Manchester United Under-18s Season Review (2012/2013)
Disappointment tempered with optimism
Everton’s 2-2 draw at Crystal Place today meant United exited the Under-18s Elite League prior to the knockout stages. Following our recent draw at Fulham, the only surprise about it was that we were only edged out by goal difference in the end, a realistic appraisal that contrasts with the optimism generated earlier in the campaign.
It’s been a disappointing year for the Under-18s, particularly so given the apparent strength of our squad in this age-group this season. While it’s been a United side with a general lack of physicality (with some exceptions, such as the powerful Barmby and bull-like presence of Ioannou), the team’s skill levels are unquestionably high. Mats Daehil has come through as a player of real promise, but there should be honourable mentions for Perreira – converted from ball-winning to attacking midfielder to great effect – and Pearson, whose diminutive stature belies a tigerish approach to midfield tussles and who, after winning those tussles, can play the ball as well as anyone in the side.
Up front, we missed the presence of James Wilson over a period of months and, since returning to the side, he’s struggled to match the form he showed earlier in the season. Sam Byrne, however, has been consistently impressive in Wilson’s absence and perhaps joins Pearson as the most improved young Red this season.
It’s in defence that we always looked weakest, but that’s also been the most improved aspect of the side during the campaign. Despite that, there were certain defeats in the Elite League that (Ioannou apart) came about due to the lack of physical presence of the back four. Into that category you can certainly place the four goals conceded at home to Southampton, a much bigger side who had a clear game plan to exploit that very weakness in the United team.
And that wasn’t the only time we lost points cheaply: the Elite League’s bottom team Crystal Palace gained their only three points at Carrington and the out-muscling that took place in the 3-0 defeat at home to Everton recently emphasised the youngster’s inability to compete, at this stage of their development, with a physically demanding encounter. And when you consider we only failed to qualify for the semi-finals on goal difference, points lost in those games were the difference between United qualifying comfortably and being edged out of a competition that, purely on ability, we should have been able to win.
When placed next to the defeat at home to Burnley that put the young Reds out of the Youth Cup this season, it all adds up to a disappointing campaign. That’s not to say we should be too disappointed, however. After all, this year’s Elite competition replaced the Premier Academy League which had been running since 1997 and which United never won once. That hasn’t stopped United being more successful than anyone in the Reserve league, meaning that in recent years the youth league has served more as a stepping stone for player development than as a means to get United’s kids familiar with getting their hands on silverware. It’s a policy that’s served us well and, in Daehli, Pearson, Perreia, Wilson and Byrne, the youth system has certain nurtured enough exciting attacking talent to feed the Under-21s in the near future and it wouldn’t come as a great surprise to this writer if a couple of those names made it even further at the club.