Wood's view on the 2020/21 season
Manchester United Under-23s lead coach Neil Wood has provided a detailed look back at the 2020/21 season and started to plan ahead for next term.
The Reds, despite fielding a youthful side in the top division of Premier League 2, entertained throughout the campaign and there were some major highlights in terms of development and youngsters breaking into the senior squad.
So there was much for Wood to reflect on and a chance to begin thinking about the upcoming pre-season, with a new-look squad.
The season started with a great win against Salford and then we had a couple of hard games in Premier League 2 – was that as you expected at the start?
"Yeah, I think the Salford game surprised us a little bit. I thought we performed really well that night and the EFL games are always great games, from the season before, we always look forward to them games. We know they’re going to be really challenging, so we were really pleased with the way we performed at Salford, I thought we played really well. Then we went into the league, I think we played Leicester first game and it was a really physical battle, probably a little bit more than the Salford game and what we were expecting from Salford. We played okay, we got punished for our mistakes, we got battered and bruised a little bit and it was a real wake up call for what the league was going to be like. Then we played Liverpool at home and gave away some really poor individual errors to concede, but we were trying to do the right things, we were trying to play out from the back, we were trying to get the structure of the team, build with possession, you can almost allow them mistakes because you were trying to do the right things in the right areas. We were getting caught on the ball, we were delayed a little bit too long or the pace of the game was a little bit too quick for what people were expecting at that point of the season. So, it was a great start followed by two difficult games."
Were you pleased with how the players responded to that Liverpool game? We bounced back, had a couple of high-scoring draws after that didn’t we?
"Yeah, they bounced back well. We went to Arsenal and were 3-1 up at half-time, doing really well and it was a strong Arsenal team. I spoke to Steve Bould, the manager, and had put four or five players into the starting line-up the night before, so it was a really strong Arsenal team. To be 3-1 up was really pleasing and again we gave some soft goals away, a little bit naïve with our defending and we finished the game 3-3. We weren’t playing badly, it gave us confidence we could compete against the teams you would think would be challenging at the top of that division. That gave us some confidence to kick on."
Joe Hugill scored some goals when he came in – was that a surprise for him to do that so quickly in his young career, considering his age?
"Probably. I suppose quite quickly, D’Mani [Mellor] was injured in pre-season so it left us without a natural striker really, so we tried to patch it up a little bit. Mark Helm played as a false nine early in the season against Salford, but we felt it was right to push an actual striker up there and let Mark play in his natural position. Joe came in, did quite well, played against Blackburn, scored two goals from two chances in what was quite a frustrating game, again another physical game. He took his chances and then we went to Rochdale in the EFL [Trophy] after that and he did really well, we drew 0-0 but he did really well. Rochdale defended pretty much with a back five and gave us respect with how they set up, but it was a difficult night to try and break that down, but Joe did really well, he was holding up the ball well, he was bringing his teammates into play, we could play off him, so we were pleased when he first came up with his initial performances."
That sparked a bit of a run then, we went on a run of victories and playing in a way I know you like us to play; very entertaining and good fast-flowing football, wasn’t it?
"We picked up some wins after that and I think the performance was the most important thing. I think even when we were losing games at the start of the season, when we started to draw, the confidence was still quite high, you could sense it in the training, they were training well, they were believing the way they were training could portray into the games and it was just a matter of time before it started to click together. Once we started to perform the way we could, we know we could attack and really impose our power and speed on games, it started to come together a bit, we started to play entertaining, attacking football and it was pleasing to see that."
We got a draw with City, who went on to win the league, so that was a good result all told and then we played Chelsea just before Christmas and that was a bit disappointing wasn’t it with the way that one panned out?
"Yeah, I think that was the big double-header in December. Playing City at home, that was a bit of a feisty game and we were a little bit disappointed that we didn’t win that game. We went in leading 2-1 at half-time and we took our foot off the gas for the second half when we should have gone for it a bit more. I think we were a little bit too cagey, we were a little bit happy we were winning when we could have finished them off and got a third goal. So, we came out of the back of that game a little bit disappointed we didn’t finish them off properly and I think that was a good time that the players knew, I think it was a good time for the improvement we’ve made in the short space of time and we felt confident going to Chelsea. I think that was just one of those games you just try and forget about it as soon as you can. We made two mistakes in the first two minutes, we knew what Chelsea were going to do, we knew what formation they were going to play, we knew the type of runs and it was frustrating, pretty much the two things we homed in on was two mistakes to give them two goals. Chelsea are a good team, they’re a strong team but even though we went 2-0 down, we had a lot of the play, they didn’t score until probably the 38th or 39th minute and up until that point, we had some good periods of possession. I spoke to the Chelsea coaches and they said it was probably the first game this season that they’ve not been able to dominate the play in the opponents’ half. So, they gave us a bit of credit there and I felt like we could have got back into the game. It would have been easy just to defend, go five across the back, but I don’t think that’s the right way for this club. This club has always been on the front foot, trying to take games to teams and attack the other team. So, we tried to go for it a little bit, then we conceded the fourth, a penalty, which was probably five minutes after half-time, which kind of knocked the wind out of our sails a bit and then you know any team that has that lead becomes confident and it becomes quite enjoyable for them to play. But we kept going and Joe scored a goal, a nice teamwork goal towards the end, a cutback from Alvaro [Fernández] to finish at the near post so that was pleasing for them two individually, Alvaro with the quality of his crossing and Joe with his finishing."
