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Monday, January 30, 2023

The inside story of Man United’s academy this season and why U21s aren’t winning

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Anthony Elanga began last season playing for Manchester United’s Under-21s and he was promoted to the first-team by November. The academy’s main focus is to supply young talent to the first-team and the number of promotions is the gauge of success. Elanga moved to Manchester from Sweden at the age of 12 and academy coaches played a pivotal role in his journey to making his debut last year. It’s rewarding for club staff to invest time in young players and to see them make their debut and, although Elanga is still only 20 years old, the forward is an established first-team squad member, which means he’s regarded as an ‘academy success’. The word ‘success’ has a clear definition in the senior game but it’s not that simple in the academy. There is an emphasis placed on individual development, not results, and that’s why club figures are not concerned about the U21s’ form this season. ALSO READ: Erik ten Hag will love what Zidane Iqbal did during United’s U21s defeat vs Bolton Neil Wood spent three years at United as the head coach of the club’s U21s, helping 17 academy players make their first-team debuts at Old Trafford during his tenure, and he departed from the set-up in the summer to manage Salford City. Wood played an instrumental role in the development of Elanga, Shola Shoretire, Dylan Levitt, James Garner and Ethan Laird among others, but club sources indicated they were happy with his decision to want to coach within a first-team environment and Mark Dempsey, who returned to the club initially as assistant to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the end of 2018, was appointed as his successor. United’s U21s finished sixth in the Premier League 2 with 39 points in Wood’s last season in charge and when the coach was asked about that position in the table near the end of the season, he was pleased but insisted it was about ‘performances’. That is the mantra of the academy and why sources have indicated there is no panic at the U21s’ results in the Premier League 2 this season, which have seen Dempsey’s side take 10 points from 12 games, with a record of one win, seven draws and four defeats. Man City’s U21s defeated United 6-1 last month. (Image: 2022 Matt McNulty – Manchester City) The U21s are currently in transition and that has contributed to that underwhelming record. Matej Kovar, Alvaro Fernandez, Charlie Wellens, Zidane Iqbal, Martin Svidersky, Hannibal Mejbri and D’Mani Mellor all heavily contributed in the Premier League 2 last season and those players have either permanently left, departed on loan or were promoted to Erik ten Hag’s first-team squad. The spine of the team that won matches last season has essentially been removed for the next step of those players’ careers, which has meant Dempsey has been left with a raw but talented, youthful squad at his disposal for this campaign. Kovar and Wellens are on loan at Sparta Prague and Oldham respectively, Hannibal has become a key player for Birmingham on loan in the Championship, while Svidersky moved to La Liga and Mellor joined Wycombe Wanderers, both on free transfers. Fernandez was excellent for the U21s and he was the winner of the Denzil Haroun Reserve-Team Player of the Year, but the left-back joined Preston on loan this season and he’s naturally been a ‘huge miss’ in that position in the Premier League 2. Iqbal impressed Ten Hag on the pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia – he was the only U21 player to play all four friendly tour matches – and the club have decided it’s best for his development to keep him around the first-team environment. That has meant Iqbal has been able to drop back into the U21s on occasions this season, but the team he played with against Bolton in the Papa John’s Trophy on Tuesday night, for example, looked very different to the side he regularly started in last year. The natural progression of players has meant Dempsey’s starting line ups have looked entirely different to Wood’s in his final season in charge, but the youngsters that have been promoted to the U21s this season are the recent FA Youth Cup heroes. Fernandez has been excellent for Preston. (Image: 2022 CameraSport) United’s Under-18s defeated Nottingham Forest 3-1 at Old Trafford in the Youth Cup final last season and they extended the club’s exceptional academy record, as the Reds have won the cup (10) more than other team in the history of the competition. That crop of youngster are now testing themselves in the Premier League 2 and club sources indicated in October that the average age of United’s players in the league had been 18.4, compared to the PL2 opposition’s average of 20.1 The Manchester Evening News also understands Premier League 2 fixtures are prioritised for the development of players in the academy, while cup competitions, like the Papa John’s Trophy, are used to give ‘elite young players’ the platform to perform against higher opposition in a more pressured environment, which is helpful in preparing them to play for the first-team. In layman’s terms, the ‘less developed’ player in the academy has played in the Premier League 2 this season because they need minutes and game time over a ‘better’ player who might not necessarily benefit as much in that fixture. Nonetheless, the current crop of U21s are well regarded and it’s promising that since the Youth Cup final in May, Alejandro Garnacho has made his full debut and become a valued first-team member, Charlie McNeill has made his debut, Isak Hansen-Aaroen featured against Rayo Vallecano in pre-season and Kobbie Mainoo and Tyler Fredricson have made the bench. Last week’s first-team trip to Spain, which was a defacto academy trip, also gave those players a chance to work closely with Ten Hag, who made 10 changes at half-time against Cadiz to give the youngsters 45 minutes of football against a senior side. Mainoo has an exciting future. (Image: 2022 Manchester United FC) A lack of a prolific goalscorer has also hindered the U21s. McNeill, who got experience playing in the Premier League 2 last season, has scored just once in the league and his fellow centre-forward Joe Hugill has only recently returned from injury. Although McNeill has not found the back of the net as regularly as he would like, his goalscoring record in previous campaigns has been excellent, and he played a key role in the U21s reaching the Round of 16 in the Papa John’s Trophy this season. United’s U21s have struggled in the Premier League 2, but they were only defeated by a strong Bolton side in the Round of 16 in the EFL Cup, known as the Papa John’s Trophy, on Tuesday night and that competition has provided confidence to the players. United won their Papa John’s group stage, finishing ahead of the first teams of Barrow, Fleetwood Town and Carlisle and their performance in the 4-0, Round of 16 defeat against Bolton was not as disheartening as the heavy scoreline might have suggested, as it was 0-0 until the 67th minute and Bolton ruthlessly scored two goals in quick succession in extra time. Iqbal was the standout performer against Bolton and Binnion, who manages the U18s but has taken charge of Papa John’s games this season, lauded the midfielder after the game, explaining that the 19-year-old is ‘fearless’ and that he ‘excels on the ball’. It’s also understood that football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher were at Bolton on Tuesday. The MEN revealed in August that Binnion was set to be in charge of Papa John’s matches in this campaign, not Dempsey, and it’s understood that decision was made by Nick Cox, who is head of the academy. Sources have indicated the club wants to develop coaches as well as players and the Papa John’s Trophy was seen as a good opportunity for Binnion, who clearly vindicated that decision, by taking the team the furthest they’ve been in the competition. Mainoo was not involved against Bolton on Tuesday and that suggests he could be involved in the first-team’s match against Burnley at Old Trafford next week, which would be another debut and another ‘academy success’ for staff to enjoy. The results in the Premier League 2 this season should not deter from the wider picture: the club’s academy is world-class. READ NEXT: Last chance to vote for your United player of the year Binnion names best position for ‘fearless’ Iqbal Hannibal issues loan update as United consider recalling players Ten Hag sends message to Maguire over United future All the United news and views

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