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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

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