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Rise to Fame: Joe Hugill – from Sunderland to rising star at Manchester United

Joe Hugill signed for Manchester United from Sunderland in the summer of 2020 for a fee in the region of £300,000. Instantly Hugill was a hit for United, starting in the U18 Premier League against Blackburn Rovers, with United winning 2-1 and Hugill scoring both of the goals. At U18 level, he scored six goals and one assist in six appearances, playing in the league and the FA Youth Cup. Hugill was then tested at U23 level, where he made the mark, scoring 10 goals and two assists in 18 Premier League 2 appearances, also featuring in the Papa John’s Trophy in three of the four matches played.

The best performance of the season for Hugill came in 6-3 victory over Liverpool in the Premier League 2 with the 17-year-old scoring four goals, which showed how much skill he has as a player. Amad Diallo also scored twice in that match. In terms of ability, Hugill has it and as long as he stays grounded and keeps improving, the world will be his oyster. The player had been prevalent in front of goal for Sunderland during his time at the North East club and that is where United first saw him, making him a member of the clubs academy as soon as they were able to.

What lies ahead for Joe Hugill?

Turning 18 in October 2021, Hugill will be featuring for the U23s during the 2021/22 season and could even play a role in the first team, in latter UEFA Champions League fixtures, the Carabao Cup and the Emirates FA Cup. He will also feature in the Papa John’s Trophy with Premier League teams entering squads under the age of 21 in the tournament. This will all aid his progress in the game and help him achieve what he wants to achieve. Hugill featured in the pre-season friendly against Derby County at Pride Park on Sunday, coming on for Mason Greenwood at the start of the second half, then being himself replaced by Hannibal Mejbri with 11 minutes left.

This shows that despite finding it hard to get into the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will trued the teenager to find his feet playing against senior teams, which once again will aid his development. He seems to be getting to grips with everything at United in only his first season where he scored a total of 16 goals and three assists in a total of 27 appearances at both U18 and U23 level. The 2021/22 season will see him playing a majority of matches at U23 level, which will test him and help him become the player that he wants to become. With some first team training added into the mix and some minutes on the pitch, he will be helped massively.

Will Joe Hugill make the Manchester United first team?

It is early days right now but Solskjaer will be working towards bringing youth through the academy into the first team so he will be hopeful that many of the talented players within the academy can do just that. However, there are no guarantees. Football has changed since the Class of 1992 came through the ranks with Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Phil Neville all found themselves in the first team. Sir Alex Ferguson took a massive risk at the time with four of the six and it paid off. Giggs made his debut in 1991 with the others following any years later.

There are many top talents in the academy at this time and not all of them will achieve the route to first team football with United but at this time, many of the players in the group look like they have accepted the challenge. Of late, Shola Shoretire, Anthony Elanga and Hannibal Mejbri have all made their debuts and look to be in the plans of Solskjaer. During the clubs pre-season campaign ahead of the start of the new season, the likes of Hugill can take their chances in front of Solskjaer to show him what they can do and in turn, more development will be offered in a first team scenario, which would start with first team training.

What does Joe Hugill need to do in order to get noticed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

It seems obvious that Solskjaer has already noticed Hugill after his 16 goal haul during the 2020/21 season. To keep being noticed by the manager he will need to keep performing. United will have spaces in the squad for strikers in the coming years and providing Hugill keeps developing and putting in the performances, he will have a great chance of succeeding in the first team. This may be a few years ahead though, unless he starts making the same waves that both Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood have made coming through the academy – if that happens, there will be a chance for him in no time.

The best thing for Hugill to do though is keep his head. There have been many youth players in the past who has represented the United first team during pre-season, which seems to have gone to their heads, contributing in them failing to live up to the pressure at United, ending up playing for a lower league club – not that it is a bad thing, but no player will get through with an ego, even if it can be backed up. Hugill does not seem to be that type of player, so that is a good thing. This season will be crucial for him to follow up from las season, then the chances he is given from there will be in his control.

