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Man United’s Academy begin their defence of the FA Youth Cup tonight at Moss Lane (7pm KO). They’ve been drawn to face Torquay’s U18 side – a stark contrast to last season when all their FAYC games were against academies of PL sides or strong Championship teams (Portsmouth and West Ham). United’s U18 side has a very different look this season, so what should we expect and who should we look out for?
The success last year came from having a largely consistent first choice team made up predominantly of second year scholars, almost all of whom had been capped by their country at youth level (Larnell Cole has since gone on to be capped at U19 level). The core of that side have progressed on to the Reserves and, unsurprisingly are continuing to do well.
Only two of the more regular starters from last year remain – Tyler Blackett and Gyliano Van Velzen. Others were around last year too – Tom Lawrence, Charni Ekangamene, Joe Coll, Liam Jacob and the injured Luke McCullough. Mats Daehli as a schoolboy played in the FAYC and a few others featured in some league games. So, the first thing to note is that this year’s side has a nucleus of first year scholars – they’re young and relatively inexperienced at this level.
Aside from experience, the Academy lack three things this season: height, physical strength and strikers. They are a very small group of players who early on in the season were getting bullied by opposition sides who were simply bigger than them. However, they are a very talented group of players with the ball on the ground and have learnt how to use that to their advantage in the past couple of months. The side’s ball players are starting to understand how to control a game and are able to now pass their way through opponents as well as using their fitness levels as a method of winning the ball back.
This season has predominantly seen the team play 4-5-1 or whatever variation of that system you want to call it. Sam Byrne, signed in the summer, is the only natural striker in the squad. He’s taken a little while to adjust and finally scored his first goal in the last game they played. It has though seen other players having to play out of position when Byrne has been on international duty or rotated out of the side.
In terms of personnel, Joe Rothwell is definitely missing as he’s badly injured his hip. He’ll be out for a few months still. It’s unfortunate for the England youth international who’s very much the Carrick (circa 2006) of the Academy side. Tom Lawrence, an elegant attacking midfielder may also miss out through injury. He’s another player who’s been good this season, adding goals and flair to his already accomplished game.
This would be my team for tonight, I’ll briefly explain a bit about why I’ve left certain players out and who to look out for:
Liam Jacob’s been the most assured of our goalkeepers this season. For me he’s come on a long way in terms of distribution, handling and all-round confidence. I still think his concentration and tendency to inexplicably drop the ball are concerns though. Certainly he’s been more assured than Joe Coll whilst Jonny Sutherland’s not started a game and Pierluigi Gollini is injured.
The back four is tricky to pick simply because of the balance Donald Love gives and the form of Charni Ekangamane. Luke McCullough, the captain, has been the best player in the side this season by a long way. Having missed almost all of last year through injury he’s returned this season as a beast – quick, strong, Vidic-like in the air and Rio-like with the ball at his feet he’s starting to look very complete. His regular partner has been Declan Dalley but recently with Charni’s return from injury, Dalley has missed out. Instead, Tyler Blackett, usually a left back, has moved into the centre and done well. Tyler’s a very rangey player who loves to run forward with the ball – a great asset to have particularly as he’s an excellent crosser, but at centre back perhaps he has to be more tactically disciplined. Donald Love has only played a few games having had a long term injury but he’s looked excellent, providing superb balance to the side and is a natural right back unlike Hendrie and Weir who’ve played there.
The midfield five can be broken down into two areas – the tacklers and the attackers. With Rothwell out it’ll almost certainly be two from James Weir, Luke Hendrie and Jack Rudge. I think Rudge has been a real unsung hero lately – he’s an all-rounder able to defend and attack; however he’s a seriously good user of the ball too and his one touch football high up the pitch has often lead to goals. For me, he has to start. Weir’s promising start to the season was disrupted with an injury and since then he’s yet to win back a regular starting spot; instead Luke Hendrie has moved from right back to his more familiar central position. He’s bags of energy and is a snappy player. He and Rudge are key to United’s ball retention and I think for his defensive abilities, he should partner Rudge.
The attackers in United’s side tend to have free roles as they swap positions throughout the game. Jack Barmby, a left footer and the son of Nicky usually starts on the right cutting inside. Adnan Januzaj, a much hyped player signed last year from Anderlecht tends to play centrally behind the striker and one other player, often Gyliano Van Velzen starts on the left. Tom Lawrence would have been a definite starter but his fitness is unknown to me so I’ve picked Mats Daehli to start.
Barmby is a selfish, tricky footballer. He’s direct and loves to get shots away; he’s the sides top scorer and like Nani is capable of both the spectacular and the infuriating. He’s crucial to the team though, when on-song he can be unplayable. Adnan Januzaj is spindly and looks like he could be blown over by a light breeze – however he glides across the pitch and loves the ball at his feet. He’s already shown he’s very capable of linking play and all-round looks a very talented footballer. Mats Daehli is a diminutive figure but has beautiful balance and control. He’s very comfortable on the ball and much like Larnell Cole, the ball sticks to his feet. His vision is beyond his years, he sees balls way before anyone else but his performances have been a bit inconsistent – he sometimes disappears in games. Recently though his influence in games has grown and his one touch intricate play with Rudge and Januzaj has been superb.
Up front it seems odd not to go with Sam Byrne. However I feel a bit sorry for Sam – he’s often given everything for the team and run the channels superbly but had little luck with any kind of return. He’s very young and still has loads to learn despite having the good raw ingredients for a striker. Gyliano Van Velzen, naturally a left winger, has more than capably stepped in and lead the line at times and I think I’d pick him to do the same later today. He’s very lanky but has finally started to bulk out and use his physique. Defenders are scared of him because he’s direct, fast and very tricky. His end product needs improvement but he’s added more goals this season and interchanges nicely with the players around him.
That hopefully summaries the key players in the side. Expectations really shouldn’t be as high as they were last year but I think this side are capable of surprising people and I’d hope they can reach the quarter finals or maybe with some luck in the draw, a bit further. What they have going for them is momentum having won three of their last four and in all of the games they’ve played very well. The signs are really there that this side are starting to come together and understand how to play as a team.
They may not be as exciting as last year’s team and may not have the same hype around them but I encourage you to watch them tonight on MUTV; I think you’ll still be both surprised and entertained; they’re certainly good fun to watch.