Speaking to Erik ten Hag about Kobbie Mainoo earlier this season, his verdict was as follows: “He looks very composed,” he told Sky Sports. “He is very mature for his age. What he brings to the team is his composure and his game understanding.”

Composure. Ten Hag reached for variations on that word twice in just three sentences. Watching Mainoo, 18, it makes sense. He appears to have time when others do not, finds space where others do not. But why is that? What is it that he is doing differently?

Every player at the top level of the game should be able to control the ball and pass it in a straight line. Much of Mainoo’s work looks that simple. And yet, doing that in the heat of the midfield battle, when the opposition are pressing him, should not be this easy.

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A look back at the best of Kobbie Mainoo’s breakthrough debut season for United

Paul McGuinness, the former Manchester United academy coach, has an explanation. “It is how he prepares before he receives the ball,” he tells Sky Sports. “What he does off the ball makes it seem like he has time on it. To receive it, he has to look before it comes.

“Amateur players look up after they have received the ball and then decide what they are going to do. The top professionals, and that is a good phrase for Kobbie, they are efficient and everything they do has a flow to it. All the connections are flowing.

“There is a lot to it. He has to have the picture beforehand. He has to show for the ball quickly and that means making two or three quick steps. That is what gives him more time. If he just waits for the passes to come to him, he will not have that time.

“As the ball is coming, he has to be looking again, to be on the half turn to know whether he will be able to turn or not.

“Because he knows what he wants to do before he gets it, what he does is that he makes sure that the first touch gets the ball into the right place to set up the next pass. It looks like he has time because he does not need two or three touches, he has set it up with one.

“That saves those milliseconds when people are pressing him.

“He has prepared the space, lost his marker, already had a look when the ball is coming so that he can take it away from the man. Now, it looks like he has time on the ball. But it is all those little things that have to come together. He is a really clever player.”

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Paul Merson has hailed teenager Kobbie Mainoo’s impact on Manchester United

But there is another key difference between Mainoo and many other Premier League players. “He keeps the ball really close,” says McGuinness. “That is deceptive. If you keep the ball close to you then it means that you can play the ball at any time.”

It goes against some of the received wisdom. “People say that you should get the ball out from under your feet but if the ball is two or three yards away from your feet then the opponent knows that they can press you because you cannot pass it.”

Former United academy chief Jim Ryan had a phrase for this. “He used to call it the arrogance of timing,” adds McGuinness. “Kobbie has that. He can wait until that last moment and use the press against them.” His first senior goal highlighted that.

Mainoo’s timing when scoring the 97th-minute winner at Wolves was exquisite in more ways than one. As Max Kilman went to close him down, he nutmegged him. “When he stuck the ball between the lad’s legs, that was a perfect example,” says McGuinness.

“It looks like he is going to pass it again but he can just turn his foot at the last second and play the ball through the legs.

“There is that little bit of disguise to it. You are making an illusion that you are going to play the ball forward. To do that, you have to have poise, confidence in your own ability, and the disguise has to look perfect. You are like a magician doing an illusion.”

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Watch Kobbie Mainoo’s winner for Man Utd against Wolves from all angles

As well as his tidy use of the ball, Mainoo is a dribbler. Indeed, he completed six dribbles in the recent win over Luton – the most by a Manchester United player this season or last. That is unusual for a central midfielder but it is a product of his close control.

“Being able to keep the ball close, it gives you more options. You can play it around the corner and go against the flow, beating them with a change of speed. He does not look an outstandingly quick player, so he is doing it with real efficiency, to change the direction.”

More often than not, Mainoo does keep it simple. That works in his favour too. “Because he is doing that a lot of the time, he is difficult to read. It looks like a pass to the wide man but at the last second he can play the ball behind the full-back,” says McGuinness.

“Ninety per cent of the time, he plays the simple pass, keeps it moving, does the right thing. But because he is doing that, he has then got that element of surprise to his game every now and again when he does try to do something out of the ordinary.”

When Ten Hag talks of composure and maturity, he is also talking about decision-making. Mainoo looks mature because he does the right things. It was noted how he responded to being caught in possession for West Ham’s opening goal earlier in the season.

“He has the personality,” said Ten Hag.

“That is what you need if you want to play here.”

When the game at Luton became frantic, Mainoo was the one who maintained his calm even as more senior players appeared caught up in the frenzied atmosphere. Sometimes the bravest thing in football is not to run around but to put a foot on the ball.

“The ball carrier is in charge of the game,” says McGuinness.

“He looks like that. It is as if he is saying, I am in charge, I will decide.”


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The football style of the future, perhaps? “It has become a bigger feature because of what the defenders are doing at Brighton. They are baiting them, drawing them on like a matador and then using the space that they have left behind them.”

Whether Manchester United are going to be at the vanguard, among the better exponents of the possession game, remains to be seen. It looks a long way off right now despite the best efforts of Mainoo. Those patterns are not quite there in their game.

For McGuinness, it brings to mind a comment from Danny Welbeck when the former Manchester United forward was on England duty.

“I remember him saying when he was in the squad with Marcus Rashford that even though he had not really played with him, they could connect easily because they were looking for the same things. That is why you need stability in a club.

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Erik ten Hag believes the future is bright with players such as Kobbie Mainoo

“Clubs try to buy success but if you do not have a core of players who are on the same wavelength, you are not going to have success. That is why having homegrown players can be really useful because they have grown up together. The timing is right.

“That was a big feature with the Class of ’92. In the last few years, Manchester United have not only been changing players and coaches but changing styles. That makes it really difficult. A player like Kobbie can keep that connection to the United style.”

The hope is that Kobbie Mainoo will define it over the next decade.

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