It was a sombre way to end what had been a positive first half of the season for the Manchester United U23s side. The Reds deserved their 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea, an imperiously good team at youth level who will once again challenge for honours.

Nevertheless, with a fortnight break in which to stew over the result, United will have to find lessons to learn from the heavy defeat.

Little time on the ball against a good press

Much like the United first team in the early stages of Thursday night’s game against Sheffield United, the under-23s wanted too much time on the ball against Chelsea.

Ethan Galbraith was caught out for Chelsea’s second goal, which came in only the third minute. At later stages in the game, Chelsea snatched the ball off of Teden Mengi, Will Fish and Hannibal Mejbri, all of which directly led to a chance on goal.

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 29: Ethan Galbraith of Manchester United U23s during the Pre Season Friendly fixture between Huddersfield Town and Manchester United U23 at The John Smiths Stadium on August 29, 2020 in Huddersfield, England.
(Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

United’s philosophy at the under-23s level is to play out from the back. That’s the right way to do things. But some nuance to that is required and in a situation where United trailed by two goals from the off, the Reds needed to use some common sense and change their style of play.

Galbraith had a difficult task as the only defensive midfielder in the side. Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri play in a more advanced position. In such a role against an energetic pressing side like Chelsea’s, he couldn’t risk the time on the ball that he did. It’s a valuable lesson. Sometimes releasing the ball earlier is necessary, something which Mejbri found too.

Maintain defensive shape: Manchester United U23s dragged around pitch like “headless chickens”

At times, it was men vs boys. Chelsea appeared a well-drilled and organised, tactically astute side with quality. United scarpered round the pitch like headless chickens. In the face of such quality, it was always going to be a gruesome scoreline in the end.

This United team is a young one. Take the defence, for example. Alvaro Fernandez is a 17-year-old left-back. Teden Mengi is 19 now and partnered by 18-year-old Will Fish.

 

Together, they normally appear assured and reliable. But they were dragged all across the pitch on Friday lunchtime. Chelsea’s play was like watching a flock of birds swaying across the sky. United’s response was to follow them, but a second behind; too late to make any difference. The Reds were out of breath and out of ideas.

LEIGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: Will Fish, Teden Mengi, Alvaro Fernandez of Manchester United U23s in action during the Premier League 2 match between Manchester United U23s and Southampton U23s at Leigh Sports Village on December 04, 2020 in Leigh, England.
It was a rare off day for Fish, Mengi and Fernandez (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It is again a valuable lesson. United’s defensive shape recovered for periods but was too often non-existent. Players charged in pairs at opponents they saw danger in. One skill or good touch from the Chelsea man and he was away. It was all too easy, and the result of going down to two early goals. United were desperate.

Neil Wood’s team did recover mentally and when they did had some good spells and created some nice attacking plays. So moving into the new year, it’s a matter of maintaining concentration and shape in the face of adversity and quality.

A strong mentality: credit to a young side

United crumbled in the second half. A 50th-minute penalty from the supremely talented Tino Anjorin made it four before the fifth and sixth came in the 68th and 72nd minutes. Chelsea were cruising, too. It wasn’t an all-out assault on United’s goals. Defensive mistakes, which individually have to be learned from too, were at fault.

However, some credit has to be paid to United. With 15 minutes remaining, further goals for Chelsea seemed inevitable. United pulled themselves together to a certain extent. Bookings for tackles or words borne out of a frustration came for Shoretire and Puigmal but United kept possession better and attacked.

ROCHDALE, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29: Joe Hugill of Manchester United U21s in action during the EFL Trophy match between Rochdale and Manchester United U21s at Spotland Stadium on September 29, 2020 in Rochdale, England. Manchester United U23s lessons learned Chelsea Premier League 2
Hugill scored United’s late consolation goal (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

One of those attacks led to Alvaro Fernandez, who had a nightmare of a game in defence, pulling a good cross back for Joe Hugill. Off the bench as a sub, Hugill converted it clinically. It was a nice team move and a good goal. A consolation, yes, but an important one. It stopped the flow of Chelsea goals and gave United something – something small albeit – to be proud of.

For a young team to regain their composure when trailing 6-0 is a positive. Were it the senior side, it would hardly be any consolation. But for a young under-23s side, it is worthy of note.

What now for Manchester United U23s going into 2021?

It’s a fortnight break for Manchester United U23s and a chance to rest, physically and mentally. Most of the players have had to be away from their families due to COVID-19 and, particularly for the foreign players, this will be a much-needed opportunity to see them again.

United’s next fixture at this level is on January 18th against Leicester City U23s. Results are not everything for under-23s, development is. So this will be forgotten in the not too distant future. For now, Neil Wood and his coaching staff will use it to teach their players as many lessons as they can. That will be for when they return in January, though, not for right now.

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