Written by John Walker

Six academy players who will become valuable squad players at Manchester United

Manchester United have a history of developing players through their academy, whether the players end up reaching the first team of the club or end up playing their football somewhere else. This is part of the clubs DNA and is something that is seen by many as special. When United faced Villarreal in the UEFA Europa League final in Gdañsk on the 26 May 2021, it was the 4,097th match in a row that had at least one academy player in the squad which has been running since October 1937 and United are very proud of that fact. Not every academy player will make it at United but they do tend to carve careers in the game elsewhere. Some supports do not understand the role of the academy at the club and assume that English players with no skill are a waste of time – if only they understood the rules and regulations of the English game.

This article talks about six academy players who will become valuable squad players in the not too distant future, although some of them may head out of the club on loan this summer in a bid to gain experience in firs team football ahead of coming back to the club to find their feet and push themselves into the first team with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keen to find the road to glory in a similar fashion as Sir Alex Ferguson. United have so many talented youngsters at the club, some of whom have not yet represented the first team. Not all the players mentioned have played for the first team yet but have been involved in matches, albeit on the bench, which will have given them the understanding of the process. All have played first team football though, with the player being loaned out to give them experience to succeed.

Will Fish – Central Defender

The 18-year-old can play in either of the central defensive positions and seems to be highly rated by United, at least in the academy sense. His contract runs until the summer of 2022, so the 2021/22 season will be a big one for him. I would expect United to offer him a new contract this summer though, so they are not in a position whereby he could leave the club on a free next summer. He made his first team debut in the final Premier League match of the season with United beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 on the final day of the season. He replaced Daniel James in the final minute of the match. Fish made a total of 31 appearances throughout the 2020/21 season, 30 of those at academy level, scoring one goal and two assists. At just over six foot, Fish could give something to this United squad in the future, especially with the problems in the defence currently.

Depending on what happens at United this summer, regarding a new central defender and the likes of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, who have been linked with exits, despite Bailly’s contract renewal, it could leave some space in the first team for a central defender. Obviously, Fish would play predominantly in the U23 side during the course of the season but could be given chances in the first team in the Carabao Cup and the Emirates FA Cup. It would seem unlikely that he may get UEFA Champions League experience, but it all depends on the teams that will face United in the group. There is also a chance for him to be loaned out to a Football League club, which might be good for him and help him find his feet for the future. He is a player that should remain at United, as long as he continues to develop in the right way.

Teden Mengi – Central Defender

The 19-year-old is also considered as a highly rated player at the club and was loaned out to Wayne Rooney’s Derby Country for the second half of last season, which will have been a good experience for the player. His current contract at United ends in the summer of 2024, which gives United a lot more time to find a plan for him as it seems certain that he is being developed to play for United’s first team at some stage in the not too distant future. It is possible that he leaves on loan again during the 2021/22 season with Derby an option but there may be a better plan for the player to be loaned out to a Premier League club, which will bring him up to speed with the pace in the league, which would be much better for United from the 2022/23 season. Mengi can play in either of the two central defensive positions, also fitting in as a makeshift right-back.

Standing at six feet, Mengi has the frame to offer something in the centre of defence for United and he has a physical build, which will only become better as he ages, which is also a good sign. Mengi made seven appearances in the Premier League 2 and and three appearances in the Papa John’s Trophy for United last season. He also appeared on the bench for the first team in the Carabao Cup. He was loaned to Derby during the January transfer window and made nine appearances in the Championship for the club. He did not score or assist any goals for either team but had a pretty positive season. He was often praised by Rooney and his Derby teammates and Solskjaer seems keen on helping hims develop so he can regularly feature for the first team in the not too distant future. His season was ended with a hamstring injury back in April.

Dylan Levitt – Central Midfield

The 20-year-old is a talent that most United supporters will have knowledge of as he has been present in the U23 and the first team for quote a few seasons now, making his only first team appearance in the UEFA Europa League against FC Astana in the 2019/20 season. His contract at United ends in the summer of 2022, so this summer should see United offer him a new contract, beneficial for his progress at the club and whilst out on loan. This will be a big summer for his as he was selected in Wales’ Euro 2020 squad, with the competition delayed from last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Levitt started the 2020/21 season on loan at League One club Charlton Athletic but ended the season at Croatian club, NK Istra 1961. It was a mainly positive season for the Welsh midfielder with a lot more to come from him.

