Whilst the first team battle on against (mainly) City (but also themselves) for yet more league success; the Reserves and the Academy have both been somewhat over-performing – depending on what your expectations for the season were. With March closing in it’s a chance for reflection on what has been and an opportunity to fantasise over what might happen in the last few months of the season.
At both Reserve and Academy level one could have been forgiven for being a tad pessimistic before the season started. The Reserve squad is predominantly made up of last season’s successful FA Youth Cup winning side – a talented but young group of players, many of whom had already played for the Reserves but not regularly and would now face a physical challenge at Moss Lane at least once every couple of weeks. The Academy squad is equally young (relative to competitor teams) with mainly first year scholars and only really Tyler Blackett, Tom Lawrence, Charni Ekangamene and Gyliano Van Velzen who can boast playing regularly the season before at this level.
Following the 2010/11 season at both these levels was always going to be hard, not least because expectations would be unfairly high. However, already the players are surpassing what many thought could be achievable.
The FA Youth Cup has become a marker for success, a way of determining how good a group of players are and could be. The U18s league, particularly in Northern England is nicely competitive but coaches rotate players and focus on development rather than winning. The FA Youth Cup sees the strongest team available played – that might mean playing a player who predominantly plays in the Reserves rather than the Academy or even playing a talented young schoolboy who’d usually play with the U16s on the weekends.
United’s FA Youth Cup campaign kick-started against Torquay and I suggested that a good cup run would see the team reach the quarter finals. This is a physically small group of players who struggled at the start of the season, unable to cope with teams who’d simply bully them on the pitch. The learning curve and transformation they’ve undergone though is astonishing and a huge amount of credit has to be given to Paul McGuinness and his coaching team.
It was always known that these players were technically talented but what’s clear is that they have the United mentality. They play, quick, passing football and fight hard for the full game, never content with however many goals they’ve scored. Some of the most pleasing periods of play have come when the side have fallen behind in games, when they’ve been forced into showing character to gain parity or at least attempt to avoid defeat. The perfect example came in the fourth round of this year’s competition.
Derby travelled to Moss Lane with a growing reputation. Some of their team had already played for their first team in the Championship, including striker Mason Bennett, still not even 15 and a half! Derby had impressively won away at Arsenal in the round before and with United suffering from a few injuries, they maybe were even the slight favourites. Luke McCullough, the captain and team’s stand-out performer got injured, heaping a huge amount of pressure on his centre back partner and schoolboy, Nick Iouannou. The fact that United had fallen behind hadn’t helped either but it was only once going behind that the team really got on top and slowly ground Derby down with Januzaj running proceedings and Barmby in goalscoring form.
The Derby result not only proved how talented this group are, but the mentality that runs down through the club was only showcased further, with Nick (Nicholas) Iouannou a prime example. Plucked from the U16s to start ahead of older candidates, his evening became twice as tricky when captain McCullough picked up an injury that would hamper him until he was subbed off after an hour. The fact that Iouannou started at Swansea in the fifth round of the competition in place of McCullough was hardly a surprise. His performance against Derby was near flawless and his composure and confidence against good strikers was well beyond his young years. That attitude and ability to seamlessly slot in is a testament to the club’s whole demeanor, running down from Fergie through to the schoolboys.
Nick made the bench early on in the season as United lost away to Southampton – a sign that his progression into first choice U18 centre back (albeit because of injuries) has been on the cards. Should McCullough be fit to face Charlton next Wednesday, Paul McGuinness will have a real dilemma that may well see Blackett played at left back in order to accommodate Ioannou.
In order to play Charlton, United travelled to Wales to take on Swansea – a side who’d built a reputation for playing good football, like their first team and had pulled off a huge shock-win in the third round, beating Liverpool 3-1. Striker, James Loveridge was their man to watch out for but it was United’s attacking play that grabbed any headlines. An astonishing 5-1 win saw United progress and many who’d doubted how far this team could go (myself included) suddenly did some rethinking! Once again, in the face of adversity (key players missing through injury) they’d pulled together and played wonderfully as a team.
Managing expectation, as ever, will be hard. I’ve not seen Charlton play this season but their win over Spurs was impressive and regular watchers of youth football in London say they have a strong team. A fully fit United team (incidentally, there are murmurings that Tom Lawrence may be fit for this game) should, based on how they’ve progressed, be able to challenge anyone – not necessarily win but certainly not get overrun.
The season’s already been fascinating – team progression has rarely been seen at this speed and watching United has been as exciting as ever. With this group of players it was, to an extent, always going to be a two year plan. Many are first years – Januzaj, Daehli, Rudge, Rothwell, Weir, Barmby etc – who should be looking to dominate this level in the 2012/13 season. The leadership skills of the few second years has been pleasing too with McCullough and Blackett the obvious players to look up to. Should we beat Charlton, Chelsea once again await in the semi finals – you could be forgiven for quietly starting to think that United’s Academy could once again create history this season.
