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The Academy: United 3 -3 Sunderland

If ever there was a stereotypical ‘game of two halves’, this was it! United took the initiative and started the better of the two teams, so much so that after 30 minutes United were literally ‘dipping their bread’ as-and-when they fancied scoring.

Within those 30 minutes United took a well deserved and impressive three goal lead, the passing and the movement was killing Sunderland who simply didn’t have an clue what was happening to them.

Frustrated and somewhat stunned by United’s superb start Sunderland began to test United’s physical strengths, this for me was the first of many turning points that eventually led to the game ending 3-3 with United the happier to hear the final whistle.

Yes we all know this level is more about development than it is about results but, as I’ve mentioned in the past, some fixtures are there to be won and on a few rare occasions a win is a vital ingredient to the development of the players, Saturday was one such occasion.

Before the match I wouldn’t (or didn’t) regard the fixture as a must win. A cleansheet should have been a target as should starting quickly in defence. No one could ask for more from the start, okay the cleansheet dissipated thanks to a clumsy coming together in the box by Ben Pearson when there seemed little danger on United’s goal, but having not won in the league since early in November, missing key players due to injury, resting one or two important Youth Cup members and a two goal advantage with 20 minutes to play, the opportunity was there to ask the boys to see the game through…..that’s also experience.

United tore Sunderland to shreds right from the off, they controlled possession, had willing runners and players moved in and out of areas drawing markers out of position with ease. Blackett, GvV and Daehli combined countless times to work space in behind Sunderland’s tormented rightback, Ben Pearson and Jack Rudge patrolled the central midfield areas and intelligently provided support and options to everyone around them both in attack and in defence. Barmby couldn’t get into the game but helped James Wilson and the rest apply massive pressure high up the pitch which led to United’s first of the match after 10 minutes when the Sunderland defence made a series of poor decisions before the keeper carelessly gave away possession. van Velzen pounced on the free ball before having his first shot parried, just as the chance looked to have gone he regained control of the ball, swivelled, and confidently slammed it in for 1-0.

Sunderland quite obviously hadn’t done their homework, if they had they would know United look to play out from the back with players drifting in and out of positions in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation that morphs into a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1 at the drop of a hat. They looked surprised at the pressure they were under on the edge of their box and continued to make error after error and gifted United possession.

At 1-0 and in full control of the game United’s only difficulty was finding a way past Sunderland’s high line and willingness to play offside, many great balls were played over the top and into acres of space only to be fruitless thanks to the linesman correctly flagging for offside.

United’s communication was fantastic for the first time in a long time yesterday, to a man the players were encouraging and helping each other which in turn helped the domination of the ball and the creation of chances.

The first flashpoint of the game and the first turning point was an incident in the 17th minute involving Sunderland’s tormented rightback and United’s flying leftback, Tyler Blackett. Tyler as we know is blessed with quick feet, a huge physical presence and the speed of mind to make any opponent look foolish. He did well not to retaliate after feeling the full force of two, studs-up challenges in quick succession after he and Daehli teased their markers with some fantastic one and two-touch play that had the crowd applauding, the referee handled the situation really well in my opinion but after that, he was far too lenient. Sunderland’s CM No8 was guilty of two reckless challenges that prompted the ref to warn him “your next tackle is going in the book, son” no questions asked…..three further misdemeanour’s later he was still not in the book. For me that was the signal for Sunderland to turn the game into a physical battle which United failed to deal with.

Wilson and van Velzen had half chances off some great build up play before Barmby struck a rasping shot that knocked the sails out of Sunderland centre back (No6) who, in fairness to him, despite his obvious discomfort and pain, soldiered on much to the dismay of coach Kevin Ball.

Barmby was still struggling to make an impact and switched wings with GvV, a couple of minutes later United were two up.

Daehli placed a delightful through ball on a plate for Blackett whose cross looped to the far post where Grimshaw kept it in and GvV pulled a pass back into the path of James Wilson who applied the finish….an assured finish, it was all too easy for United at this point.

Two minutes later United were seemingly out of sight and on their way to a momentum building, confidence boosting win with any amount of goals they fancied. Sunderland’s keeper again made a hash of clearing his lines as James Wilson charged him down forcing him to gift possession straight to Mats Daehli who profited with his first goal since his brace against WBA way back in late November. A cool finish from Mats who is definitely shaping up to fulfil the promise he showed at the end of last season’s academy that had many spectators tipping him for great things. With the presence of many Norwegian onlookers it was a good time to get his goal and display his obvious talent that occasionally looks effortless.