Levitt started the season with two appearances in the Premier League 2 with United, then finding himself on loan at Charlton, where he made a total of five appearances in League One, the Carabao Cup and the Emirates FA Cup. It was not good enough that he was seldom used so United recalled him from his loan spell and sought to loan him out to another club, which turned out to be NK Istra. He made a total of seven appearances in the 1.HNL and two appearances in the Hrvatski Nogometni Kup. Levitt has since confirmed that he made the move to Croatia to give him a better chance of being selected by Wales for the Euro’s this summer, which he though gave him a better chance than playing U23 football. The 2021/22 season could see him loaned out again, maybe to a Championship or a Premier League club, which will help him develop even more.

Hannibal Mejbri – Attacking Midfield

The 18-year-old is perhaps the most rated player in this article and the majority of United supporters will hold some interest in the player. When he signed from AS Monaco in the summer of 2019, he stated that he wanted to play for the United first team within two years, which he achieved on the final day of the Premier League season when United beat Wolves 2-1. Hannibal replaced Juan Mata in the 82nd minute of the match, doing well on his debut. His contract at United does not expire until the summer of 2026, so United have loads of time to get him up to the speed desired for him to become a first team regular at the club, he did renew his contract earlier this year. Hannibal made a total of 26 appearances for United this season, 25 of those at youth level. He did not end his season too highly at U23 level, finding himself send off to retaliating to a series of bad tackles.

During the course of the season, Hannibal had seen himself on the receiving end of many bad tackles by the opposition, many of which went unpunished with the player seething. In total, over the course of the season, Hannibal scored five goals and ten assists playing in the Premier League 2 and the Papa John’s Trophy. The coaches at the club will have seen a lot of ability from the youngster, who recently made his debut for Tunisia at international level, previously representing France at both U16 and U17 level. It seems clear that U23 football is a low level for Hannibal and it is too soon for him break into the first team consistently so a loan spell away from the club during the 2021/22 season would be the best option for him, as long as guarantees are made for the player regarding game time and the fact that he is still wanted at United and this is just for experience.

Shola Shoretire – Winger/Attacking Midfielder

The 17-year-old has seemingly found his feet at United and was rewarded towards the end of the 2020/21 season with some first team appearances after his good form at U23 level during the course of the season. He signed his first professional contract at United back in February. He will probably be offered a new contract soon after his 18th birthday. The player has been at the Old Trafford club since he was nine, so will be seeking to get as far as he can at the club, coming so far already. It is expected that he will be considered a first team player ahead of the 2021/22 season with with Euro 2020 playing out this summer, after being postponed last summer, the pre-season campaign will probably consist of many youth players and fringe players being part of the squad with a bit to regaining fitness ahead of the 2021/22 season.

During the course of the season, Shoretire made a total of 27 appearances, two of which came in the Premier League and one in the UEFA Europa League – the rest were made at youth level, playing in the Premier League 2, the Papa John’s Trophy and the FA Youth Cup. He scored 10 goals and five assists throughout the season, which is a great achievement for the player, which is one of the reasons why he was assed to the first team towards the end of the season at a time where Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani were injured and Marcus Rashford was carrying an injury, resulting in Solskjaer strengthening his attacking line. Shoretire could well be involved in an around the first team during the 2021/22 season or he could be loaned out in search of first team experience, which would also be good for him in the long run.

Anthony Elanga – Winger/Centre Forward

The 19-year-old is perhaps the player that has made the biggest impact recently for United. He signed a new long-term contract at United back in March, at the same time as Hannibal, although the length of the contract is not yet publicised. He was added to the first team for the UEFA Europa League pursuit this season with Martial out of action and Cavani struggling at times with injury, which will have been an achievement for him. He was recently called up for Sweden’s U21 squad, playing two matches and scoring in each of them over the past week or so, which will give him immense pride and give him the burning fires of passion to achieve at United. He made his Premier League debut this season too, starting against Leicester City and Wolves, scoring against the latter.

During the course of the 2020/21 season, Elanga made a total of 22 appearances, scoring 12 goals and four assists. Two appearances and one of the goals were for the first team and despite not actually playing in the Europa League this season, he gave United and Solskjaer further options in attack. It is early days for the player this summer but the general consensus is that he will compliment the attacking ranks at the club next season, unless purchases this summer will limit that. He won’t be happy playing U23 football, so if his first team appearances will be limited, a spell away from the club on loan might be an option. He can play on both wings and as a centre forward, so he has a lot more to offer, especially in the fact that United have Cavani, Martial Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood as strikers, with two of those often playing wide positions.

