Manchester United’s U21 glory is a squad success

Adnan Januzaj celebrates scoring against Manchester City in the week for the U21

Guest Author: Doron

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Around this time of year there are usually blogs effusive with praise for Warren Joyce and what he’s been able to achieve over the course of the season with the United U21 side. Here’s another one, except this year has arguably been even more of a challenge than usual.

Warren Joyce has been in charge of United’s second side for four whole seasons now and steered them to glory in three of them. It’s a great achievement and a positive reflection on the quality of footballers United continue producing.

Heading into the season, Joyce would have been aware that his squad was a small one but working on a day-to-day basis with the players took a twist when so many moved up to train with the first team for a variety of reasons. Blackett, McNair, Pereira, Wilson and on occasions, Thorpe, left the U21 sessions behind. Some days Joyce barely had enough players to do 5v5 drills. He wasn’t helped by players leaving on loan and others picking up injuries, a few quite long-term ones.

Going into a game was in some ways a bit of a mystery. Louis van Gaal has been keen to use the U21 side to allow first team players to get back their match rhythm following either an injury or an extended spell out of the first team. With an already unbalanced squad, Joyce has had to accommodate the first team players and reshuffle his group to be able to pick a starting XI, often with players in unfamiliar positions. This has had both positive and negative impacts for the U21s. On one hand it’s allowed young players to train and play with experienced professionals; to see how they act in the dressing room and in the build-up to a game; on the other hand, it’s given Joyce very little time to plan for games and these first team players have prevented some of the fringe U21 players from getting the games they need to be able to progress.

In total, first team players have made more than 40 appearances for the U21s with Lindegaard, Valdes, Rafael, Evans, Shaw, Anderson, Carrick, Herrera, Young, Januzaj, Falcao and van Persie playing. There are other fringe first team players such as Lingard and Amos who have at times played too. By contrast, because the U18 squad is also so small, there have been few opportunities to push players up an age group as they’ve been needed by Paul McGuinness. Axel Tuanzebe is the only U18 player to have played at U21 level this season although others have been unused subs.

To add to the complexity of an ever-changing squad the fixture list produced only four league games between the end of September and the new year. Clearly, Joyce was able to keep his team motivated during this frustrating period, in 2015 they’ve lost just one league game.

The turn of the year also represented a change in selection policy/opportunity. Many of the older players who’d been regulars in the first half of the season had moved on, either permanently or on loan. It’s presented an opportunity to play some of the fringe players and they’ve thrived, as summed up by the inclusion of Donald Love and Liam Grimshaw on the three-man shortlist for the Reserve Player of the Year award. Those two along with James Weir have enjoyed the chance to play regularly and impressively, all three have generally had to play out of position. Love has played as a centre midfielder, centre back and right winger more than he has a right back; Liam Grimshaw has almost exclusively been a holding midfielder rather than a centre back; and James Weir has had to play on the wing much more than he has central midfield. Despite not being as obviously talented as some of their peers, they epitomise the attitude of United’s younger players and have grabbed their chance in the team. They can take inspiration from Paddy McNair, who like them, was way down the pecking order in the U21 side and could hardly get in the team up until January 2014.

There are others who’ve done well in their handful of games too – Ashley Fletcher has almost always made an impact from the bench; Sean Goss has been so unlucky with injuries but he added a calmness to the side when he returned in spring 2015; even Andy Kellett, on loan from Bolton, has surely earned himself a move somewhere in the summer if he’s not with Bolton’s first team. These players, the squad players, have contributed as much as anyone and on the whole, they are the few who’ve been part of the squad throughout the entire campaign. Without their patience and professionalism, United wouldn’t be champions.

However, the two mainstays have been Tom Thorpe and Andreas Pereira. Thorpe, the captain, has surprisingly been overlooked for the first team but without complaining he’s continued to lead the U21 side superbly and his performance levels show no signs of complacency. Pereira, the favourite for the Reserve Player of the Year, has taken his game to another level. Having struggled initially with the step up from U18 football a year ago, he’s been running games this season and been rightly rewarded with a new contract and his first team debut. That they’ve been the only two players to start more than 15 games for Joyce emphasises just how difficult the selection process has been but also how much this success has been a squad effort.

Despite the addition of higher quality players at times from the first team, with 42 different players selected; 17 different goalscorers; and 20 different assisters, this title may just have been Joyce’s most difficult challenge. It’s a great reflection of how good a manager and coach he is, motivating all kinds of players to perform and still improving those who can go months without a competitive game. Maybe more importantly, United’s Academy continues to produce footballers of a high standard who are getting into the habit of winning trophies.

There’s one game left, away to Man City. The date is still TBC but it’s likely to be on the 23rd May – no doubt United fans will flock to the Academy Stadium and support the new U21 champions.

4 Comments on Manchester United’s U21 glory is a squad success

  1. If you had to put them in order how would you rate Thorpe, Blackett and McNair in terms of current ability and more importantly, long term potential. Who should be first in the pecking order now and do you expect any to be a regular in the first team long term?

  2. @n – that’s a difficult question to answer because I’d have had Thorpe over McNair all day, every day. Clearly the staff disagree and you can’t argue with them. I consider Thorpe to have the best potential but then as it stands, you have to assume that McNair has the best chance at United, followed by Blackett and Thorpe respectively. That said, I’m not convinced any of them will still be at the club in a couple of years.

  3. What players in the youth set up do you think can make the grade in the first team long term? Or is this usually a case of a number of possibilities and it is impossible to tell who can make it?

  4. @n – it’s difficult to predict. A few years ago I’d have suggested a few players and definitely not Paddy McNair but it’s often a case of opportunity and then being able to grab it. From the U21 squad I really like Joe Rothwell and Sean Goss and then there are some very talented players in the U18s who’ll have a chance but luck, staying fit and growth are such big and unpredictable factors.

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