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The Academy: MUFC (1 v 1) Middlesboro

United’s U18’s took on Middlesboro at Carrington today in a later than usual midday kickoff. After an impressive start to the season United’s young guns took on what proved to be a very determined, well organised Middlesboro team who showed they were capable of matching United stride-for-stride. The game got off to a flying start with a goal inside the opening 30 seconds and United had a battle on their hands to get in to the game and even stay in it with Boro having the better of the second half.

It’s becoming a standard comment now to mention the size difference between the two teams when they line up to kickoff each week. United’s 2011/12 Academy squad is short of height and a physical presence except for the powerful but agile Luke McCullough and fellow defenders Blackett, Dalley and Hendrie. None of the latter three are real powerhouses but they add height to a team that’s main intention is to get the ball down and play thoughtful, patient, possession football.

The season’s barely underway really, but there’s already an obvious understanding developing between a few of the players and one or two are also starting to shine and feel at home in their positions. Nowhere is that more evident than with winger Jack Barmby. Okay so he’s sometimes slightly too direct, often over cooks the stepovers and heads down blind alleys, but there’s a certain confidence about him and when it all clicks into place United will have a real talent on their hands. Jack never really got into today’s game but he showed glimpses of what he can do. If he allows himself to remain calm under pressure and not get too wound up with himself when he makes a mistake, we’ll start to see more of his ability. I’d like to see him played in a more central striker role but I think until van Velzen begins to dominate games on the opposite wing (which I can’t ever see happening), he’ll operate on the left wing for the forseeable future. He’s also linking up well and developing an impressive and productive understanding with Tyler Blackett who’s starting to improve his decision making, positioning and definitely his deliveries. Tyler is probably making too few overlaps now instead of too many like he was sometimes guilty of in the past.

When the teamsheets were handed out, the team was unchanged from last week but news soon spread that Tom Lawrence failed an early morning fitness test on his knee and wasn’t in the squad. The absence of Lawrence certainly affected the performance. Being one of the senior players and having the experience of last season to call upon, Tom has really stepped up so far this season. He’s scored in every game he’s played in except last week at Sheffield United but even there he created the goals that won the game.

Mats Daehli was drafted off the bench and into the starting eleven to replace Lawrence. That meant instead of playing his usual 4-5-1 type formation McGuiness opted for a straight out 4-3-3 with Daehli in the middle of midfield. The effect was obvious from fairly early on.

After United won the toss and gave Boro the kickoff they didn’t quite seem to realise there was a game on. Boro immediately bombarded forward en masse and caught United napping. The ball was fed out to the left and then beautifully swung away from the keeper to the back post where the massive frame of Boro’s centre forward arched himself and nodded the ball back across goal leaving Jordan Jones a simple finish from 3 yards out. United were a goal down inside 30 seconds and to be honest, they were startled and left shaking their heads.

The game ebbed and flowed for the majority of the first half with both teams looking to get the ball down a play. The conditions were in no way conducive to free-flowing football but for the most part the lads stuck to their guns.

United’s best chance of the half came when Tyler Blackett overlapped Jack Barmby who neatly threaded him through. Tyler squared an excellent cross back for van Velzen who unforgivably blasted over from 8 yards out with his favoured left foot.

It wasn’t going to be GVV’s day, he was also guilty of missing a fairly simple chance early in the second half after another Blackett cross was clipped into his path only for him to softly side foot it at the keeper. Admittedly, it was a much harder opportunity than the first but he still would’ve expected to do better andthe look on his face affirmed that!

Declan Dalley went close with a header from a corner during a period where United pinned Boro back in their own defensive third for about 15 minutes, but apart from that they couldn’t create any clear cut chances or find a defence splitting through ball to get Byrne in behind.

Give credit to Boro though, despite having the early lead and being under the kosh they played attractive football and constantly threatened on the counter attack. Jordan Jones, scorer of the opening goal was lively and showed quick feet and a turn of pace when challenged in central midfield.

Ben Pearson replaced Jack Barmby early in the second half and I finally got to see the highly rated youngster play. Ben’s small and agile and with his hairdo and frame, reminds me a bit of Shaggy out of Scooby-Doo! From a footballing perspective though, his intelligence was immediately evident. His first touch was sure and his awareness in and out of possession was excellent. He looks to me (and it’s no surprise given the size of him) to be lacking in a bit of kicking power. Either that or he chooses the option to play soft floated balls around instead of occassionally drilling a low pass to a team mate as we see Joe Rothwell execute so well.

Boro definitely had the lion’s share of the chances in the second half but United dominated the early exchanges and got themselves level on 53 minutes after some good work from Blackett again down the left. His cross was met by the hapless GVV who’s header from 3 yards rebounded off the foot of the post only to be cheaply gifted back to Rothwell on the edge of the box. Rothwell made no mistake and struck in a sweet drive to draw the teams level.

Daehli went close shortly after with a well drilled shot that had the keeper scrambling to his right and Sam Byrne had a half chance to add to the score.

It struck me today that while United look to work the ball into the box and keep possession, they either don’t see it, choose not to do it or are specifically told not to look for any direct play in behind the opposition defence. Many times during the second half Daehli could easily (because he has the ability to) have bent the ball through from the right and into the space for Byrne who made countless fruitless runs between the central defenders. I felt for Byrne today because he never really got into any danger areas when it mattered, but when he did make an intelligent run or get himself in position he wasn’t found. The absence of Lawrence exasperated this I think.

Liam Jacob made crucial saves late on to deny Boro the win, one of which from point blank range was a top class save and an excellent build up from Boro. They smelt blood and began to overload the final third in the closing stages while United were tiring and in need of the whistle, but all credit to United, they battled on and earned their point.

Liam Jacob will be proud of his performance today, without him I’d suggest the score could’ve been different and United would’ve been left with no points to show for a hard 90 minutes endeavour in tricky conditions.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be keeping an eye on the development of the teams communication. For me personally, I think communication is the most vital ingredient in a successful team, without it players are individuals. Okay, so not everyone’s a leader or a motivator, but that’s not necessarily what’s required. It’d be good if Luke McCullough could inspire the team to talk more but I think it comes from the manager. It’s his job to encourage each player to help their team mates by communicating. Today was simply too quiet for my liking and I’m sure it’s something that’ll be mentioned and highlighted for improvement.

Line-Up: Jacob / Hendrie, Blackett, McCullough, Dalley / Weir, Daehli, Rothwell / GVV, Barmby (54), Byrne

Subs: Pearson (54), Coll, Ekangamene, Gorre.

Next up it’s Blackburn Rovers away at 11:00am next Saturday. Updates available from about 10:00am for those who follow me on Twitter @Rimmerstweets or @Ian_Red_Rants.