Manchester United in action in the Milk Cup
Guest Author: Doron
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It’s that time of year again when U18 players have their chance to shine in front of a bigger audience than usual and fans can speculate over which players should ‘make it’. United have been drawn at home to Port Vale or Bury in the 3rd Round of the FA Youth Cup and as ever, expectations will be high.
At the time of writing, United have won as many games as they’ve lost so far in the U18 Premier League, four apiece with one draw. It’s probably a fair reflection of a talented but mish-mash group of players. There are just 16 outfielders in the U18 squad this year and that includes Timothy Fosu-Mensah who’s yet to feature whilst the club wait for international clearance; and Tosin Kehinde who’s also yet to play for reasons that can’t be divulged.
On top of that, numerous players have had injuries. Neither Jimmy Dunne nor Charlie Scott have played yet (although Scott is now back) and other players have picked niggles up. Most notably, Demetri Mitchell, arguably the group’s best player, will miss months rather than weeks with an ankle injury – very frustrating after a fine goalscoring start to the season.
All this means that the group have had to be supplemented by players from the U16s and U15s. One of those is centre back, RoShaun Williams. An ever-present so far this season, the 16 year old actually broke into the side at the end of last season as an U15. Despite the injuries he’s arguably there on merit – very quick, good on the ball and an excellent communicator, he’s one of the more exciting players in the side despite being one of the youngest. Midfielder, Callum Gribbin, and winger-cum-forward, Zak Dearnley, are amongst those to have also stepped up to the side comfortably and made good contributions.
The biggest challenge facing United at U18 level and in fact below, has been putting the ball in the net. For some reason there is a dearth of forwards and goalscorers in United’s Academy right now. Quite incredibly, this has seen the U18s fail to score in over half their games this season. They have had various strikers on trial, most notably Ogo Obi from Watford over the summer but have passed on all so far.
If it sounds like I’m painting a fairly bleak picture that’s far from the reality. There’s cause for cautious optimism because there are some talented players who are yet to mature, grow, play anywhere near the level they can.
Dean Henderson is an England youth goalkeeper; Timothy Fosu-Mensah is the Dutch U17 captain and has a fantastic reputation already; Jordan Thompson was Player of the Tournament at the Milk Cup and is still possibly finding out which position suits him best; Marcus Rashford continues to be linked to some of England’s biggest clubs and has tremendous natural ability.
Rashford in particular should relish this competition. He’s quick, tricky and can score from anywhere on the pitch. There’s maybe an unfair burden on him at the moment with a lack of goalscorers in the side and Mitchell’s injury, not to mention that Rashford is still getting his sharpness back from his own injury but of the players in the side, he’s the most likely to entertain and produce moments of brilliance.
For the first team there is a seemingly everlasting period of transition and change but that’s also true of the Academy. Despite van Gaal’s insistence that for this season his focus is solely on the first team, he’s had more than one eye on the Academy – how it works, what it’s producing and whether it can be improved upon. Moyes had proposed big changes to the set-up and although he never had a chance to see them through, word on the grapevine is that van Gaal also believes change is needed. What happens and whether fans will be able to spot any differences from the outside remains to be seen but there’s definitely a sense that United have fallen behind their main competitors at Academy level.
None of that should hinder United’s chances in a competition they have such a strong association with and connection to. The holders, Chelsea, will rightly be installed as the tournament favourites with a variety of other clubs expected to go far too. As for United, expectations should be tapered relative to previous years (not that the last two have gone well – defeats to Burnley and Huddersfield) but a run towards the quarter finals would be acceptable and anything could happen after that.