Surprisingly good start for Manchester United’s U-18s

It’s been a testing start to the season for David Moyes at first team level. In a new job with a new squad results haven’t been quite what was expected and there’s most definitely a sense of uneasiness with all things related right now. As part of the managerial change some new staff arrived but the majority remain and for Warren Joyce and Paul McGuinness it’s been business as usual.

The return of William Keane, appearances by Adnan Januzaj, and form of Jesse Lingard and Larnell Cole means you’ll have probably read about the decent start to the season by the U21s. Five games, 17 goals scored and just the one slightly undeserved defeat against Liverpool. Already Joyce has used 27 players including some who are now out on loan as well as 16 year old centre back, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.

Chances are, you’ll have also probably kept track of the new U19 squad, not least because it’s managed by Nicky Butt and his assistant, a certain Paul Scholes. They’re competing exclusively in Europe in the UEFA Youth League and the squad combines players in the first year as an U21 and anyone from the U18s. It’s a tricky age group as United don’t have regular U19 fixtures so the squad as a whole seldom train or compete together. It’ll prove to be a great experience for the staff involved and a terrific opportunity for the players to learn.

Arguably, Paul McGuinness has the hardest job of all the coaches in charge of a team at the club. Managing the U18s comes with pressure and expectation because United have such a fabulous history of success and development at that age bracket. This year however not only does he have a very small squad that’s being eaten into by the U19s but there’s not been any foreign signings at first year level to grab the attention of the average fan. In the past we may have been keen for updates on Januzaj or Daehli or Pogba but this year the names involved aren’t quite as glamorous.

The squad contains just 22 players (20 from the UK & Ireland), of which four are goalkeepers and one of the remaining 18 outfield players is classified as a student rather than a scholar – which allows for a continued education and slightly less of a footballing education than the others. It’s a tiny squad, smaller than last years by 8 players.

It’s an important age group for numerous reasons: players sign professional contracts; the players physically are growing at their fastest; players start to settle into positions and roles; there’s the prestigious FA Youth Cup to compete for; and the games start to get shown on TV so there’s fan exposure. Expectations are always high but emphasis tends to be more on development and performances rather than results, fortunately United have a good record at both.

Predicting what to expect from this group of players was difficult. Most of the second year scholars were either injured or seldom involved in games last year so in terms of being able to pass on tips and show leadership qualities it would be tricky. This squad isn’t as obviously strong as others in the past have been and yet their start to the season has been fascinating with 6 wins in 8 league games following on from Milk Cup success. It’s even more impressive given that star player, James Wilson, has only played in 5 of those games and Andreas Pereira hasn’t featured in any (he’s been pushed up with the U19 and U21s). They may have only kept one clean sheet but scoring’s not been a problem with the back of the net found in every game so far.

If there’s an advantage to having a small squad (where the players have stayed fit) it’s that McGuinness has allowed his team selections to be consistent. Usually there’s a lot of squad rotation to ensure all the players get minutes but that’s not been as important so far this year with only Dorrington (one of four GKs), Rathbone (U17 student), McTominay (tiny in stature) and Pereira (promoted up a team) yet to start a game.

The confidence that regular selection brings is evident in the likes of Barber, McConnell, Willock, Goss and Fletcher who all hardly featured last season for one reason or another. Fletcher in particular has been a revelation with 7 goals and 2 assists in the eight games. Willock’s grown physically and found a role in the centre of the pitch whilst Barber’s been given the captaincy on a couple of occasions.

There are sprinklings of quality too. Borthwick-Jackson is an incredibly elegant centre back; Mitchell has been a livewire on the wing; Wilson has been incredible up front; and maybe most exciting but under the radar of them all is Josh Harrop who has 7 assists and 2 goals from midfield. Harrop can play full back, on a wing or in the middle and is technically brilliant but somehow has gone almost un-talked-about in wider footballing circles, maybe because he’s not been called up by England yet.

So what of the long term and the rest of the season to come? McGuinness will be keen to manage the players sensibly to avoid fatigue and burnout so it’s feasible some of the U16s like Reid, Kehinde and Rashford will feature at times. If they can stay fit as a group then there may be the makings of a surprisingly successful season to come but more than anything, this squad have shown themselves to be as entertaining to watch as any and Paul McGuinness is once again weaving his magic.