A beneficial week for United's Academy
Head of Academy Nick Cox believes this has been a great spell for Manchester United's youngsters, with varying challenges providing valuable experiences across the different levels of competition.
A youthful Under-23s side was beaten 5-3 by Liverpool last Friday, showing character towards the end of a difficult game, before Neil Ryan's Under-18s defeated Burnley 5-1 on the following day, at the Aon Training Complex.
In addition to an absorbing 0-0 draw, and subsequent penalty shoot-out success, at Rochdale in the EFL Trophy, there was also an Under-17s friendly against Mansfield Town at The Cliff.
Neil Wood's Under-23s faced Blackburn Rovers today (Friday), drawing 2-2, before a hectic eight-day spell finishes with the mini-Manchester derby at City for the Under-18s, which is live on MUTV.
"As far as weeks go in the Academy, this week is kind of a great example of being close to what a perfect week should look like," Cox told us. "So it's very easy for people to get bogged down on individual games and individual results and, absolutely, games and results give you some of the story. But the whole story, for me, is more about a group of players aged between about 17 and 20, over the course of a week, how many different experiences can we get into those players?
“I think this week just typifies a great week within the Academy. Te aim is to construct weeks like this as frequently as we possibly can.
"If we go from Friday last week, it was a very tough game against very tough opponents. I really respect Liverpool and the programme they have got in place and we had a very young team on top of that, compared to theirs. It was a real showcase fixture, under the floodlights, and we found it really tough.
“We learned a load of things - young players made their debuts, a young player was sent off, kids were making mistakes but we showed character to try to recover. So we come away saying okay, we're disappointed to lose, no-one likes losing, but you scratch beneath the surface and, actually, we're quite delighted with some individual performances and some young players have had brilliant learning experiences.
“Then you flip it and, on Saturday morning, without being disrespectful to Burnley, it was a different type of fixture. Going into the end of the game, it was more comfortable but, again, we've got a completely different set of players. There are maybe 40 payers across the development phase, and probably 30, including subs, were all involved in fixtures. It's a different experience where, again, players are playing their first game for us and it's an opportunity for youngsters to express themselves, be creative, score goals and have a great time.
"Before you know it," Cox added. "It's a new week and Tuesday night sees the Under-17s, with some 15-year-old boys in the team, taking on Mansfield at The Cliff. We lost 2-1 but actually they had 18 and 19-year-olds in their team and it was a brilliant game. Our boys were completely stretched by a different style to Burnley and Liverpool.
“As the same time, the EFL Trophy game is going on. We've got a really young side against an XI that wasn't far off the sort of team Rochdale would put out in the league. So we learned more stuff - the goalkeeper who found it hard on Friday [Ondrej Mastny] became the focal point on Tuesday, saving penalty and making some brilliant saves. Obviously, there was the opportunity to be involved in a shoot-out and it was a really tough game - we had to hang in for a period but also dominated for a period.
"The weekend ahead, after a very different fixture for the Under-23s, means the final bookend is against City in the Under-18s. We'll go young , probably younger than we'd like to, even if we do like to go young.
“The team will be even younger due to the demands of the week, meaning we haven't necessarily got all the lads to choose from. The Under-16s also play City, with some 14 and 15-year-olds on the pitch, and it's really important we look at that whole week in its entirety. That is a brilliant week - players playing comfortable, being tested and stretched where it's difficult and loads of minutes for all sorts of fascinating little development experiences for certain individuals.
“That, to me, is how I look at a week and not get bogged down with one fixture or a result. We're always quick to say we have to be competitive at United and set out to win but the result is only part of the story. There is a lot more than just scorelines to consider during a busy period like this."
The mini-Manchester derby is live on MUTV on Saturday with kick-off at 14:00 BST.