We then started to do it to other teams, we had a great spell, we hit six against Liverpool and Blackburn and then beat Arsenal 3-0, we had a great run there, lots of goals, lots of excellent play wasn’t it?
"Yeah, we came back in January and we played Leicester away, some really good football and again gave three goals away which were unbelievable goals to give away and really, we should have beaten them quite convincingly. So, yeah, we had a bit of a chat after the game shall we say, then played Liverpool away and scored some good goals, played some good attacking football, Blackburn at home was a strange game because at one point we were 4-2 down which we didn’t deserve to be. If you were watching the game, you wouldn’t have thought with the performance they were the team 4-2 down. But they fought their way back into it with some real quality and ended up winning 6-4 which was great two weeks on the bounce to score six goals. Then we played Arsenal at home and again we beat them quite well, it was quite a turning point in the season in terms of performances and some individuals stepping up and showing the quality they have."
Towards the end of the season, we beat Chelsea and Derby, again some great goals but a little bit up and down. There’s been a lot of red cards in some of the games as well weren’t there for both teams that have impacted games?
"I think so. We played Brighton at home and Will got sent off after five minutes which became really difficult because we were confident we could beat them. We’d beat them quite convincingly away, it was probably one of our best first-half performances, so we had to really change the system and it was more or less 90 minutes when you take into account injury time. So, that was a tough one, but I think that was more of a lesson in how we could defend because we’d given some really naïve and sloppy goals away up to that point. So, it was a learning lesson to prove they could defend, work with a man less and get through the 90 minutes without conceding a goal. It was really good for the mentality of the team to get through that game without conceding, I think that was one of the bonus points of the season."
I think that’s one of the bonuses you learn a lot when a team’s reduced to 10 men but at the same time in development football, you don’t really want to see red cards do you?
"No, I think sometimes it can spoil the games a little bit. I think sometimes the referees are too eager to get the red card out and it more or less means one team is going to sit back and defend and it ruins the flow a little bit. But these things happen, and we’ve had it both ways this season. It can be more challenging sometimes because you know the team is going to sit in and defend and the onus comes on you to break it down, in a way it can be more difficult."
It can be a lot more difficult at that level too because a lot of fouls go unpunished and it’s a lot more physical than people give it credit for, isn’t it?
"I think we’ve seen that in quite a lot of games this season, there’s been some fouls, free-kicks, some strange decisions, moments where you’re not getting anything and the obvious thing is to retaliate, then free-kicks get given against you, the cards come out and I think it loses a bit of control during a game. That’s happened quite a few times which has been frustrating. It’s been quite well documented some of the challenges and refereeing decisions out there."
Looking forward to the new season, some players will move on, some already have, and we wish them well. It’s that time of year where you’ll look at the squad and start again?
"I think it’s great when lads leave who have been here a while and they get other clubs and get fixed up, everybody at this club is always watching where they go and keeping an eye on their careers so that’s a big thing for us as a club. In terms of next season, most of the second years that have been in the youth team will come into the 23s, one or two may depart but it’s yet to be decided. I think we’ll have some conversations in the next couple of weeks as staff to decide who goes where and whether it’s the right time for certain individuals but yeah, we pretty much start again with a new squad. I don’t think there’ll be many with experience of Under-23s football, but it’ll be a new challenge and one we’re looking forward to."
It will be a young squad again, but the aim to entertain and play the United way is always at the forefront of your mind…
"Most definitely, yeah. It may take them a while to get used to the physicality, the speed of it, but ultimately yeah, we want to replicate the performance that have come in the last two seasons. Being able to play out from the back, being able to dominate teams with possession but also have that Man United spirit of being able to attack quickly, being able to counter-attack, being able to create chances and score goals. That’s hopefully where we want to get the performances to, a lot more goes into it than that but they’re probably the standout things we want to achieve."
Just finally, hopefully there’ll be European football coming back, so a few more competitions. The EFL Trophy again, as well as Premier League 2 and that broadens the horizons doesn’t it in those games?
"Yeah, definitely. I think the EFL is such an important competition for us for the experiences we’ve had in the last two seasons. It’ll be another challenge to qualify from the group stage, they’re always difficult games and great nights, sometimes it’s a lot different for us, sometimes we have to defend a lot in those games. We’re pleased with our record in that over the last two years and hopefully we can go one stage further than we have. If the UEFA Youth League comes back, then that’s a massive competition and that’s great experience for our young players as well. Hopefully that competition will run, and we can get back to playing against the best teams in Europe."