-year-old drifted around the final third, linking with his more experienced colleagues and seemingly relishing the occasion. He made 12 passes in his short time on the pitch, completing all but one – hardly a body of stats from which any conclusions about Gomes’ ability can be drawn, but his demeanour evidenced a young man with a calm head, self-belief and a bright future.
London-born Gomes, the son of a Portuguese former journeyman footballer and godson of ex-United winger Nani, joined the Red Devils aged 13 and was immediately identified as a player of real potential.
Being anointed a future star of the United first team has, for some, been a poisoned chalice in the past, with the likes of Federico Macheda, Giuseppe Rossi and Adnan Januzaj unable to live up to their early billing. Time and patience will be required if Gomes is to be allowed to blossom into a regular feature at Old Trafford, but his temperament suggests he won’t be overawed by expectations.
Promoted to the under-18 side before his 16th birthday, Gomes became the youngest player ever to score a hat-trick for United’s academy outfit, coming on as a half-time substitute to bag a treble against Everton aged 15 years, 11 months and 29 days in August of last year.
An England regular at under-16 and -17 level, Gomes made his debut for the Three Lions’ Under-18s team in September this year, captaining the side in a 0-0 draw with Brazil. Having missed the European Under-17 Championship through injury in April, he was included in England’s Under-17 World Cup-winning squad, scoring a free-kick in the Young Lions’ opening game win over Chile.
In winning the Under-17 World Cup, he matched his father’s feat with Portugal at the 1991 tournament.
Stylistically, Gomes is a dynamic and explosive dribbler, able to burst away from opponents and weave between defenders thanks to his immaculate close control. He is also a goal threat with either foot, and has the vision and execution to carve opposition backlines apart with incisive through-balls.
Former United academy standout Danny Webber reserved high praise for Gomes when discussing the youngster’s ability. “Gomes is still very small, but he sees the game seconds before others,” he said. “Angel is like Paul Scholes; he can dictate a game with his intelligence.”
In terms of his position, Gomes’ skillset and ability to use both feet means he can slot into a number of roles comfortably, whether wide on either flank or centrally as a false nine. However, his preferred position is as a No.10, where he can dictate play in advanced areas and remain a constant threat.
Yet to appear for United at senior or even reserve-team level this season, it is unlikely Gomes will become a first-team regular for the Red Devils any time soon.
But there’s no rush. At 17, it is important to allow the diminutive attacker time to develop physically and further refine his skills away from the cauldron of pressure that is Old Trafford.
United have a long and proud tradition of developing talented youngsters into top-class stars – with an academy graduate featuring in every matchday squad for more than 80 years. If his development is managed carefully, and his trajectory maintained, Gomes will be next in line.