Success at Reserve level is much harder to judge – each team uses the Reserves differently and the range of players used, both in age and experiences, varies dramatically. United predominantly use the games for young players who are too old for the Academy and not yet out on loan. Players returning from injury will sometimes be included too. Lots of other sides often have either a more experienced Reserve squad (Sunderland had Craig Gardner, James McLean, Titus Bramble etc in their team recently) whilst other clubs have very young teams made up of a lot of Academy players. Therefore whilst success at this level is welcomed, it’s not always a marker of a team’s quality in the same way the FA Youth Cup tends to be.
The biggest challenge facing Warren Joyce’s Reserves this season was going to be helping the successful FA Youth Cup winners make the step up and continue their impressive development. Immediately the entertaining triumvirate of Pogba, Morrison and Tunnicliffe was split up with the latter going out to Peterborough on loan (terribly impressive for an 18/19 year old to be impressing in England’s second tier). After only a few fleeting appearance in the Reserves, Ravel Morrison, the most prodigious of youngsters to come through United’s Academy in recent years, was sold to West Ham. Sir Alex acknowledged that the player needed a fresh start; and the opportunity to play in the Championship for a team likely to get promoted seemed a good one.
The biggest compliment one can pay to Warren Joyce and the other coaches is that so many of the players have been involved with the first team this season. Michael Keane, William Keane, Ezekiel Fryers, Larnell Cole and Paul Pogba have all made their debuts; Ravel Morrison got minutes; and others such as Tom Thorpe, Marnick Vermijl, Jesse Lingard and Davide Petrucci have been involved in match squads or made the bench.
Results have been on the whole good with only three defeats suffered. On two occasions they’ve won 6-0; against Swansea and Newcastle – goals seem to come easily to this squad, they’ve only been shut out twice and scored three or more goals in eight of their games.
The continued development of many players has been encouraging. Larnell Cole and Jesse Lingard are continuing to back the theory that height isn’t the be all and end all. Both have been singled out numerous times for their impressive ball use and retention. They’re clever footballers who make playing the game appear easy.
January saw Frederic Veseli join from Man City on a short contract until the end of the season. He wasn’t making the progress he’d hoped to at City so United were prepared to give him a chance. It was an odd move – United aren’t short of defenders at Reserve level; so much so, that last season’s talented Academy skipper, Tom Thorpe, has had to make do with a bit-part role.
One of the reasons for not seeing the successful Thorpe-Fornasier pairing much this season has been the form of Michael Keane. Last year he was used as a right back in the Academy but following a growth spurt, he’s now being used again as a centre back, his favoured position. He’s been excellent too, showing a much improved ability to ‘read the game’ that he’ll have definitely learnt from his time at right back.
Michael made his debut at Aldershot and his brother would follow a couple of months later at home to Blackburn. The progress of the youngsters not just making their debuts, but making match day squads and even training regularly with the first team has happened much sooner than many really could have expected. There was that wonderful stat a little while back that Pogba had played more first team minutes than any of Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Fletcher or Gibson had played at the same age. And yet, many still think he should be starting games for United now. There’s never any rush with bringing a player through – most of these youngsters are already ahead of where one could have possibly imaged them to be.
Success, in the form of the various localised competitions as well as the national Reserve league are well within sight for the 2011/12 group. William Keane’s goals (as well as Mame Diouf’s, now at Hannover) have helped propel the side to the top of their Reserve group. Davide Petrucci’s recent Italian U21 call-up was much deserved – he’s finally back to a consistent high level of performance after his injury nightmares. He’s been pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch for the Reserves and is maybe unfortunate not to have been involved in more first team squads.
Focus on the Reserves and Academy has never been this intense. The availability of streams and updates via Twitter has allowed more fans than ever before to watch and get to know the players below the first team. The pitfall is that expectations get distorted and players get hyped too soon. History tells us that kids will get a chance at United but that most will never make it at the club.
Few would have predicted that another extended FA Youth Cup run was on the cards and similarly, the progress of various Reserve team players was equally unpredictable. In many ways it’s already been a successful season below the first team but these last couple of months could provide even more surprises. As ever, United’s Reserves and Academy are keeping up the high standards set by the first team. Silverware could once again be on the way
Reserves: 1. William Keane (11), 2. Mame Diouf (10), 3. Jesse Lingard (6)
Academy: 1. Jack Barmby (12), 2. Gyliano Van Velzen (6), 3. Tom Lawrence (5)
Reserves: 1. William Keane and Davide Petrucci (7), 2. Paul Pogba (6), 3. John Cofie (4)
Academy: 1. Jack Barmby (5), 2. Donald Love, Tyler Blackett and Luke Hendrie (3), 3. Charni Ekangamene, Adnan Januzaj, Joe Rothwell and Kenji Gorre (2)
Reserves: 1. Michael Keane (1620), 2. Ezekiel Fryers (1353), 3. Vermijl (1350)
Academy: 1. Tyler Blackett (1710), 2. Gyliano Van Velzen (1598), 3. Jack Barmby (1472)
My top three performers so far:
Reserves: 1. Petrucci, 2. Lingard, 3. Michael/William Keane (joint third!)
Academy: 1. McCullough 2. Januzaj 3. Blackett