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The Academy: Bolton 1 v United 2

On the weekend of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25th Anniversary, United’s academy travelled to Bolton Wanderers and returned with a slender 2-1 victory.

In Sir Alex’s twenty five year career, he’s given a first team debut to an incredible 79 teenagers. It’s impossible to accurately predict which of the current crop of boys will go on to impress him enough to force their way into his thoughts, but there’s an abundance of talent and potential within the squad.

Goals from Ekangamene and Barmby were enough to see off the challenge from Bolton yesterday but the points were harder earned than they needed to be.

United were under pressure from the outset as Bolton pushed forward in search of an early advantage while United appeared content with building from defence. Declan Dalley returned from International duty and joined the ever impressive McCullough in the heart of defence, the return of Dalley allowed Blackett to switch to his preferred position of leftback. On the right, Donald Love was again selected to continue after his impressive full debut against Crewe last time out. It’s a back four that now looks balanced and knowledgeable, and I think a four who’ll rapidly establish itself as ‘the defence’.

It took 15 minutes before United could carve out of any kind of chance. Daehli played van Velzen in behind and smartly found some space in a crowded box to receive a well delayed return. Daehli did well to get the ball under control and fire his shot, unfortunately it was directly at the keeper who smothered it and had his defence to thank for clearing the danger.

That was the first sign of life from United’s attack, until then the massive gap between defence and midfield had helped to create added pressure on their occasionally over-playing but constantly determined and hard working defence. The boys struggled to get out of their own half for the first half without really giving away any real chances to Bolton but there was something missing in midfield. Barmby and Daehli were supposed to be the wide two in a 4-3-3 formation but too often found themselves attracted inside through no fault of their own. The midfield of Ekangamene, Rudge and Januzaj simply wasn’t working.

Charni has impressed recently but his role of screening the back four here just doesn’t appear to suit him, too often he was guilty of ball watching and allowing himself to be played around and ultimately chasing shadows.

As the half progressed United were able to get more and more into the game and shared possession with the opposition without impressing their usual intricate style of pass-and-move on the game. They eventually fashioned a half chance for Blackett on 40 minutes when defence, midfield and attack linked quickly down the left. Blackett played it to Januzaj who turned and played in Barmby which quickly found United in Bolton’s box, the initial attack came to nothing but after the ball came back out to Januzaj, he picked out the fantastic run into space from Blackett who in turn lost his marker with an outrageous piece of skill and rocketed a shot against the outside of the post from a tight angle.

Two minutes later a poor clearance from Bolton’s overly excitable leftback, not only gave away possession to United, but also the lead. Love and Januzaj played the ball into the centre of the park to Ekangamene, there was no danger, in fact Charni had very few options but what he did have was space in front of him. He advanced and opted to strike a shot low from about 35 yards which beat the keeper and found the bottom left hand corner, a super strike from a player who up until then had been fairly anonymous.

Liam Jacob, who in my opinion is the keeper who’ll make the position his own ahead of Joe Coll, was especially busy during the first half making several good saves. He also made one tremendous close range save in the second half. He does however look susceptible to crosses and corners (see Liverpool away!) often getting in a flap and yesterday was no exception, his shot stopping and handling ability however are really strong, his distribution on the floor is good too, definitely the number one academy keeper in my eyes.

He (Liam) also organises his defence well. This team is quiet, there isn’t a natural out-and-out leader amongst them yet. Yes McCullough as captain does encourage, but he’ll never be a constant communicator, Liam on the other hand is. It’s great to see a kid of his age with the intelligence he displays. He’s obviously recognised that United have been conceding from, and struggling to deal with counter-attacks. Each time Bolton regained possession he stresses the need for the defence to retreat, regroup and re-shape and you can see the defence reacting to it, a fantastic improvement and another sign of how this team is developing.

The second half was a much more entertaining half from United’s point of view. Paul McGuiness, who I’ve often questioned for not using his subs, made two changes at halftime. I’m not sure if they were tactical, planned or even forced upon him but they worked. Joe Rothwell and Sam Byrne replaced Jack Rudge and Mats Daehli. Jack had a quiet game but effectively broke things up in midfield whereas Mats had been more involved going forward in a decent half for him.

It was the introduction of Rothwell that turned this game from an even contest into a one-way street. Joe works tirelessly and gets around the pitch effortlessly. There’s very little to mention about the second half because until the final fifteen minutes United controlled possession and got back to their neat inter-play with Rothwell at the hub of all of it.

United’s second goal came on 52 minutes after a long throw by Blackett was wasted but the defender who collected it play an ill-fated square pass to his partner who showed too much of it to Jack Barmby who pinched it off him and touched it left towards the box. In an instant he drilled it left footed into the far right hand corner and United were in position to enjoy the remainder of the game.

Sadly, the goals didn’t flow despite United creating a few half chances. Even sadder still, Joe Rothwell suffered what looked to be a very painful injury. He controlled a simple high ball coming to him straight, and as he brought it down he screamed in agony and immediately hit the deck. The noise was enough to convince anyone the boy was in pain but the referee, wrongly for me, refused to stop play and waited until the next stoppage while Joe lay still just inside Bolton’s half. There was talk of knee ligaments but it looked like he was holding his hip/back, I sincerely hope it isn’t as serious as it seemed, it was one of those innocuous injuries that often, curiously cause the most damage.

The match had changed with the introduction of Joe and it also changed when he was substituted with Ben Pearson taking his place. United no longer looked anywhere near as dynamic or in control and suddenly, a game that was looking like an opportunity to ‘fill yer boots’ became a struggle to hold on for the points.

Before the game I tweeted that I thought the areas for improvement today were movement, quicker passing and most of all a win. It’s not often that’s the case but I just felt that, after despatching Crewe last week to end a run of four straight defeats, it was vital the boys came away with a victory against a team that’s struggling below them in the league to get the requisite reward their recent efforts deserve. Including the two friendly victories on tour in Slovakia, that’s four wins on the spin, bear in mind the Youth Cup begins in five weeks time and it provides the players with crucial momentum to take into the games.

In the final few minutes Bolton snatched a deserved consolation goal when they hit United on the break.

United have made definite strides improving their defence of counter attacks in recent weeks but were again undone after Januzaj lost the ball on the edge of the Bolton box. Bolton quickly surged forward through the middle before sweeping the ball wide out on the left to Caton who looked to be covered and second favourite to get to the ball behind McCullough. I think McCullough misread it and failed to beat Caton to the ball, Caton scuffed a cross into the box where Dalley, and then Blackett, both had chances to clear but they were also both beaten to the ball and a flick later the ball was lobbing Jacob and into the far corner. A nightmare goal to concede really and the boys and the gaffer will rightfully be gutted to have let it in.

The closing minutes were all about United trying to keep possession and see the game out while Bolton tried in vain to grab an undeserved and unlikely equaliser. It never came and we move on to the next game which is West Brom at Carrington on Saturday 19th November at 11:00am. No idea why, but the Stoke game fixtured for next Saturday has been re-arranged to Tuesday 29th November in a 13:30pm kickoff.

As always your input and comments are more than welcome about the game or the players in the Academy this season. I’m sure there’s plenty of people with as much to say and as much enthusiasm for this football as me so I’d love to hear it.

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