There can be an element of misdirection in the use of any football statistic that isn't either a scoreline or a points tally. For example, right now nobody seems to be quite sure whether Arsenal are a successful football club or not, the discussion mired in the new vocabulary of corporate-sporting finance, vulnerable to the terrible agonies of net spend and leveraged debt and the triumphs of the self-financing no-trophy model. Similarly, who could forget the terrible thrashing handed out by Barcelona at Celtic Park two weeks ago in the Champions League, an 82-18% possession-hiding celebrated only by those wise enough to look beyond mere goals.

There was perhaps a little of this present in the reaction to Manchester United's loss to Galatasaray in Istanbul on Tuesday. It takes a degree of forensic skill to draw encouragement from a defeat that came without a proper shot on target from open play until the 89th minute; but it was still hard to leave the Turk Telekom Arena (the Ali Sami Yem) without a sense of encouragement to be taken in the numbers behind the numbers, specifically the ages of those making up a strategically weakened team.

The average age of the 13 outfield players United used was 23: of these, five had come through the club's academy and eight had previously played for the club as a teenager. Of course, simply being young is not a virtue in itself. But this was a young team that played with heart and poise, if not necessarily with great incision – albeit this wasn't helped by the diamond midfield formation, which successfully smothered Galatasaray in central areas, but only stretched them on the flanks when the workaholic Alex Büttner made progress down the left.

Afterwards Sir Alex Ferguson was unwilling to offer the age of his team as an excuse for defeat, correctly given that United still fielded 10 international players. But there were undoubted consolations, most notably in the European debut of Nick Powell. The player stands out for various reason: first, he is genuinely youthful at 18, all promise and potential as opposed to the familiar dutiful twentysomething already edging towards a career step down from the highest level. If you're going to do it, the rule remains in English football, you've got to at least start to do it as a teenager.

Beyond this, Powell has some rare qualities. Physically imposing for a teenager, he moves with a natural intelligence, seeming to have a sense of where to run, where to stand to be a bother to the Galatasaray centre-backs just with his positioning and movement. Playing at the forward tip of the midfield diamond in Istanbul, he made, pro rata, as many passes as Darren Fletcher and Anderson, but took more risks, too, while sticking to his detail in behind the strikers and refusing to drift in search of the ball.

Plus he has obvious attributes: an ability to shoot and finish, a nice way with a pass, and a very obvious sense of composure. Perhaps he should have scored when he hit the bar with a header from a corner in the first half; but he was definitely standing in the right place, reliably unmarked. He linked nicely with Danny Welbeck once or twice. And he resisted the provocations of Felipe Melo, stationed on roughing-up duties in front of his back four.

There is surely much more to come from the first reigning Crewe Alexandra player of the year to appear in the Champions League, a man who this time last year was playing away at Morecambe in League Two. It must be said here that Powell at 18 is entirely a creation of Crewe, albeit what happens to him now is a test of how adept United remain at allowing such a talent to flower.

There is good fortune in his emergence at a time when United's transfer budget is circumscribed, when a wider sense of austerity has contributed to what is, at this club, always there: the basic lust for youthful talent, a feeling that the club can still nourish itself through what remains English football's most successful academy and youth system. And all tribalism aside, this historic ability both to produce and source young players is one of English football's great successes. From Matt Busby's time onwards United have been a tale of canny recruitment as much as extreme coaching methods, of polishing what is already present elsewhere. Even the Busby era teams were a regional mishmash, albeit his policy of moulding and indeed playing his striplings in the first place was unprecedented at the time.

It is a narrative that Powell, coached at Crewe from the age of five, fits into now, as does the 54-man strong current United academy, which is culled from 11 different nationalities. United's system has continued to produce too, albeit not with the same outrageous generational fluke that brought forth the win-nothing-with-kids brigade, but in a drip-drip of worthies and resaleables. Seven academy players who made their debut in the 1990s went on to make 100 first-team appearances, whereas since the start of the 2000s only Fletcher has done the same. More than this, there hasn't been a genuine star emerge from this route, the kind of player other Champions League clubs are likely to covet, since Scholes, Giggs and Beckham.

Some players simply bloom later. Of the younger players involved on Tuesday night, Rafael da Silva appears more settled now and was a familiar high-energy menace down the right. Phil Jones faces a more unusual process, the challenge of fitting his particular gifts of galloping athleticism into a settled playing position. Defenders who can pass and control the ball often find themselves shoe-horned into midfield or cramped into the full-back positions. Jones looked unflustered against Galatasaray. His future surely lies as a ball-playing centre-half.

Beyond all of these it is Powell, a United player for just five months, who seems most intriguing, if only for his extreme youth and poise. The fact is there are currently no truly outstanding teenagers in the United academy ranks, nobody being whispered about around Europe in the same breath as Viktor Fischer of Ajax or Sergi Samper of Barcelona. It is unfair to suggest that Powell, with two United first-team appearances, may yet blossom into something similar. But he is playing at the right age. He has craft and a certain quiet charisma, not to mention a style that seems to fit into the attacking midfield fluidities of English football's post-4-4-2 tactical fashions.

Extreme youth has always been a heady topic in football and it is far too easy to extrapolate far too much from a quietly encouraging 1-0 defeat in Istanbul. But there was still much to admire from this young team. And, in Powell, a promise of more to come.