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Who is Man Utd’s surprise starter against West Ham?

According to Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag, making tough decisions is “the difference between a manager and a human being”.

Ten Hag did his best to silence any sense of humanity when his dwindling defensive options took another hit as centre-back Raphael Varane was struck down by illness ahead of Manchester United’s last Premier League game before Christmas.

With Harry Maguire and Lisandro Martinez out injured, Ten Hag made the shock decision to start 19-year-old centre-back Willy Kambwala for the trip to West Ham United’s London Stadium.

Here’s everything you need to know about the teenager.

Ahead of the pre-Christmas clash with West Ham, Kambwala had never played a minute of senior football for United. The 6’4 centre-back signed for the club as a 16-year-old, moving from French side Sochaux during the first summer of COVID restrictions in 2020 for £3.5m.

Kambwala was included in his first Premier League squad only in mid-December 2023, making the bench for United’s 0-0 draw away to Liverpool. Ten Hag did not turn to the youngster at Anfield.

When he was still in France, Kambwala made one appearance for Sochaux’s B team in the fifth tier of French football, playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw against FC Morteau Montlebon in front of 293 fans, a little different to a sold-out Olympic stadium.

Born in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, Kambwala moved to France with his family at a young age and has represented Les Bleus at under-16 level.

Kambwala – or Kams as he sometimes goes by – owed his debut to injuries but may have broken into United’s first team earlier had he not suffered through fitness ordeals of his own.

A fortnight into his career in Manchester, Kambwala damaged his ankle so badly in a friendly with Salford City – the club co-owned by a gaggle of former United players – that he was sidelined for the best part of 12 months.

The route back to full fitness was a winding one, pockmarked by niggling issues splintering from his ankle problem.

However, the teenager has been a regular in United’s under-21 team this year and even twice captained the side that represents the club in UEFA’s coveted Youth League, the under-19 equivalent of the Champions League.

Virgil van Dijk

Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk was cited by Willy Kambwala as one of the best defenders in the world / MB Media/GettyImages

In 2019, Kambwala was asked to name his favourite footballers. While he was reticent to reveal any personal preferences, the teenager did concede: “If I have to choose, I will name [Virgil] van Djik and [Kalidou] Koulibaly. These are the two best centre-backs over the last three years.”

A right-footed centre-back himself, Kambwala is comfortable at full-back as well as in the middle of defence. Regularly spotted striding out of the backline with the ball at his feet, the influence of Van Dijk and Koulibaly is evident. However, the United youngster may be best advised to avoid praising any Liverpool players in the future.

“Football is more than a passion, it’s downright a profession,” Kambwala told the official website of his former youth team CO Les Ulis in the summer of 2019. “I can’t see my life away from football. I have lots of dreams and goals. They are all built around football!”

In the same interview, Kambwala eloquently explained: “‘Footballer’ is not just the name that we are given because we play football, it is a way of life and for that, we must always think about football everywhere in the world.” The teenager added: “You always have to ask yourself if the thing you are doing will help us for football but then there is no magic, you have to work hard!”


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