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The Academy: United 3 – 3 Bolton Wanderers

United’s under 18s fell behind three times but each time pegged their opponents back to earn a point and a few lessons against Bolton’s under 18’s at Carrington this morning.

In steadily worsening conditions throughout the 90 minutes, United failed to get into their stride and dominate possession like they had been doing in the closing weeks of 2011. Similar goals from Rudge and Hendrie sandwiched a typically United goal for Sam Byrne, but the story of the game lies in the errors that continue to plague this seemingly immature, ignorant defence who appear unwilling to learn from their own mistakes.

The Reoccurring Errors:

The team has many weaknesses this year; but it was gradually improving week-on-week which was great to see, that ground to a halt today. It wasn’t altogether unexpected after a 4 week absence and a long trip to Brazil over Christmas, but in my opinion the manner of the performance was unacceptable simply because they’re reoccurring errors and the defending was suicidal at times, often leaving one v two at the back.

In stark contrast to the team, there are individuals with relatively few weaknesses amongst the squad who could easily blossom into professionals with the correct attitude and application. Yes the kids are exactly that (kids), and results are not vitally important at this stage but, as I highlighted in the match preview, there were certain aspects of this teams performance that required attention, one of which was to be prepared right from the first whistle. To me (and everyone reading this no doubt) this is a staple requirement for any team from the age of 14 upwards, it would be a requirement much earlier too, only it’s a lot more difficult to achieve that sort of awareness any younger. At 16/17/18 and with the benefit of the last few home games as hindsight; these boys should’ve learned the lesson and displayed the fact.

Yes these kids are inexperienced and that’s what they’re here to gain, but come on, when a mere onlooker can identify a weakness that, to be honest, I even doubted myself would end up being an issue despite writing it, surely these kids had learnt, surely the players themselves would be aware of the danger even if they hadn’t had it pointed out to them (which I’m 99.9% sure they will have had) by their coaches.

The coaching staff, Paul McGuiness especially, must be wondering what they’re working with because I can guarantee they’ve spoke about it, in fact, it looked like he was giving the lads a bit of a bollocking at half-time while they huddled up in the dugout, and rightly so. It was the most animated I’d ever seen him while he stood in front of 11 lads gesticulating for a whole 10 minutes.

Another Slow Start:

Pre-match I’d spoke about the need to start fast. Bolton kicked off and popped the ball about for a few seconds before they found themselves in the box where Jack Rudge naively stuck a leg out. Penalty! 1-0 down with less than a minute on the watch. McCullough, Barmby and Januzaj all had a chance to capture possession. McCullough, Blackett and Hendrie all had opportunities to clear. Daehli was weak in the tackle and Hendrie was woefully out of position and also weak in the tackle…..what can you expect? You’re bound to give away soft goals and penalties playing like that.

It’s not so much the fact these errors were made it’s the fact they haven’t learned from experience.

In fairness the response was fantastic. Bolton struggled to get out of their own half for 15 minutes while they tried to acclimatise themselves with the strengthening wind. Ironically it was the debonair Tyler Blackett who nonchalantly and somewhat luckily danced through midfield and hit a shot that deflected out for a corner that resulted in United’s first equaliser.

Januzaj floated a near post corner that the Bolton keeper failed to deal with and the ball fell kindly for Jack Rudge who drilled it through a crowd of bodies for 1-1.

United were now in control of the game but were the masters of their own downfall shortly after when a catologue of simple mistakes gifted Bolton the lead for a second time inside 20 minutes.

Januzaj failed to control a throw-in being out-muscled and tackled as he received it, the ball rolled into the path of a Bolton midfielder. The second he looked up you could see the obvious danger. Charni Ekangamene had got himself the wrong side of his marker, Tyler didn’t know whether to stick or twist and Bolton had men over. The ball was played neatly and precisely through for the runner who was now bearing down on goal. McCullough and Blackett failed to catch him and he slid the ball casually past Jacob for 1-2.

That incident and one in the second half would epitomise what was wrong with the performance today.

There’s no doubt that the second goal was a bi-product of allowing the wrong personnel to take the throw-in. Jack Rudge was the anchorman of a three-man midfield today but he took the throw. When Bolton’s midfielder picked the ball up he ran directly into the empty space vacated by Rudge, that meant Blackett had a decision to make, unfortunately Tyler made no decision, he got stuck in two minds a neither attacked the ball or covered the runner. Had Hendrie taken the throw-in; Jack Rudge would’ve been in place to deal with the first midfielder, and even if he hadn’t, McCullough and Blackett could then have dealt with Charni wandering aimlessly beyond his marker. But the combination of all these simple mistakes was a recipe for conceding.

