Manchester United's latest prodigy, Tahith Chong, may have Fellaini's hair but he plays like a young Lionel Messi
The future is fuzzy.
Manchester United's youth academy has over the years produced an envious string of gems that have gone on to become wonderful servants to the club. From the venerable Class of '92 to more recent graduates like Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, the youth set-up at Old Trafford has always been an excellent talent factory.
And, despite boasting a star-studded first-team with expensive recruits such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial, fans are forever looking to see who is going to be the next potential big name from the academy.
17-year-old Angel Gomes featuring for United's senior side against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup was certainly exciting for the club's supporters. The attacking midfielder has been the name on the everyone's lips inside Carrington for a while now and there was a tangible feeling of anticipation as he replaced Rashford in the 88th-minute at Huish Park.
That sense of excitement at seeing one of United's latest prodigies almost flew into overdrive when Gomes offered a glimpse of his talents, ghosting past a Yeovil defender before smashing the ball into the side-netting. Honing his finishing will come with experience but Gomes would do well to study Lingard, a fellow academy graduate, who confidently rifled home United's third just a minute later.
And, while Gomes looks to make an impression on the first-team, it may not be long before the next academy ace is following him onto Jose Mourinho's team sheets.
Tahith Chong has emerged as the latest shining jewel in the United youth set-up. The 18-year-old generated significant praise following an eye-catching debut for the U23 side against Tottenham on Monday night. United may have lost 3-1 but Chong was outstanding in central midfield, bringing an empty Old Trafford to life with his dribbling, neat touches and impressive finishing.
With Mourinho in the crowd, Chong sparkled even more than Gomes, even getting himself on the score sheet with an emphatic finish to net the opener, plucking a cross out of the air before hammering the ball into the top corner. Below you can view Chong's highlights reel from the game and, while it's ill-advised to make a judgement based purely off a clip specifically edited to make the player look good, there can be no denying the Dutchman's sheer, raw talent.
— Fabio (@FabioProd) January 29, 2018
Some excitable United fans went as far as to liken him to a young George Best or Lionel Messi and, while those comparisons are somewhat drastic, it's clear to see how he has garnered such a shimmering reputation among the club's youth coaches. But the comparisons to Messi are not entirely fantastical - Chong's instinctive drive to weave past players certainly puts one in mind of when the Argentine star burst onto the scene at Barcelona. @Kartickro9 summed it up well on Twitter when he said Chong had the head of Fellaini but the feet of Messi. That's quite the combination.
United beat off the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal to acquire Chong's services from Feyenoord back in 2016. Even then, he drew comparisons to Marouane Fellaini for his gloriously flamboyant head of shaggy hair, yet the two players couldn't be further apart, stylistically speaking.
While they play in similar positions, Chong is a much more dynamic and fleet-footed presence. While Fellaini has often been lambasted as a lumbering, elbow-flailing liability, Chong's game is built on the ability to make things happen by zooming past defenders time and time again. As you can see above, Chong relishes getting the ball to feet, drawing the first challenge and dropping the shoulder to begin a run. He has a slight frame and a low centre of gravity which, combined allows him to outmanoeuvre defenders, but it often results in him getting clattered.
Yet it doesn't deter him. Perhaps he knew Mourinho was watching, but Chong did not allow Spurs' robust style of defending deter him from continuing to cause them myriad problems. While he is naturally a winger, he can also be deployed centrally, yet his base position on the pitch has little bearing on his singular mindset of beating players.
"I describe myself as a typical winger,' he is on record as saying. "Left or right, it doesn't matter for me. I like to beat people one-versus-one, or at least I try to. I could work on my goal-scoring but I like to link up with the other players, giving assists."
Watch Tahith Chong play and then watch old clips of a young George Best. The way they dribble and ride tackles is remarkably similar. If Chong stays fit he's going to be very special
— Mark Goldbridge (@markgoldbridge) January 30, 2018
He is gifted with that rare and precious ability of being able to repeatedly ride challenges, and that fearlessness is certainly admirable when you consider that he has only recently returned from a ten-month layoff following a serious knee injury.
And, make no mistake: Monday was anything but a flash in the pan for the Curacao-born winger. As per Twitter user @jb_8521, Chong has made seven starts and one substitute appearance for United's various age groups since returning to full fitness, scoring five goals and winning two penalties in that time. With such an impressive return, it's not a stretch to suggest that he is knocking on the door for a call-up to the United senior side.
United U18 coach Kieran McKenna is understandably wary of Chong making the considerable step-up to the first-team so soon after his injury but, with United set to face either Birmingham City or Huddersfield in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, 17th February, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Mourinho will reward the teenager with a chance to at least train with the seniors.
But, it's safe to say that, should he stay fit, Tahith Chong is a name you will be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.