As English Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new lockdown measures, there was a worry how this would affect football.
In the current parameters, elite football was allowed to continue while news related to the academy was fatigue. At the moment, rules stand as in the second lockdown introduced later in 2020 meaning that Premier League 2 and U18’s Premier League will continue.
However, it was announced that the FA Youth Cup would be suspended until further notice where United were due to face Salford City in the third round. As for the U16s, they will be allowed to train, but not play any games.
Switching focus on football, Manchester United U23’s campaign since promotion to Division 1 has had its highs and lows. They started the 2020/2021 season with a loss to Leicester, a far more experienced squad as United had fielded a young team with Martin Svidersky of the U18’s covering at left back. On the other hand, it was Mark Helm who played at number 9 and as the season progressed he was then shifted at right wing to make space for Joe Hugill.
As in the first team, conceding from sloppy defending has been the story of this season for the Reserves. The Arsenal game comes to mind with our youngsters letting a 3-1 lead slip away. Furthermore, the negative goal difference in the league at the moment doesn’t do justice to Will Fish. The centre-back, criticised for a few mistakes, has stepped up.
Rather than results, as I have always said, the performances are far more important in this age level. When the Reserves played Leicester early in the season, it was obvious this was not going to be as easy as in Division 2. They have indeed kept the trend in scoring goals, but Neil Wood’s side still are not cautious enough in midfield. Some adventurous moments have made it difficult for the rest of the team, however this team when moving forward is one of the most dangerous of the league.
Alvaro Fernandez who signed from Real Madrid has played with the Reserves bringing the needed calmness at the back. United have been strong on both wings this season as Anthony Elanga, Facundo Pellistri and Arnau Puigmail have all scored some brilliant goals this season. The Uruguayan’s adaption at English football has been of major interest and in what I have seen so far, he is a talented winger, versatile who offers different qualities on the flank. He has started in the right wing where he has mostly exploited defences and has served his teammates well. When played more centrally or in the left Pellistri has been dangerous in front of the goal.
Anthony Elanga, probably not being in the spotlight recently due to the attention Pellistri has received, has been the most consistent player at this level. It has been him who has broken the deadlock, due to his speed and intelligence moving forward. Constantly scoring and also contributing to some brilliant goal set ups. Based on current form I expect Ole Gunnar Solskjær to give him a chance as an award on the great performances this season on the Premier League 2 and the EFL Trophy, where United U21’s were eliminated.
While Pellistri and Elanga have had a brilliant run this season, Arnau Puigmail’s situation still remains unclear. The Spaniard is out of contract in the summer and reports lean towards a return in Spain with Barcelona (you can read about the reports here) and Almeria recently as possible destinations. This however, hasn’t affected Puigmal’s brilliant performances this season and he stands at 6 goals and 2 assists so far. Mostly playing in the right, Puigmal’s abilities to deploy defences are an added to threat to the team. He is versatile, as he can be used as a right back or as a central midfielder.
It would be a shame to lose him now or even in the summer, but a decision regarding his situation will be made soon. As the first team struggles for a consistent holding midfielder, Ethan Galbraith seems to be waiting for the right moment to get a call up by Ole. Plenty of decisions will be made in January and he may get the chance to move on loan. On the other hand, Ethan Laird moved to MK Dons on loan and has already played for them making a good impression.
The Reserves start 2021 against Leicester U23’s, an important game given the current league position and also will try to overcome the defeat against Chelsea U23’s in the final game of 2020. With 11 games played, the Reserves are in 9th place, having scored 25 goals and conceding 28. This is the point where coach Neil Wood will have to focus more, finding the perfect balance in his back four.
There is a good chance we might see Dylan Levitt tonight since he is back from his loan spell and it will be interesting to see what he has learnt from his time at Charlton Athletic. He may not be satisfied of what he achieved there, but I think that this game may serve him to bounce back.
It could be the moment for a debut in the United ranks for Amad Diallo, but it will depend on what the coaching staff may decide about him. United face Fulham in midweek and this is a chance for Diallo’s integration in the first team, however we will see what happens. The Pellistri situation has been handled very well by Ole and from my point of view Amad is not exactly a different one. He may have featured for Atalanta in the Champions League, but his league appearances show that he needs minutes before jumping to the starting XI.
Fans reading this may be wondering why there is no mention of Hannibal Mejbri in the particular players I discussed here. Well, while I think he is one of the most talented players of the squad, but there are certain aspects of his game that clearly need improvement. In the first part, I briefly mentioned United’s adventurous moments in midfield and Mejbri has been particularly involved in this, meaning that he needs to be more careful. A poll back in September, run by the Manchester Evening News on their Twitter account showed why a few fans are indeed rushing on what they expect from Hannibal:
Thread: Why the results of the poll below show Manchester United fans are clueless about academy? https://t.co/Wixp3coSSS
— Fabiola Cejku (@fabiola_cejku) September 11, 2020
Here we are at the moment and Mejbri still has a long way to go as I mentioned earlier. When playing him as a number 10, his best position; United benefit from an in form Hannibal. Considering the current list of fixtures if no changes are to be made (due to COVID-19), United have a good chance of going in a run of some great performances. Surely, another game against Liverpool sounds as promising as the first one, while we may be careful when facing Chelsea and City.
This season so far the team has shown signs of inconsistency, this is true. However, in a youth team the most important thing are the performances. The volume of play is there, fast attacking football of quick passes as well, so a little balance at the back is needed. Can it be found? I think so, but the players must do their part as well.