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Why Manchester United’s reserves are marooned at the bottom of Premier League 2

Why Manchester United’s reserves are marooned at the bottom of Premier League 2

It’s odd to see United at the bottom of any league table, but reserve football has changed drastically.

THERE wasn’t only one 2-1 triumph for Manchester United over Liverpool this weekend.

On Friday night, before the first team beat their great rivals in a thrilling game at Old Trafford the following day, United’s under 23 team travelled to Anfield for a league fixture.

The under 23s, effectively United’s reserve side, are having their poorest season in years. They’ve not won a single home game all term and sit bottom of the Premier League 2, facing relegation. 

It’s odd to see Manchester United at the bottom of any league table, but they went into Friday’s match at Anfield as underdogs against a Liverpool team who would have gone joint top of the table had they won. 

From somewhere, United produced their best performance of the year to come from behind and win 2-1, with goals in the 79th and 82nd minute. United had more chances, more possession, more shots. They made more tackles in the swirling Anfield rain, more passes and deserved their goals from Joe Riley, who is likely to have a decent career in professional football and Callum Gribbin, a very talented Salford boy – but is he talented enough to make United’s first team? 

The jury is still out. Bar Tahith Chong, an 18-year-old dreadlocked Dutchman, none of the players on Friday are predicted to become stars at Old Trafford, but they do have time to progress.

They’ll also benefit from the patience which helped Jesse Lingard and can also look for inspiration to Scott McTominay, who few saw as a future first teamer, yet who played against Liverpool on Saturday like a man with 180 first team appearances to his name, not 18.

The sixty travelling United fans in an Anfield crowd of around 4,000 the night before finally had something to cheer while watching their club’s reserves. That eased their consternation that only 13 of the much in-demand team sheets had been handed out to them by Liverpool officials. These things matter to the followers of reserve team football.

There are several reasons why United’s reserves are marooned at the bottom. One is that the reserve league is not an accurate barometer of talent at a football club, since so many players are loaned out to get better experience playing first team football elsewhere. 

Andreas Pereira would have played for United’s reserves at some point this season. Instead, he’s better off with Valencia’s first team. 

Departures at short notice can affect the balance of a side. Liverpool were top of the reserve table until they lost their three games before the United match as three players were sent on loan.

The line from United about the reserves is that they’re relaxed about the situation since the team is used to blood younger than average players to give them a taste of football against better opponents and of playing in big stadiums. 

It only half washes. Nobody will claim it’s the best crop of players that the club has ever produced, the result of five years of under investment in the youth system combined with Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton investing heavily in youth and picking up better players. Everton even had a satellite centre in United’s Stretford heartland, while United thought their reputation would attract the best players. It only did that to a point. 

Often pushed by parents who’ve never had money, many youngsters follow the money, even at that level.

“There were never any life changing amounts of money on offer when I was a young player,” explains former United youth striker Danny Webber, who enjoyed a fruitful professional career, “but there are now.” Webber, who was at Anfield on Friday along with Roy Keane and numerous scouts, including United’s former assistant manager Mick Brown, had better offers to go elsewhere but wanted to try and make it at the team he supported, United. He did make the first team before moving on.

United now compete much more strongly with Chelsea and City, scouring the globe for the elite young players in the hope of obtaining them for hundreds of thousands rather than millions of pounds once they’re established first team players. They also offer a far clearer pathway to the first team than City; Jose Mourinho has put far more trust into homegrown players than Pep Guardiola.

United have also made numerous changes to the staff of the youth system in recent years and they’ve revamped the infrastructure at the Carrington training ground. Further expansions are anticipated.

The scouting system has been revised and the club now have 40 full time scouts, including five in Spain alone. Beneath them, local part-time scouts report from their region. It’s their job to know all the best players from Beswick to Belo Horizonte.

These changes have been feeding through and United have some excellent players from the age of 14 upwards. United’s under 18s are top of the northern arm of the Premier League under 18 league, yet the youth team were eliminated by Derby County in the prestigious FA Youth Cup at the third round stage. Manchester City went out to Plymouth Argyle at the same stage of a competition which United have won a record 10 times. Chelsea, with eight, are catching up though and have won the competition six times since 2010. 

The best players can jump through the age groups quickly as Marcus Rashford did, but that’s rare.  There’s still a vast gap between reserve and first team football.

“If you put an age limit on players then it makes it difficult to progress to the first team,” explains Webber, who watches a lot of youth and reserve football. “How can you play well against men when you’re only used to playing against 20-year olds? Reserve team football isn’t good preparation for the first team. It used to be and I can remember playing against five or six first team players when I was 18. I played at Anfield alongside fringe first-teamers and first-teamers coming back from injuries and we played against the same mix. Playing with and against top players helped immensely. The system is floored because if you’re not playing open age football at 21 or 22 then there’s a big problem.”

Webber points out other issues. 

“Clubs hang onto players for too long, those players are too well paid to leave on their own account.”  

United’s reserve boss Ricky Spragia returned to the club in 2017, taking over players he barely knew. It’s not been easy for him, but with United’s academy system still in transition, there’s more optimism about a brighter future than there was three years ago, especially if the reserves can get more results like the one at Anfield.





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Andy Mitten
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