Written by John Walker

Rise to Fame: Ethan Laird a future right-back at Manchester United?

Ethan Laird was born in Basingstoke but was raised in Manchester and joined Manchester United at the age of 10. Since making his debut at U18 level during the 2017/18 season, Laird has made 54 appearances at academy level, scoring four goals and assisting a further 16. Earlier this season, in the UEFA Europa League against Astana in Kazakhstan, which is something that will leave him thirsty for more in the future.

During his time in the academy, Laird has built a reputation for himself which shows him as a very tough tackler, he can attack from either side, playing at fullback and is known to be very quick when running short distances, which is something United will be looking to add to the first team, especially as a rotation option for Aaron Wan-Bissaka – leaving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a decision to make in that area.

During the 2019/20 season, Laird found himself in the U23 squad and has played 13 times at that level, scoring one goal, which was United’s first in the Leasing.com EFL Trophy against Rotherham United back in August 2019, also adding three assists to his tally. Laird was included in the Europa League squad this season and travelled to Belgrade for United’s match against Partizan, however, he did not make the final cut.

On the 25 February 2020, it was announced by the official Manchester United website that Laird had signed a new contract at the club, keeping at the Theatre of Dreams until June 2023, with an option to add a further year to that contract. Between now and that, Laird will be seeking to impress coached Neil Wood and aim to keep his development on track, then comes the hard part, breaking into Solskjaer’s team.

Laird has been impressive throughout his journey and could be a great option for United’s right-back in the years to come. At 18 though, he has a long way to go to become first team standard. He will be given chances along the way to show the level he needs to get to in order to be a mainstay in the first team and there is nothing that should stop him from aiming to reach that level. Wan-Bissaka is the player to beat though.

The 18-year-old has plenty of pace, which is something that will benefit him throughout his career and it is something that United seem to be utilising at this moment in time with no out and out wingers in the team, leaving some attacking plays to be made from the fullback positions. Perfecting this ability during the remainder of the season, when it plays out, and beyond, should be his aim.

Since Solskjaer took over the reins at United, after the sacking of Jose Mourinho, it was clear the Norwegian had been doing his homework. He clearly had an idea of the players that the club had, including those that were in the academy at the time. Solskjaer mentioned Laird in some old comments, which showed that he had seen just what he is capable of. The United manager said:

“We have quite a few talents in that youth team that you’d like to see and you probably will see at some point before next season. 

“Because that’s what it’s about now, for me to put the club and put the team in a good position when at the end of the season, how do we look like, what will we look like next season.

“Mason [Greenwood], Jimmy Garner, Ethan [Laird], there’s quite a few in that reserve team that are doing well, it’s just about the right time. 

“What Manchester United are going to look like next season with or without me, it doesn’t really matter because I’m here now as part of that to prepare the team for next season. That of course means doing well now.”

Laird was asked about Solskjaer’s comments in an interview with with official Manchester United website, to which he stated:

“It was very nice of him and a privilege, to be honest, that he knows my name. I’ve just got to prove to him I’m good enough to be in his team.

“I’ve seen it with Mason [Greenwood], James [Garner], Angel [Gomes] and Tahith [Chong], some of the starlets of the group, getting their chance and it’s promising. Very promising.”

During the 2019/20 season, Laird finished the season with 15 appearances, scoring one goal and three assists – two of the appearances were in the UEFA Europa League. He was not ready to challenge Wan-Bissaka this season and was loaned out to MK Dons in January after having played four times for United at the start of the season – getting one assist to his name. So far at the League One club, the 19-year-old has made a total of 21 appearances, with three assists to his name – so far making it 25 appearances and four assists across the season for both clubs.

Laird could be a regular first team player in a year or two, perhaps before if he does something to put himself into serious contention, perhaps not as the regular right-back, but as a rotation option. Diogo Dalot could perhaps be ahead of him in the pecking order but he himself has been loaned out to AC Milan for the season and his future is up in the air at this time. Also, Solskjaer had used his further forward at times, which could leave Wan-Bissaka’s understudy role free for Laird to make his own, maybe?