After about 35 minutes United’s energy levels dropped in central midfield, unsurprising with Pearson returning from a long absence due to glandular fever and the high tempo start to the game. Sunderland began to put themselves about, get stuck in and see more of the ball in United’s half. Not long before half time they won their soft penalty which provided the second turning point of the match as Laidler tucked it away beyond the hesitant Liam Jacob.

3-1 at half time was still looking justified, there was no reason to be concerned that United wouldn’t go on to win the game but then I hadn’t accounted for what happened in the second half.

Fair play to Sunderland and their coaching staff, once they sussed out how United were operating and how they’d took them to the cleaners for thirty minutes, they adapted their style and turned the tables full circle. They pressed high, they tagged runners in and out of midfield, they closed down space and denied United any time on the ball, it was now uncomfortable for United, couple that with players getting tired, Sunderland sniffing blood and McGuinness not protecting the lead, the outcome was becoming more and more obvious.

Sunderland hit the bar and had efforts well saved by Jacob, once Daehli and Barmby were replaced in a joint substitution with Gorre and Hendrie with 25 minutes remaining, United were hanging on…..at 3-1 up!

With about quarter of an hour to go I tweeted that I thought it was time to shut up shop, it was time to batten the hatches and grind out what would still have been a fantastic result with plenty to be positive about. Instead, four minutes later we were all square at 3-3 after two superbly taken shots.

The first was a superb effort from Sunderland’s substitute Agnew from way outside the box after a tremendous period of passing that United failed to deal with or even get close to. Jacob had no chance as the wind assisted strike sailed past him. This put Sunderland tails up, from the restart they went for the throat and got their reward after another classy finish saw Sunderland’s standout player in my opinion, Nathan Thomas, bend his shot sidefooted neatly beyond the rooted Liam Jacob after a smart pass had found him rushing into space.

Luckily for United that was the end of the scoring, at that point their was only one winner but both team had half chances to take all three points.

That’s the third 3-3 draw at Carrington in a row now (Bolton, Wolves and now Sunderland), only the game versus Bolton were we not in the lead, all three games we looked the better team and deserved to win. Neither of the two previous games was there any need to point a finger at the gaffer in my opinion, yesterday there was, that was the difference between the sides on the day, one adapted and one didn’t.

Great to see Ben Pearson return and give a decent account of himself but a shame he wasn’t spared for some fresh legs. Barmby had a bit of a stinker and got frustrated again….any coincidence his Dad was absent again? Dalley has improved immeasurably since the beginning of the season and made a vital block at the death to deny Thomas what would probably have been a winner. Wilson was lively and deserved his goal, he knows how to move into space and where to put himself in the box, a real talent for next season I think, and one who can finish with confidence. Daehli again displayed his inteligence on the ball, everytime he receives it he pushes his first touch into his safe zone and gets his head up immediately, an absolute pleasure to watch, I’m sure his compatriots enjoyed his hour, once he was removed United looked a far less balanced unit. Tyler was influential again, Rudge’s first touch let him down once or twice but on the whole he was lively and involved in many of United’s best moments.

A special mention for Gyliano van Velzen today who terrorized his marker, created chances, finished chances and generally looked superb going forward throughout, he’s really come on this season adding first time passes and goals to his obvious ability to beat a man. Always good to eat a bit of humble pie here and there, he’s certainly proving me wrong.

McCullough did well for most of the game and will definitely benefit from 90 minutes in preparation for Friday when I think he’ll partner Ioannou who dropped to the U16s for the day.

Next up for United is Chelsea in the Youth Cup on Friday with the first leg kicking off at 7pm at Old Trafford, promises to be a great game again…..can United pull off a surprise? They will start as underdogs I think, Chelsea have Piazon and others with big reputations.

One piece of bad news from the camp is Adnan Januzaj will miss the remainder of the season, I bumped into him before the game and he said he was looking at four months out before he could play again, hopefully he’ll make a full recovery from whatever the injury is and he’ll be back playing in the summer ready for next season.

Ian (@Rimmerstweets)