Catching up with United…….

An enforced day of rest today; I have quite a heavy cold, so visiting my Dad in his new ‘pied-à-terre’ in Daventry (see preceding piece) is out of the question; his defences are low and I am currently too infectious.

As a consequence, I was able to catch up on United’s current crop of young players in this morning’s U-18 Academy League game against West Bromwich Albion, then shoot off to Asda to get some shopping in before returning in good time to watch the first team who were featured in the teatime kick off at Swansea.

Last year I was able to follow the development of the U-18’s from a collection of gawky misfits to cultured FA Youth Cup winners, but this season it’s been more difficult to keep in touch with things.  In truth, the U-18’s looked a ragged bunch at the start of the season, losing successive games to Portsmouth and Southampton.  I suppose we had been spoiled by last year’s ‘bumper crop’, most of whom have now ‘stepped  up’ to the Reserves and in some cases to Carling Cup action with the first team.

I suppose I should really start with the Reserves, as they played Wigan at Altrincham on Thursday night.  In the end, they got a comfortable 4-1 win against a young Wigan team, thanks to goals from Ravel Morrison (2), Zekky Fryers and Davide Petrucci.  Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Wigan’s team was that one of their subs was Johan Cruyff’s grandson.  Where do the years go?

All of the best players from last year’s FA Youth Cup team seem to be progressing satisfactorily in their first full season in the Reserves.  Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone and midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe are both out on loan, but most of the rest are still there; Will Keane, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba are probably the obvious ‘stars’, but players like Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane are now developing nicely as well.  The real problems are likely to start at the end of this season when the fact that they’ve been handed a first-team squad number will no longer be enough to satisfy them.

Ravel Morrison; 2 goals against Wigan for the Reserves

I feel particularly sorry for Will Keane, who has 7 strikers (Rooney, Hernandez, Diouf, Owen, Welbeck, Berbatov and Macheda) standing between him and a first-team slot.  Keane is a genuinely gifted striker with a great eye for goal and an uncanny ability to create time and space for himself in even the most crowded of penalty areas.  Hopefully Fergie knows what a gem he has on his hands here and will give him his chance. 

Paul Pogba is (apparently) less content to await the manager’s pleasure and has reputedly refused to sign a new contract until he gets some guarantees about his future at the club – and personally, I think he’s right to do so – Pogba is 18 , an age at which Ryan Giggs was pretty much a first team regular. If I were Ferguson, I would have him on the bench all the time now.  He’s clearly ready for the next challenge and is surely destined to become a great midfielder wherever he ends up.  The first and most pressing task is  to ensure that his future lies with United.  Midfield is undoubtedly the weakest area of the first team right now and they could surely profit from having someone of Pogba’s precocious talents available on a regular basis.  Whatever they have to offer him to secure his services for another 5 years or whatever will almost certainly turn out to be money well spent.

We may learn more when United take on Crystal Palace in the next round of the Carling Cup, the week after next.  At least half of the team who cruised past Wigan will be hoping or expecting to get the call – and rightly so.

It was a bright, cold but sunny morning at Carrington as United took on West Bromwich Albion in the U-18 Academy League.  It turned out to be an exciting game with the outcome in doubt until the very end.  The Junior Baggies look like an exciting crop, whilst United’s youngsters, though improving, are still a work in progress.  The team’s outstanding players this year have probably been skipper Luke McCulloch (apologies for calling him ‘Sean’ in a previous piece) who is a calm and powerful presence at centre-back, left- or centre-back Tyler Blackett, who played in the Youth Cup run last year and wingers/strikers Tom Lawrence and Jack Barmby (son of former Spurs striker, Nick Barmby).  Lawrence was missing this morning, but the other three all played. 

United’s opening goal after twelve minutes came due to a piece of quick thinking by Barmby.  Fouled in the centre circle as the Baggies back line pushed up, he got up quickly and played an instant free-kick into the path of onrushing Norwegian midfielder Mats Daehli, who took it on and beat the ‘keeper from the edge of the area with a composed finish into the bottom corner.  Albion responded strongly and striker Alex Jones had a goal disallowed for offside before winning a penalty which he himself converted just 3 minutes after Daehli’s goal.

The rest of the game was played at a furious pace and United got most of whatever Lady Luck was dishing out today.  West Brom had another goal disallowed before half -time and in the second half had a good shout for another penalty dismissed by the referee, who sent off Albion’s Jamie Edge for dissent around that incident – red cards are something of a rarity at this level.   Later on, United keeper Liam Jacob fumbled a cross on to the post and then re-gathered the ball, with the Baggies players protesting vociferously (but unsuccessfully)  that the ball had crossed the line. 

In the end, the game was settled by a second goal from Daehli.  Blackett got away down the left and slung over a long cross to the back post where the unmarked Norwegian arrived in time to carefully volley home off the underside of the crossbar.  Had he just blasted the ball, it would probably have come down in an adjoining postcode.  And that was that, though you had to feel sorry for the Baggies youngsters, whose performance  definitely merited a point.

Mats Daehli; 2 goals for the U-18’s against WBA

And so to the first team who had what looked like an awkward fixture against Premiership newbies Swansea City,  currently sitting comfortably in mid-table.  Fergie named a strong team, with Carrick and Giggs in central midfield and Park and Nani on the flanks.  United scored early; after 11 minutes, Giggs intercepted a poor clearance and drove into the area before squaring the ball into the path of Hernandez, who expertly steered the ball into the net despite being slightly off-balance as he struck it.

And to be honest, that was pretty much it.  United seem to have adopted the old Arsenal tactic of 1-0 being enough and they never really looked like adding to that early goal until late on, when first, Phil Jones hit the post with a cross-shot and then Nani curled a shot just wide.  Swansea pressed hard in the second half, but in truth, ex-Chelsea starlet Scott Sinclair had their best chance when he missed an open goal in the first half and that was as good as it got for them.

Hernandez scores the only goal against Swansea

But whatever happened to the Great Entertainers who swaggered through the early weeks of the season, swatting Arsenal aside 8-2 and looking as though they were going to take the Premiership by storm?  It seems as though Fergie’s response to the Derby Day hammering has been to revert to a kind of crabby pragmatism which might win games but is deathly to watch.  Of course, with City winning at home earlier, anything but a win would have resulted in a sharp decline in the noise from the Noisy Neighbours as they accelerate away into the distance.  This was like a performance from a difficult away European tie.  Effective, perhaps,  but entertaining ? Only if you find toothache entertaining…

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