By Colm Murphy
The return of the senior Premier League also marks the return of the U21s who will kick off against rivals Liverpool on 19 August and the new campaign will see a change of format with United placed alongside other category one academies in a 22 team national division. After playing each team once, the top four will move onto the semi-final stage and final to determine the champions of the Barclays U21 Premier League.
With 47 players appearing for the U21/reserve side last season, it shows how hard it can be sometimes to know who will be featuring in matches. With players being promoted to the senior side, going on loan, being sold and younger players being promoted from the U18s, there are constantly people coming in and out of the side. In this piece, we will cover some of the main players who are likely to be prominent figures for the U21s for the upcoming campaign.
Reserve team player of the year for the 2012/13 season Adnan Januzaj has had an impressive pre-season tour with the senior side and often looked like the star of the show. With his performances he may well have earned himself a spot in Moyes’ first team plans but at 18, it is expected he will be introduced into the first team slowly and will still feature for the U21s at times.
Januzaj can play anywhere across an attacking midfield three or even up front playing a false nine type role. It is unsure where his best position will end up but at the moment, it is either behind the striker or a play-maker role on the right that allows him to cut infield onto his left foot.
It is not often you will see him doing flashy Ronaldo type dribbling but rather intelligent body feints to elegantly glide past defenders. Often compared to David Silva and Mesut Ozil, he does not have blistering pace but is not slow either and uses his superb dribbling to create space and pick his defence splitting passes.
Despite his slim build, he is strong on the ball and does well to hold off much larger opposition. A great example of this is how he handled Younes Kaboul in the U21 final against Spurs last season. It is not known whether he will play more for the U21s or the first team but when he turns out for the U21s, his technical ability and hard work will put him that level above the rest on the pitch.
Next is another nominee for reserve player of the year, Marnick Vermijl. Vermijl has been one of the most consistent performers for the reserves but at the age of 21, he may be likely to go out on loan at some point during the season.
The club staff think highly of him and definitely see him with a future at United, renewing his contract in July to extend it until 2016. Shortly after his contract renewal, there were rumours of a return to Belgium with a loan move to Anderlecht but no further development has happened on that front.
As of now, he is still with the club and with the depth at right-back in the first team, he should be at least be starting off the season with the U21s against Liverpool. A mainstay in Warren Joyce’s successful U21 side over the last couple of years, he has shown a great attitude, been good defensively and has added a lot to the side going forward having notched up five goals and three assists last season. Like Januzaj, it is not certain how often we will see him out for the U21s this upcoming season but when we do, he will be a top player.
The third nominee for player of the year was Tom Thorpe. Like Vermijl, Thorpe was ever present in Joyce’s side last campaign making 34 appearances with only Larnell Cole making more than him but at 20, he may also be looking for a loan move and pass on the U21 captain’s armband to someone else.
The former U19 England national captain should have been seen at the U20 World Cup over the summer and was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing turnout for England. He was pushed into midfield at the start of last season due to some older players being ahead of him but he was soon given his best position at centre half.
His time in midfield aided his development though and improved his composure and technique. His overall ability on the ball and in the air means he is very influential to the side and during his 20 appearances at centre half, only 14 goals were conceded. Being one of the more experienced players in the reserves, it is not known yet whether he will go on loan but with the reserves being a bit short on centre backs, we may see him at the heart of defence for another campaign.
Pearson he may have to a bit before becoming a regular starter with some of the older players like Charni Ekangamene and Davide Petrucci likely to to command the starting spots in the centre of midfield but with the possibility of Petrucci heading out on loan again. it should not be long before Pearson gets his chance and makes a real mark on the U21s.
He is a very tenacious player with bags of energy who is good in the tackle but his abilities do not stop there. He has that bite than can be seen in Ryan Tunnicliffe, who is currently on loan at Ipswich. He is very comfortable on the ball, has good passing, a great footballing brain for his age and gets the odd goal scoring six last term for the U18s.
His performances for the academy already have staff and supporters expecting him to be a first team star in the future. If only he was a few years older, he could be the answer for the midfield problem within the first team this season.
The last player on the list to watch out for is Tom Lawrence. The 19-year-old Welshman has been with the club since he was eight. An injury ravaged 2011/12 in the academy meant he could not show off his potential and missed out on some U21 call-ups that were expected to come after a bright start to the season.
And when he graduated to the U21 side, he found it hard to crack the starting XI and most of his appearances came from off the bench with only five starts but 17 sub appearances. Despite having to wait for his chances, he took them when they came. A versatile player who is comfortable playing behind the striker, Lawrence can also play up top, deeper in central midfield and filled in out wide at times too.
In his limited playing time, he managed to pick up four goals and three assists and showed up in the big games to play and important role in winning the U21 title last season with two assists in the semi-final and another to set up Larnell Cole’s winner. A consistent performer with the technical ability to create something out of nothing, it will be staying injury free that will be key to his success.
With a good mix of older and younger players the Manchester United U21s should have another good year ahead of them. With very successful U21 and U18 teams in recent years, there are many bright prospects coming through at United and all supporters should be excited to see if this group can become the Moyes Boys.