The future seems good for Laird, whether at United or not. Perhaps he could benefit by moving up to the Championship on loan next season, then maybe playing for a lower Premier League team, unless the coaches feel he could make the step up, which might not be the case. Laird has found some consistency, playing in all League One matches since he signed for the Dons and also playing in the Emirates FA Cup, which was a 5-4 penalty defeat to Premier League club Burnley. I am sure Solskjaer is watching him and keeping his fingers crossed that he keeps developing and first team football will help him achieve just that.

Written by John Walker

Manchester United U23 to play seven behind closed doors pre-season friendlies

Manchester United have announced that Neil Wood’s U23 side will play seven behind closed door pre-season friendlies ahead of the new Premier League 2 season which will see United promoted to Division 1 of the league – spending the last two seasons in Division 2 and find out that on a points per game ratio, promotion happened despite the 2019/20 being suspended then cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. United will be looking to get back into full fitness ahead of the new season.

The club has announced that because of the recent lockdown measures in Greater Manchester, no spectators will be allowed into the training ground, presumable where all the matches will be played. It was also stated that the clubs television channel, MUTV will broadcast highlights of some of the matches at a later date. The U23s will be tested in their pre-season matches, playing a mixture of senior teams and U23 teams, which will be good for their fitness and progress at this level.

United will start on Wednesday against Salford City then face Swindon Town on the 18 August, followed by Morecambe on the 22 August. Neil Wood’s side then face Stoke City U23s on the 25 August, followed by Macclesfield Town on the 28 August. On the 1 September, Doncaster Rovers will be the opposition finishing up with Everton U23s on the 5 September. It is set to be a good pre-season runs of matches for the players, who will be seeking to start the 2020/21 season brightly.

It will be good to see this group of young and talented players get stuck into the game again. Whilst it is expected that some of Wood’s players will head out on loan this summer, there will be many players stepping up from the U18 squad from last season, continuing that conveyor belt of talent at the club, testing them each and every season. Hannibal Mejbri, Charlie Wellens, and Mark Helm are likely to be tested this season. Speaking to the official Manchester United website, Wood said:

“It’s going to be a hard pre-season. Last year, we had the experience of the EFL Trophy and it looks likely that we could be part of that again.

“I wanted the lads to experience some first-team friendlies this year before we even made that tournament because they are challenging in themselves. We’ve got games lined up against the likes of Salford, Doncaster, Macclesfield and Swindon.

“So there are going to be some tough games, considering we’re of such a young age. It’s going to be hard for them but there is some talent there and that can really start to shine through.

“We played Swindon last year and we know how they want to play football. We know they’re not going to turn up and try to boot us off the pitch and injure some of the younger lads, especially as we have a very young squad.

“We want to have that first-team opposition but also would like to have opposition who try to play football and not try to outpower us or be a battle because we’re not going to win them at this stage.”

It would seem that the academy levels of the club are in good hands, giving players the development they need before sorting out their future, whether they are good enough to go straight into the first team, like Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, or whether they need a loan spell away from the club so they can find their feet in a first team environment. Nicky Butt, the head of first team development understands what is needed and will be keeping’s eye out for players who are ready for the next level.

Written by John Walker

Manchester United swooping in on Manchester City academy star Charlie McNeill

Manchester United are reportedly confident in signing Manchester City academy star Charlie McNeill this summer. The 16-year-old is reported to have scored 600 goals during his career so far, left United in 2014, a club he supports and one that he played for at junior levels. It is stated by the Daily Mail that City would like to sell the player for a seven figure sum also including a number of additional performance-related clauses. He could well be a talent, if given the opportunity to shine.

Both clubs have hit a stalemate in negotiations though. The player will turn 17 on the 9 September 2020 and if he crosses that date and rejects a professional contract at City, United would be able to sign him with compensation being paid instead of a transfer fee, so perhaps that is why there is a stalemate at this present time. It was reported earlier this summer that McNeill had agreed to a move to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, reported by City Xtra on the Sports Illustrated website.

It is stated that the 16-year-old would like to leave the club as he was not getting many opportunities at U18 level, making nine appearances and scoring one goal and one assist for the club this season, before the coronavirus pandemic suspended then cancelled youth football. The player has already stated that he intends to leave City this summer, saying his goodbyes on social media, thanking the club for his past six years there. United seem to be making a big rebuild at U18 level this summer. On Instagram, McNeill said:

“A massive thank you to Manchester City for everything over the past six years.

