There was little more than a brief Twitter outcry of joy as United in true typical fashion came from behind to defeat Spurs 3-2 at Old Trafford and seal the U21 title. Much like at first team level, winning is something that’s become a routine and good habit for Warren Joyce and this group of players.
Back in 2009/10 the Tunnicliffe, Morrison, Keane, Thorpe (etc) generation were first year scholars and won Academy Group C. It was a 28 game league and they lost only five times, pipping a very strong Everton side to the top of the group. United went on to host Academy Group A winners, Arsenal, in a semi-final at Old Trafford and would cruelly lose on penalties. From then on, that core bunch of players would go on to be perennial winners.
The season after, 2010/11, would be an Academy league campaign to forget but the focus would be on the prestigious FA Youth Cup and United would go on to cruise the competition and win it for a record tenth time. In 2011/12, most of those players progressed onto the Reserves and they’d romp to success in the Premier Reserve League North, winning it by 14 points and then going on to have their fortunes reversed by beating Aston Villa in the play-off final on penalties.
On to this season with a new format and a tricky challenge for Warren Joyce. With a lot of players in the U21s aged 20/21 many would be going out on loan or be sold over the course of the season. It would mean that week-by-week, game-by-game, Joyce wouldn’t necessarily have a settled squad of players. Over the summer, Pogba, de Laet, James, Norwood and Fryers moved on whilst King and Brady were sold in January. Loans were arranged for Amos, Johnstone, Henriquez, Macheda, Bebe, M Keane, Wootton, McGinty, McCullough, Brown, Giverin, Petrucci, van Velzen, Tunnicliffe, Lingard and Cofie. An already small pool of players suddenly shrank dramatically.
Departures you might think aren’t a bad thing. For players going out on loan it offers the opportunity of competitive professional football and a chance to grow up living away from home. For those that remained it opened up vital playing time when they may not necessarily have gotten in the side before. The dilemma that Joyce had though was that it left an unbalanced, inexperienced squad and a need to call on players from the U18s to make up numbers when they themselves had their injury problems. So much so that sometimes United would name U21 sides that did not use the full complement of five substitute places available.
Prior to Christmas, United competed in a seven team group and snuck into second place behind Spurs who outscored them two to one. United’s progress into the Elite Group Stage was secured and a great deal of thanks had to go to Kiko Macheda who proved to be in fine goalscoring touch. His crucial late equaliser away to Southampton put United’s destiny in their own hands for a top three spot. The football was a bit messy in that there was at times little cohesion between the players. First team fringe members were prioritised as they needed to be kept fresh whilst those who’d grown up with each other through the academy would have to be patient for their turn.
Still, there would be first team debuts for Brady, Tunnicliffe, Vermijl and Wootton as well as further starts for Michael Keane. Surprisingly, Davide Petrucci would miss out despite playing on tour in pre-season. He was the star for the U21s during this period as he mixed incisive passing with real leadership in the middle of the pitch. His subsequent loan to Peterborough was well earned although typical of his luck, he’d get injured just as he settled into their side.
After Christmas, Warren Joyce was faced with a fresh challenge. Cofie, Henriquez, Macheda and Bebe all went out on loan and William Keane wouldn’t be rushed back from a long-term injury. It left him with no strikers and hence in 14 group games, United managed to score just 16 goals. Three players rotated the striking responsibility – Tom Lawrence, Adnan Januzaj and Nick Powell – but none of them were ideal and it became common to see United attack, get into good positions and then discover no one was in the box to put chances away.
For Januzaj it was a big challenge. He’d missed the opening months of the season due to injury and now he was fit he’d been promoted permanently from the U18s into the U21s. Physically, it was a big ask for him and yet he did such a good job he ended the season as the U21 player of the year as voted for by the fans. His development in 2013 has been rapid and given that it’s been in an unfamiliar role, it’s been extraordinary. Having been kicked around at the turn of the year, he’s toughened up, backed into defenders, and won balls he never should win. Once in possession both his hold-up and link-up play has been increasingly mature.
