“One Chong, we’ve only got one Chong, we’ve only got one Chong.”
The Manchester United fans’ chorus in tribute to the debuting Dutchman when he came off the bench in January’s 2-0 FA Cup third-round victory over Reading may have been improvised, but they knew all about Tahith Chong; they’d been awaiting his arrival in the first team for some time.
The 19-year-old Dutchman made his first appearance for United’s under-23 side in late January 2018 and established himself as the second-string’s star performer last year.
With four goals and an assist for the under-23s in 11 appearances in the first half of 2018/19, as well as two goals and two assists in five UEFA Youth League outings, Chong has appeared ready for his senior bow for some months.
And his chance finally came against Reading. With half an hour to play and United already 2-0 up, he replaced Juan Mata and assumed his customary position on the right flank.
It was a solid, if unspectacular, first foray into senior football. The confident youngster was keen to get on the ball throughout, threatening with his pace and directness and showing a willingness to press and track back when out of possession.
Chong misplaced just one of his 16 attempted passes, linking impressively with his colleagues and looking entirely at home. United have lacked an obvious first-choice option on the right wing for some time, and, as such, the teenager’s emergence was somewhat overdue.
It seems he will not be short of opportunities in the months and years to come, however, having travelled to Dubai with the first team for warm-weather mid-season training.
Former manager José Mourinho may not be renowned for his faith in young players, but temporary United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær has not been shy in blooding academy products already in his short spell in charge, while the club’s next permanent appointment, we are assured, will be someone who adheres to the 20-time champions’ long-held tradition of giving youth a chance.
Of course, there is a limit on how many inexperienced youngster’s can be brought through at a time, and there is a battle for minutes at United among the likes of Angel Gomes, Mason Greenwood and James Garner. But Chong is the standout candidate to succeed.
For all his physical and technical attributes – his pace, dribbling skills, goal threat with his left foot and ability to play anywhere across the second line of attack – it is his maturity and leadership which sets the Dutchman apart.
Instantly identifiable by his long, thick mane of hair, when studying Chong on the pitch one easily recognises a player with supreme confidence in his abilities and the authority to cajole and instruct his colleagues; even those more senior, as was the case in his under-23 debut against Tottenham Hotspur.
Indeed, there have even been calls from some fans for the 19-year-old to be made captain of the under-23s this season, although his involvement at first-team level might preclude that.
Chong was signed from Feyenoord in 2016, with the Red Devils fending off rival interest from a host of top clubs to win his signature. In his book The European Game, author Daniel Fieldsend describes first seeing Chong in action for the Feyenoord, in an under-17s fixture against Ajax.
“Feyenoord’s best player was a left-sided midfielder with hair like Ruud Gullit,” wrote Fieldsend. “He was fast, skilful and direct. I looked for his name in the programme: Tahith Chong, it read. Even the Ajax fans in the stand applauded him for his performance … the mini-Gullit provided four assists.”
It may seem, then, that Chong’s ascent has been fast and without friction, but the youngster has already overcome adversity.
Cruciate knee ligament tears are no longer the career-enders they once were, but they remain among sport’s most serious injuries. Players unfortunate enough to have ruptured this fragile ligament, which aids mobility in the knee, often end up with their careers bisected into two distinct chapters: before and after the injury, with many unable to recover peak speed and manoeuvrability.
Chong ruptured a cruciate ligament in 2017, but, after ten months on the sidelines, thanks to the wonders of modern medical science and his own determination, he returned better than ever, showing no ill effects and looking as though he’d never been away.
His first appearance for the under-23s came just weeks after he completed his recovery, in fact. And he shone against Spurs, scoring and impressing throughout, despite United ending up on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline.
Here, we see how Chong’s fast reactions and speed across the turf can be a threat even when United don’t have the ball. As the Spurs defender plays an admittedly risky pass to his team-mate inside the penalty area, Chong anticipates the move and races to put pressure on the player receiving the ball.
After a heavy touch from the Spurs man, Chong collects the loose ball and bears down on goal.
Bursting away from the defender, he finishes coolly, bending into the far corner.
This time we see how Chong’s pace and close control and turn a defensive situation into a dangerous attack in seconds. Tracking back, he wins the ball deep inside his own half.
With trademark directness, he then breaks forward, deep into Spurs territory, uncatchable for the back-tracking opponents.
As he approaches the edge for the Spurs penalty area, he delays long enough to attract the attention of Tottenham’s last covering defender before slipping a perfectly weighted pass into the path of Joshua Bohui, creating a clear-cut chance for the striker.
It’s a similar scenario here, too, with Chong collecting the ball inside the United box and, rather than clearing to safety, electing to dribble out and take his team forward.
As he approaches the halfway line, the close attention of a Spurs player appears to have him penned in, but a neat body-swerve allows Chong to cut inside and continue his progress.
He is then fouled by the same player, winning a free-kick some 45 yards from where he picked up possession.
Had he simply lofted the ball clear from inside his own penalty area, United would have gifted possession right back to Spurs. Instead, by quickly assessing his options and deciding it was safe to employ his speed and dribbling skills in a deep zone, he carried United up the pitch and maintained control of the ball.
United are a club with a particular affinity for both young players bred in their academy and old-fashioned wingers, the kind who excite by dribbling at speed and hugging the touchline as they weave their way forward.
In that respect, it’s no wonder United fans are so excited about Chong.