“It’s been such a pleasure to play with some amazing players and I’ve made some amazing friends too.

“Thanks to all the staff and players for helping me develop as a player and also as a person. I wish everyone the very best.”

United have already confirmed three new signings in the clubs academy this season with Joe Hugill, Logan Pye and Radek Vitek announced as part of the U18 squad for the upcoming 2020/21 season. In addition to these three, Neil Ryan’s side look set to complete the signing of three other players who will be subject to international clearance. This will be the main delay with all three arriving at the club and being allowed to play. Last summer, United signed Hannibal Mejbri and he was cleared to play in mid-September.

Barcelona fullback Marc Jurado, 16 is likely to be the first of three other players to sign for United this summer. It was reported by The Sun that Jurado was ‘blown away’ by United’s project and will be happy to continue his development at the club, leaving La Masia. It would seem that United are intent on signing the best youth prospects in Europe this summer, therefore creating something for the future. Alvaro Fernandez Carreras, 17, will be leaving Real Madrid for United, according to The Sun. The player idolised Marcelo, so could well become a player for the future at the Old Trafford club.

Isak Hansen-Aaroen, 15, is the third player and The Sun reported that United completed the signing of the player last year, when he was 14. He will be leaving Tromso and became their youngest ever player at 15 years and 319 days when he made his debut earlier this month. It will be an exciting period for the player and for the future of United’s academy. It looks like United mean business at this level and if they can confirm all three of these players and add McNeill to the squad, there will definitely be some talent on show from the start of the new season.

Written by John Walker

U18s endure mixed start to the 2019/20 season, which can only get better…

Manchester United’s U19s started their season with players moving up into the U23s and others spending their first full season in this age group. There will be changes every year at this level with those who are nearing the age of 18 looking to take their chances in the U23s and continue their development, either at United or elsewhere.

U18 coach, Neil Ryan replaced Kieran McKenna at this level in the summer of 2018 after the latter became a coach under Jose Mourinho in the first team. Ryan’s first season in charge of the U18s saw his Sid finish fourth in the U18 Premier League – eight points adrift of eventual winners, Derby County.

The season started on Saturday 10 August 2019 with United beating Sunderland 3-0 at the Aon Training Complex in Carrington. In that match, Charlie McCann scored from the penalty spot, Anthony Elanga doubles United’s lead with Charlie Wellens scoring the third goal in the victory. United were seeking to continue that run.

The second match of the season was played a week later on Saturday 17 August away to Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was United’s first defeat of the season at this level, losing 2-0. In the third match of the season, United were once again at home with Blackburn Rovers heading to the Aon Training Complex.

United won this match 3-1 with Anthony Elanga scoring a brace and Dillon Hoogewerf scoring his first goal for his new club. A late consolation from Blackburn meant United were not able to keep a clean sheet in the match. Liverpool away was up next for United, which like every previous season would be a fierce match because of the rivalry.

United lost 4-3 against Liverpool in a match which saw United equalise minutes after Liverpool scored with Ayodeji Sotona levelling the first time, and Wellens scoring the second and third equalising goal. The match was lost in the final minute with an own goal, which was a shame for United. United will face Derby County away on Saturday (14/9).

With four matches played and six points on the board, United will be seeking to a return to winning ways against the U18 Premier League champions on Saturday, which might show that this age group already have the mentality to succeed at this level. It will be a tough match and probably a tough season with United aiming to do better than last.

The top scorer of the 2019/20 season so far is jointly held between Elanga and Wellens with both players scoring three goals each. Then with one goal each, Hoogewerf, McCann, and Sotona sit with their efforts. Ryan will be happy with the goals which have been scored, however, he will be seeking for more as United take on better opposition.

In terms of assists, both Elanga and Mark Helm have two each with Reece Devine, who was sent off against Liverpool, also having one. Ryan will need to look at the depth of his squad in order to overcome Derby this weekend with Devine missing from the squad due to suspension. United will be up for the fixture though, against the reigning champions.

Nine players in the squad have played in all of the four matches played so far this season, with just five of those playing each minute across the four matches. Ondrej Mastny, Ben Hockenhull, Reece Devine, Charlie McCann, and Mark Helm have played each minute of the four matches with Lukasz Bejger, Charlie Wellens, Connor Stanley, and Dillon Hoogewerf playing in each of the four matches played.

