Manchester United: Borthwick-Jackson is 2015/16’s Breakthrough Star

Credit: @ManUtd
Credit: @ManUtd /

“CBJ” – a Manchester United youngster not expected to figure in the senior team so soon – has won acclaim for his cool and assured performances.

In each of the three seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have had at least one teenage academy graduate feature regularly in the first-team squad: Adnan Januzaj in 2013/14, Paddy McNair in 2014/15 and, in the last few weeks, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in the 2015/16 campaign.

At the start of the season, Andreas Pereira would have been a safe bet to become United’s breakthrough star. The Brazilian is the most technically gifted player in the youth ranks and was named the club’s U21 Player of the Season for 2014/15.

Borthwick-Jackson, however, has taken the opportunities handed to him and looked tremendously composed. The 19-year-old has been particularly impressive since the turn of the year.

Against Liverpool, he was substituted on shortly before half-time. Unfazed and unflustered, he put in a fine display. Against Derby County in the FA Cup, he once again looked relaxed. A few days later against Stoke City, he registered his first assist in a United shirt when his superb cross was headed in by fellow academy graduate Jesse Lingard.

Borthwick-Jackson’s rise has been so remarkable that it came as no surprise when he put in another commanding performance against Chelsea. It was from his cross that United took the lead in the game. What was equally impressive was the fact that, aside from one or two moments at the end of the first half, he managed to quell the threat of Chelsea’s best player, Willian.

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In the four aforementioned matches, Borthwick-Jackson demonstrated qualities that aren’t usually associated with young players: calmness, conviction and confidence. At no point has he appeared overwhelmed by the significant step up in terms of the level of competition.

The Manchester-born defender has helped improve United’s left flank in two ways during recent weeks. Firstly, as a left-footed left-back, he has stretched the pitch and provided a lot of natural attacking width. Secondly – and as a knock-on effect of the first factor – he has delivered a number of low, whipped crosses that defenders have struggled to deal with.

Too often during Louis van Gaal’s tenure, United have been poor in wide areas. Borthwick-Jackson’s positioning, link-up play and crossing has therefore been refreshing. Defensively, the youngster has looked steady. He has blocked crosses well, been able to stick with opposite wingers using his pace and, perhaps most importantly of all, hasn’t made any glaring errors.

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Every young player can be expected – and allowed – to make mistakes, but the fact that Borthwick-Jackson has been so efficient and effective in his play bodes well for the future. Although McNair and Tyler Blackett have faded considerably following their bright starts in a United shirt, Borthwick-Jackson seems a better player in terms of technique and understanding of the game.

His emergence has been so encouraging that he deserves a chance to deputize in the absence of Luke Shaw. Since Shaw’s leg break versus PSV Eindhoven, United have tested Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young at left-back. All of them, to varying degrees, have played well in that role, but it’s Borthwick-Jackson who has looked most at ease on the left-hand side of defence. With Shaw expected to return towards the very end of the season, it’s an even younger left-back who should be handed the opportunity to replace him.

That, however, may be the problem for Borthwick-Jackson in the long term. Still only a teenager, he can be expected to develop physically in the coming years, at which point he may become a centre-back on a permanent basis.

But if he remains a left-back, there’s a chance that Borthwick-Jackson is currently auditioning to become Shaw’s understudy. There’s no disgrace in that – and it’s certainly no concern at the present time – but with Shaw likely to be United’s left-back for the best part of the next decade, Borthwick-Jackson may find his chances in the first team limited.

For that reason his current form is so promising. Few would have expected the youngster to have shone in a team that has underperformed and underwhelmed significantly this season. Instead of learning his trade under the guidance of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, he has been thrust into first-team action without much preparation.

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If Borthwick-Jackson can continue to impress – and tougher tests do lay ahead – then he will not only be United’s breakthrough star this season, but a star in general in the coming years.