The most visible progress though is the trust put in him by his team-mates. Every attack has had Adnan at its heart whether he’s been carrying the ball, beating men or setting up goals. He’s started to have the ‘make something out of nothing’ impact – a scary thought when you consider he’s only recently turned 18 and is playing against boys and men quite a bit older and bigger than him. All eyes were on him and he certainly delivered but 2013 wasn’t just about his introduction, for Warren Joyce it was a chance to reunited old friends and build the league’s tightest defence.
The remaining ‘Class of 2011’ would be reunited in a bid to push for success – Cole, Lingard and Tunnicliffe would form a strong core in the middle whilst faith would be placed in Ekangamene to take on a crucial role at the heart of the midfield. At the back there’d be a settled look to the side with Vermijl, Thorpe, Fornasier and James picking themselves most weeks. Joyce’s options to rotate and spread playing time, like he normally would, were limited due to the various injuries and loans but all of a sudden a settled side started to emerge, gel and win.
It’s funny how consistency and a degree of trust can change a player’s fortunes so drastically. In 2013 Reece James, Frederic Veseli and Charni Ekangamene would come to the fore. Having all been no more than bit-part players before Christmas they’d all get long stints in the side. Reece James, signed from Preston last summer looked really shy in his early outings but as he grew in confidence he showed himself to be a solid all-rounded fullback.
Veseli had secured a first full season at the club after joining in January 2012 and although he looked rather average at first he finally found a place in the side. Sitting in front of the back four he was charged with doing a less expansive Carrick role and did it well. His season was unfortunately cut short by a hamstring injury which in many ways only gave Ekangamene more responsibility. Having joined in the summer of 2010 we were under the impression he was a winger before learning that he liked to play left back the most. He’s finally settled in the heart of the midfield, performing a box-to-box role alongside Tunnicliffe. The coaches have worked incredibly hard on his positioning and understanding of the role, and it shows. His first season in the U21s will be looked back on as one of great promise.
As the goals dried up, the defence tightened up. With Thorpe leading from the back alongside Fornasier and with help from Amos and Lindegaard eight clean sheets were kept in ten games giving United the country’s meanest defence. This played a huge part in United qualifying for the playoff semi-finals and a draw at Old Trafford against Liverpool ensured a home draw against the Merseyside outfit for a place in the playoff final.
In the end it, semi-final success was a formality as a Larnell Cole hat-trick (at Old Trafford) ensured a 3-0 victory over Liverpool and a place in the final against Spurs who’d seen off Everton in the other semi-final. Spurs had dominated the U21 leagues over the season, scoring the most goals but also fielding a whole host of older experienced players, many of whom, like Livermore, Carroll and Naughton, had played for their first team that season. The final was a fitting finale to Fergie’s reign at the club as United came from two goals down to win 3-2 in normal time with Larnell Cole netting yet another two goals, the final one coming just minutes before full time. Once again, United were U21/Reserve champions.
The continued success proves the temperament of the group; their class at their age group; and that the coaching set-up remains excellent. The upcoming summer will be one of change and incredible intrigue for fans who have an interest in the younger players at the club. A fair few have already been let go by the club and lots will be promoted having completed their Academy scholarships. Question marks remain over what will end up to those who’ve just completed two years in the U21s; the Coles, Lingards, Tunnicliffes, Thorpes etc now need to either be embedded into the first team or found good quality loans. Loaning is tricky when you consider that for someone like Larnell Cole, it would be a waste to send him to your average long-ball Championship side.
Next season promises to be as exciting as this one with many of the U18s who’ll be promoted already having made their U21 debuts. As well as the further development of the current U21s there’s the return of Will Keane from a long-term injury and hopefully some better luck for Tom Lawrence who always seems to get an injury as he hits some form. David Moyes is inheriting a fantastic Academy set-up with great staff lower down the pecking order; whilst changes are to be expected at the top, hopefully he’ll find it unnecessary to change too much else.