Shortly before half-time United dragged themselves back on level terms with a typically United goal with right back Hendrie delivering a tempting cross into the box between keeper and defence for the lively Sam Byrne to nod home from six yards.

United deserved that equaliser after some impressive play from quick-footed, tricky Norwegian Mats Daehli had almost put Barmby in with a fantastic reverse pass and had watched on as he had a long range effort of his own come off the bar.

Second Half:

After an action-packed, error filled first half it was a surprise the second was less eventful.

Decisions by Paul McGuiness turned the game in United’s favour in the second half despite them going a goal behind for a third time when a freekick from all of 40+ yards (and almost by the sideline) was tamely converted after Jacob misjudged the flight of the ball and come way too far out to collect it. He left himself no choice but to attempt to parry the ball over the bar but the ball dipped into the gap and below the crossbar and in for a freaky third goal.

Ekangamene had conceded that freekick. Bolton’s impressive number 7, Caton, was stripping Charni for pace down our left hand side and Charni was now being undone and in trouble on a yellow card. That instigated a great tactical decision from McGuiness.

Rudge was removed, he hadn’t had a bad game but the plan was to introduce Donald Love at rightback to allow Hendrie to move into midfield. That meant Rudge was the obvious choice to be replaced. McGuiness also critically swapped Tyler and Charni at the same time. Tyler’s pace at leftback was enough to deal with Caton for the remainder of the match and he barely figured thereafter.

Within minutes of the changes Love had raced to intercept a weak Bolton pass and he charged towards the byline. When he got there he cut the ball back for a frustrated Jack Barmby who floated an effort just over the bar from the edge of the box.

Jack wasn’t the only one frustrated out there today. A lack of movement (possibly explained by a slight lack of match fitness after the break) all over the pitch meant United could never quite get their intricate pass & move game going to the obvious annoyance of many of the players.

Januzaj had an off day today despite in patches showing his elegant skill when running with the ball, often getting caught in possession or running straight into trouble. That criticism is usually reserved for Gyliano van Velzen. He was also guilty of holding onto the ball for too long after mazy runs had seen him turn his markers inside-out. van Velzen has plenty of potential but he needs to get his head up and learn when to release the ball. There were many occasions today when Daehli, Barmby and Byrne had all beaten the offside trap with a simple pass through the channel. If he’d played the pass successfully he’d be the man winning all the plaudits, instead time’s running out for van Velzen for me. After more than a year of regular football at this level his performances are showing only minor improvements.

The third and final equaliser came when a sustained period of United pressure gave Donald Love an opportunity to ping a decent cross between keeper and defence. The keeper had no right to handle the cross successfully due to the whip and the pace applied to it. When the ball spilled out, Luke Hendrie was on hand to tuck the ball away from just a few yards out.

The lads tried in vain to find a winner but failed to muster any real chances and the match ended three all, probably a better result for United than Bolton in all honesty, Bolton were by far the more organised of the two teams but on the day the more talented team avoided defeat….somehow!

Luke McCullough

The most ironic part of today was the performance of Luke McCullough after me highlighting him as the one-to-watch. His positioning today was unusually poor and it led to a display that made him look less of the player I believe he is. Don’t let that fool you though, it just suggests that actually….he has weaknesses; and they appear (on today’s showing) to be his ability to recover. It’s not usually a feature of his game that gets tested, but finding himself so out of position so often today, it became evident….So every cloud has a silver lining etc…..something to work on and observe in the future.

I spoke about two incidents that epitomised the problem with United’s team performance today. The first was the second goal, the second was an incident midway through the second half when an opportunity arose to counter attack. Barmby played a glorious ball, weighted to perfection that fed Sam Byrne down the right wing. Sam looked up……..what’s wrong here? There’s no one in the box. Barmby the provider should’ve been Barmby the receiver with Byrne racing into the box for Barmby’s option. Instead Byrne had to hold the ball up, turn and ultimately the chance came to nothing. Totally disjointed.

One disjointed performance isn’t the end of the world, the boys travel to Stoke next Saturday to face a team they really struggle to take points from. What better challenge and opportunity to show they’ve learned a few lessons from today. I hope that’s the last we’ve seen of Luke Hendrie at rightback though, he’s had his time there. It’s time to either trust him in midfield or find somewhere else to try him…..he isn’t a rightback.

Thanks for listening to what nearly turned into a rant!


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