If you’re used to watching United’s first team you could be forgiven for being a bit confused by the club’s U21s and U18s. It would be normal to assume that United would prepare players for the first team by replicating the system the first team play but on the whole, that’s not the case.
Even having signed Kagawa in the summer, the first team still predominantly turn to width for inspiration rather than playing through the middle. Further still, unlike many of league and European competitors, Ferguson continues to favour playing two strikers on the pitch, even if one drops a bit deeper at times – it’s very rare to see five midfielders starting a game.
By contrast, below the first team United tend to set up quite differently. Unless a forward is used wide, like Joshua King often was, it’s a case of one striker with five midfielders and minimal natural width. Part of this is down to the resources available but also, one wonders if it’s a route the club are looking to take long term. Is this an insight into how the first team could be lining up in a few years?
At present, the U18s contains very technically gifted players, those who flourish when given a free role and who if they start wide will drift infield. Players such as Mats Daehli, Jack Barmby and Adnan Januzaj fall into that category. When you add Andreas Pereira, there’s a huge emphasis on playing through the middle. This has its pros and cons. It makes for intricate, neat, quick passing football that the football fraternity seem to think is the way forward right now but it can be one dimensional and the team relies heavily on fullbacks to provide any width.
At Academy level United are lucky, they’re blessed with players that can unlock a defensive with a moment of genius and in Barmby and Wilson they have pace on the counter. Still, the two natural wingers in the squad barely get a look in – Gorre is to be released and Willock is very young and yet to feature in a game this season. With 46 goals scored in 20 competitive games so far this season, playing a system where creativity comes from the middle rather than out wide hasn’t been a hindrance at all – in fact only one team has kept a clean sheet playing against them. At U21 level it’s a similar story but maybe a problem is more evident.
The U21s have scored 45 goals in 24 games including a seven goal haul against Oldham, but have failed to score four times. Most recently, last night, a Wolves side with 10 men for 80 minutes kept them at bay quite comfortably. With Brady sold in January, van Velzen is the only winger and since returning from loan over a month ago, he’s played just once from the bench. Those who are picked to play in the wide areas, usually Cole and Lingard, are generally more effective centrally – it’s a case of square pegs in roundish holes.
Whilst the first team often soak up pressure and break, the U21s tend to control games, usually deep in the opposition’s half – a good thing you might assume but it has its pitfalls. Games can get congested with players getting in each other’s way and opponents getting plenty of men behind the ball. This does suit the nature of the players the club are producing though – Rene’s impact on the coaching side has bred players with a much greater emphasis on control, skills and intelligence than ever before. It’s seen at both U18 and U21 level United use one holding midfielder, one all rounded box-to-box midfielder and one with a free role; whilst the wide players also have license to find the space.
What does it all mean? United’s purchase of Zaha suggests that width will continue to play a part in the future although even he’s not a conventional winger. Kagawa’s purchase hinted at a possible change in system used but to date that’s rarely been evident. If players turn out to develop well enough and do come through to the first team, it’ll be fascinating to see the long term plan. Fitting in a Daehli or a Januzaj looks difficult right now, we’re somewhat struggling with Shinji as it is, but maybe there will be a change coming with United’s future being based on central flair rather than wide flair. If our kids are anything to go by, the football will at least be exciting to watch.