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In light of the news that Darren Fletcher will be out for an unknown period of time to hopefully recover from his illness; I thought it was worth a look at the players who may have to be used from the Reserves, whether they are ready or not. The reality is that Carrick and Gibson are now the only fit central midfielders and despite Rooney, Giggs, Park and Jones all having covered there (and Valencia who Fergie has hinted can play there) the reality is we’re scarily short of in that area. Clearly, a signing (signings) is (are) needed but given the reluctance of our owners to make money available (note a low net spend in the past five years – imperative you read Daniel Taylor’s superb piece on this), it’s feasible we’ll have to find answers, even if just to make up numbers on the bench, from within.
Paul Pogba – the much hyped controversial 18 year old Frenchman has already made his first team debut in the Carling Cup. In fact, he’s got to three first team appearances at a younger age than any of Fletcher, Beckham, Gibson, Scholes or Butt managed to. Still, his contract expires in June and tabloid rumours (fuelled by his agent) suggest he’s holding out for a big money contract or he’ll leave.
Nevertheless, Pogba’s a talented kid. Compared to Vieira, he’s only similar to the legendary Gooner in ethnicity, nationality and position – their styles are pretty different. Pogba’s a ball-mover, a tempo-setter and someone capable of the extravagant. Having been a key cog in the FA Youth Cup success last year his development appears to have slowed a little with lots of focus going on his weak defensive part of his game. He’s been played out of position in the Reserves a lot and Warren Joyce can regularly be heard shouting helpful pointers about where he should be on the pitch. Fergie rightly has faith in Pogba and said in September, “we have to give him the opportunity to see how he can do in the first-team and he’s got great ability”. He’s not really ready for regular action yet but squad involvement and minutes off the bench here and there in games that are all but won can be of no harm to him.
Ravel Morrison – the most naturally gifted of the lot. Not really a central midfielder as such but a player who can play centrally behind a striker and likes to be given license to roam. Like Pogba, his contract situation seems to be a tad complicated at the moment but recently he continues to be singled out for praise from staff at the club.
Morrison may well be the most ready of the current youngsters. His game this season has seen added maturity, a welcome surprise given his off-field activities of 12 months ago. Unlike Rooney as a youngster, he seems more and more capable of tunnelling any frustrations on the pitch into how he plays – not long ago, Ravel would have kicked out at an opponent yet now he appears to be in control of himself – something he’s reportedly also now doing off the pitch too.
Having been in the first team squad for both a Champions League game and a couple of Premier League games recently, I’d suggest he’s edging closer and closer to making his league debut – something I fully endorse. Physically he needs to fill out and his stamina needs improving but it’s hard to argue against this kid being almost ready. With injuries in the middle and up the top, and with the side crying out for a spark, he’s exactly the sort of player who could lift those around him.
Larnell Cole – the one that Scholes loves. That should really be enough of an endorsement for anyone. After Morrison, I’d say that Larnell’s the best technical player outside the first team. His height would seemingly go against him and given the strength of the CMs in his age-group, at one point it would appear tough to work out how he’d progress. However, using his pace to his advantage, he carved out a spot on the right wing and hasn’t looked back since.
Larnell still operates best in the middle, it makes the most of his superb passing range and vision but his versatility will be an asset. A quiet, shy lad, it was a great moment to see him make his debut at Leeds in the Carling Cup this year. He is possibly the dark-horse of the young players at the moment and someone very much in the Scholes/Xavi/Iniesta bracket both in terms of physique and playing style. One of the other writers on the blog, Herzog’s Child, has written extensively about Cole before.
Davide Petrucci – when signed from back in the summer of 2008 he was dubbed ‘the next Totti’. It wouldn’t be over-exaggerating to suggest that the early signs were incredibly good. Davide is capable of playing high and more recently deep, almost as a quarterback. What followed for Davide was horrendous back luck though. A series of growth-related injuries saw him out of action for over a year and only in early 2011 did he return again, very much wrapped in cotton wool.
A good pre-season has seen him play regularly since September and he’s slowly started to creak back into impressive form. His ability to dictate the tempo of a game and see passes that few his age can is special; but what he lacks is the physique, consistency and arguably yard of pace that he once had – all knock-on effects of missing so much football that should come back over time. At 20 years old many might wonder what his future holds but United will be patient with him and having recently been given a squad number, his chance may come in a game before the season is up.
Jesse Lingard – like Larnell, Jesse is part of the ‘short brigade’. However, also like Larnell, he’s a clever footballer. He’s found games hard to come by on a regular basis in the U18s and wasn’t first choice in the FA Youth Cup run. However, this season since returning from injury he’s had games across the midfield for the Reserves and has shone. Technically he’s very good and he appears to have gotten quicker.
Considering his size, he has good core body strength and beautiful balance. Jesse was on the bench recently for the Crystal Palace game and had it panned out differently, he may well have gotten minutes – his form is consistently good now. One thing Jesse’s always had is the ability to score – regardless of whether he’s playing high up or in the middle, he’s always direct and keen to get shots away; something those above him in the first team have been criticised for not doing enough.
Matty James – Matty is worthy of inclusion because he’s still contracted to the club. He, like Davide has been ruined by injuries. A spell on loan at Preston two seasons ago highlighted all the promise he had. For those who’ve not seen him; he’s like Carrick of 2007 and has a special eye for a long-range goal. It’s sad that Matty is seemingly again injured after a brief comeback towards the end of last season. I fear his career will never take off and certainly it’ll never follow the path it really should have done.
Danny Drinkwater – there are three central midfielders out on loan, all of whom are scheduled to return to United at the beginning of January hence their inclusions. Danny had an excellent loan at Huddersfield two years ago but last year’s loans were less fruitful. He’s made an excellent impression at Barnsley this season and has been dubbed for a bright future by many. Long-term that may not be at United but he’s certainly more ready than some of the younger players if he’s needed to step in, simply because of his experience he’s had in the football league playing competitively.
Ryan Tunnicliffe – Ryan’s the first outfield member of the FA Youth cup winning squad to go out on loan. Despite not starting every game for Peterborough, they’re desperate to extend his loan. To be playing and making a positive impact in the Championship as a central midfielder aged just 18 is incredibly impressive. Ryan’s in the mould of an early Roy Keane – no nonsense box-to-box capable of scoring goals. His technique and passing is arguably his Achilles heel but he’s improving all the time. I’ve a lot of faith in Ryan and whilst he may not be ready for United’s first team yet, I think one day he will be and certainly someone of his style is something we could do with now.
Oliver Norwood – Oli Norwood is on loan at Scunthorpe with young goalkeeper Sam Johnstone (who I wrote about last week). As a young player, Norwood was compared with Beckham because of the similarity in free kick technique and general style which which he struck a ball even in open play. Norwood though is a central midfielder, a playmaker – he’s stood out across the age levels but for me isn’t a top talent. I think his future will lie elsewhere but he’s not a bad player by any means; certainly, like Danny Drinkwater, his experience at club and international level may be crucial if the squad needs filling out.
Finally… there are of course options in the U18s too but they are really too young for consideration. United have a plethora of talent waiting in Reserve to be called upon should they be needed. There is no rush though, time is on their side and their chances will come at the right moments. For those that don’t make it, Magnus Eikrem proves that they can still go on to great things – he’s just been a key player for Molde in their title success. The news regarding Fletcher and the injuries to Anderson and Cleverley (even though he should be back soonish) to just exacerbate how much the club need to dip into the transfer market. The pessimistic side of me doubts whether that’ll happen though so young Messrs Cole, Pogba, Morrison and the should prepare to be ready if called upon.