The under-23 season is over after a difficult yet entertaining campaign for Manchester United’s youngsters.
The team finished eighth out of 13 teams, slipping from sixth after a final day defeat to Derby.
Nonetheless, this felt about right, for a talented yet flawed side, packed with individual talent but seriously lacking defensively.
It was always going to be tough…
United won promotion to the top flight of under-23 football after a successful campaign last season. The other team who went up, West Ham, finished 11th.
The challenge of going up a division was made tougher by the fact key players from the 2019/20 campaign were suddenly no longer available.
James Garner, Dylan Levitt and Matej Kovar were sent on loan, Largie Ramazani and Angel Gomes left the club, Ethan Laird missed the first half of the season with injury and was then loaned, while Teden Mengi trained on and off with the first team before going out on loan.
This left United without the core group who won promotion in the first place.
It provided an opportunity for young players to step up, and eventually they did, but not without a few tough results along the way.
Shola Shoretire, 16, was thrown into the under-23s, and for a couple of games, he looked like he may have been out of his depth. Then he began to start influencing matches.
Shoretire finished the season as the team’s second highest scorer with 10 goals, and provided six assists, earning a first team debut. He was unplayable at times.
Goals, goals, goals
United actually finished the campaign as the second highest goalscorers in the division with 58 in 24 matches. Striker Joe Hugill proved to be a real find.
The big problem was at the back. With 59 goals conceded, United somehow ended up with a negative goal difference, and the second worst defensive record in the position, save for bottom club Southampton.
With a defensive record like that, United did well to survive, and that was really the objective this season.
Considering the young squad, which was essentially an under-18s side at times, and the step up in quality, it would not have been a surprise to see this United team go straight back down. Instead they rose to the challenge.
There were some big defeats, with Liverpool beating United 5-3 and Chelsea winning 6-1 in the first half of the season. By the second half of the campaign, improvement was evident, with United beating Liverpool 6-4 and Chelsea 4-2. Admittedly, in those games United had a little help from Amad.
What lies ahead?
There will be a number of young players stepping up from the successful under-18s side, which are guaranteed to finish in the top two in their division.
Charlie McNeill, Dillon Hoogwerf, Marc Jurado, Omari Forson, Isak Hansen-Aaroen, Noam Emeran, Bjorn Hardley, and Charlie Savage all stepped up to make their under-23 debuts in the second half of the season. Joe Hugill and Alvaro Fernandez have already established themselves as regulars.
There may be some incomings to bolster the squad, with United only able to recruit youth players from abroad who are over 18 now, due to Brexit.
Ethan Galbraith is likely to head out on loan next season, along with one or two others.
Anthony Elanga, top scorer, could be either promoted to the first team or sent out on loan. He will be a big miss, but there is talent waiting in the wings to take over, just as he did this season after stepping up from the 18s.
The big priority for this talented United group is to fix the defence. That aspect this season simply has not been good enough. There will always be plenty of goals at under-23 level, but conceding the second most in the division is a bad trait.
If the coaching and recruitment staff can work some magic to help this United under-23 side become more resilient, then next season they should be targeting a top four finish and even a title push. Attack-wise, the talent is there.
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