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Brandon Williams makes left-back spot his own at Manchester United
Brandon Williams has usurped Luke Shaw at left-back and been a bright spot in a difficult season for Manchester United
Last Updated: 29/01/20 1:27pm
Gary Neville caused quite a stir with his recent comments on Manchester United's Brandon Williams. The 19-year-old, he joked, looks like someone who would "eat his opponent's nose" in order to win a match. "He can play football too, which is always a bonus," he added.
It was glowing praise - if a little unconventional - but there was an even bigger compliment a day earlier when, for the first time this season, Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo deployed Adama Traore on the left flank rather than the right for his side's FA Cup replay at Old Trafford.
Traore's speed, strength and skill make him a formidable proposition for any defender. Just ask Andrew Robertson. But Manchester United's young left-back kept him quiet to such an extent at Molineux that Nuno felt compelled to change his dangerman's position for their next meeting.
"Brandon was playing against one of the quickest, strongest wingers in the Premier League, the one with the most dribbles, and he did fantastic," said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the first game. "Every challenge we've put in front of him, he has tackled head on," he added after the second.
The manner in which Williams dealt with Traore was typical of his senior breakthrough. This time last year, he was yet to even feature in a matchday squad. Now, the academy graduate - a player who didn't even travel on United's pre-season tour - looks unflappable at senior level. Williams has usurped Luke Shaw as first-choice left-back and looks likely to stay there.
This season has not been straightforward for anyone at Manchester United and there have been difficult moments for Williams too. He was brought off early in the 2-0 loss to Liverpool and sacrificed again during the defeat to Burnley.
But he has never looked out of place. His emergence has been one of few bright spots in a difficult season for Solskjaer, and it was perhaps telling that he was held back for the FA Cup clash with Tranmere Rovers ahead of Wednesday's Manchester derby in the Carabao Cup.
A teenager 'as brave as a lion'
Williams set the tone for what was to come this season with an assured display on his first start, away to AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League in October, and there was high praise after his second, against Partizan, when he won United's decisive penalty in the hostile surroundings of Belgrade.
"For me, Brandon was man of the match," said Solskjaer after the 1-0 win. "He's been fantastic in the few games he's played. The boy has no fear, he is as brave as a lion and he got us the win. Brandon has an absolutely great attitude. The boy is going to be a top, top player."
Williams was similarly impressive when he made the step up from the Europa League to the Premier League, squaring up to Brighton's Neal Maupay in November in the same way he did to Wolves' Pedro Neto more recently. There was a superb goal with his weaker foot against Sheffield United. He then won a penalty in the 4-0 thrashing of Norwich.
But it's his defensive diligence which has most stood out. Of Manchester United's 13 clean sheets this season, seven have come in games in which Williams has started. It is all the more impressive when you consider he has started under 40 per cent of their fixtures. The figure is likely to be considerably higher by the end of the campaign.
"When you're a young player coming through at Manchester United, you have to play your own game," former Manchester United defender Wes Brown, a player who followed the same path as Williams under Sir Alex Ferguson during the late 90s, tells Sky Sports.
"That's what Brandon has done when he has come in. All eyes were on Mason Greenwood at the time because there was so much buzz about him and we all knew what he was capable of from the U23s, but Brandon went into the side and shone and that's exactly what you want.
"I probably didn't think he was quite ready yet, having seen him in the U23s, but he has come in and shown that he is more than ready. He has looked more than comfortable against some of the senior pros he has played against who have been doing it for much longer than him.
All eyes were on Mason Greenwood at the time because there was so much buzz about him, but Brandon went into the side and shone and that's exactly what you want.
Wes Brown on Brandon Williams
"His defending is good and he gets forward. He should have probably had another goal in the game against Norwich, but he's settled in brilliantly and that's all you can ask from your young players. You just want them to settle in and do what they do on the training pitch on the big stage."
An academy example to follow
There can be no doubt now that the big stage holds no fear for Williams and he has shown strength in adversity too. His work-rate rarely dips and that was particularly evident against Burnley last week when, despite coming off with 21 minutes still to play, he made more high-intensity sprints (17) than any other player on the pitch.
It's little wonder Solskjaer regards him as an example to the club's other academy hopefuls and it is perhaps even more encouraging that Neville and Brown, two former players who know exactly what it takes to become a successful Manchester United full-back, see him in the same way.
"I'm a fan now, so when the young lads come in who have been at the club for a long while, I love to see it," says Brown. "Brandon has given Ole a headache in terms of selection, because whenever he's played he has been excellent. Now, the other young players coming up will see him doing well and know there's a chance of them getting there as well."
That matters at a club like Manchester United. A club which, for all its current problems, recently celebrated 4,000 consecutive games with an academy graduate in the matchday squad. You can be sure that Brandon Williams will do whatever it takes in order to stay there.
Watch Manchester City vs Manchester United in the Carabao Cup live on Sky Sports Football HD from 7pm on Wednesday; Kick-off 7.45pm