I am sure that Anthony Elanga, who has already featured twice for the U23s this season and Teden Mengi, who has also played twice at that level, will have Neil Wood, Quinton Fortune and Nicky Butt watching them if they continue to play U18 football this season. With Elanga scoring three times already this season, he’s clearly a player with the talent and ability to find a goal, or three.

It will be good to see these players grow with the team this season, one player in particular with pressure already being applied to his development will be Harvey Neville, the son of Phil Neville and nephew of Gary Neville. Personally, I am looking forward to seeing more of Hoogewerf, Elanga, and after their performances so far this season, Wellens and Helm. This will be an exciting season for the U18s.

What happens at Carrington; Manchester United’s training ground…

Manchester United’s first-team has just four competitive games this August, with participation in the UEFA Europa League and Carabao Cup set to begin next month. With that in mind, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken the unusual step of arranging behind-closed-doors friendly matches, in order to give playing time to those who will not be heavily involved until the club begins its journey in other competitions.

One of these games, of course, took place a day after the final match of Tour 2019 against AC Milan in Cardiff, with a much-changed United XI playing the Blackburn Rovers’ under-23 team. At present, United’s first-team squad consists of around 30 players which is perhaps a few too many. This was the case a year ago as well. Solskjaer would struggle to keep every single player match fit with just one game a week over the next few weeks.

Competition in the Premier League is fierce enough that United can ill-afford rotating players for the sake of it. It’s become common practice at most Premier League clubs to start fringe players in the other competitions and then draft them into starting teams for league matches based on their performances in these games. 

These friendlies that United have scheduled offers players outside Solskjaer’s preferred XI to build and maintain match fitness while also attempting to impress the management team. Over the last seven weeks or so, United supporters have seen how much the Norwegian values the fitness of his players. These games will allow him to keep most if not all of the players in the squad at near full match fitness.

Sergio Romero and Lee Grant are unlikely to play this month so the friendly matches will offer the veteran ‘keepers a chance to gain some match practice for when they are needed. The same could be said for Diogo Dalot, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones as well as Ashley Young and Axel Tuanzebe, who were in the squad for United’s Premier League opener but did not take the field.

Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian have been linked with moves away from the club and they would no doubt like to remain match fit up until the close of the European transfer window on September 2. Fred, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong missed out completely against Chelsea and will be given opportunities to force their way into Solskjaer’s plans. Chong and Gomes, in particular, will be eager to impress, having been left out of the reserve team’s matches in Premier League 2.

Alexis Sánchez meanwhile, begun pre-season much later than his teammates and as Solskjaer recently stated, he remains a few weeks behind them. The Chilean has struggled with injury in his time at United and this has undoubtedly affected his form. He’ll be hoping that getting back to full fitness will, in turn, get him back to his best and he certainly won’t be alone in this regard.

The game against the Blackburn team also included players who came off the bench against Milan the day before, and this trend could perhaps continue in the forthcoming matches. Players who come on as substitutes in the first-team matches may start the friendly games and play an hour or so. Their total minutes played for the week would then end up closer to 90, which is no doubt the preference of the manager and the players themselves.

These players will also use this opportunity to impress Solskjaer and force their way into his next starting XI. All in all, these games effectively serve as supplementary matches to the official fixtures. The major drawback, of course, is that they will be played against lower quality opposition, likely to be reserve and youth teams from nearby clubs.

This, however, raises the possibility of Solskjaer including players from United’s reserve and youth teams, although this would also be up to the head of first-team development, Nicky Butt, as well as reserve team manager Neil Wood. Having these players play with members of the first-team will enable them to begin integrating into the side while also allowing the coaches to compare the youngsters with the more seasoned professionals.

This also applies to the opposition teams, where players who impress in these games might catch the eye of United’s coaches and/or scouts. At a glance, this highlights signs of change from previous regimes at United. Solskjaer is taking a different approach to the last few United managers, in nearly every aspect of the job.

Judging by the players he has preferred and those he has signed, it’s quite clear that he favours hard-working individuals whom he can also develop as players. He will no doubt be looking to trim United’s squad over the next few years so he needs to filter out those who don’t fit this profile.  These matches give him the opportunity to begin doing this immediately.

Written by Shiven Nayager

copyright: JW