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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An exclusive (+ excellent) overview of Manchester United in the Northern Ireland Milk Cup for Red News by Gary Fowler

Milking it for success!

To say Manchester United have history in the Northern Ireland Milk Cup is a huge understatement. Looking back to 1991, Utd won the then U16 competition with a team that included a bunch of then unknowns such as Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, who went on to become the famed “class of ‘92” along with earlier Milk Cup Alum Ryan Giggs after winning the FA Youth Cup.

The Milk Cup is one of the most famed youth tournaments in the world into which United have regularly entered an Academy group in the U17 (Premier) competition. There are also U15 (Junior) and U20 (Elite) and between the 3 age brackets the tournament attracts some of the biggest clubs in the world to the County Antrim area of Northern Ireland. To put the success of the competition into perspective the World Cup in 2002 featured 30 players who had appeared at the tournament.

Since then United have won the trophy in 2003, 2008 and 2009. The squad that won the tournament in 09 featured current rising stars Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe and the 2008 group contained Davide Petrucci and Kiko Macheda. Some of the players from these 2 squads have already experienced first team football, while many others are graduated to the current reserve team after their 2nd year of Academy football. Expect to see Morrison, Tunnicliffe and Petrucci and co. in this season’s League Cup. These last two winning teams have been coached by Academy boss Paul McGuinness (son of former United player and boss Wilf) and in 2011 he will be looking to make it 3 successes in 4 years.

The current crop continues to have more of a European flavor as the squad contains a mixture of home grown players and those recruited from around the continent. United have featured predominantly in the news regarding this over the last few years with Paul Pogba arriving from Le Havre, Petrucci from Roma and Macheda from Lazio. Two of the squad’s foreign players currently making waves in Manchester are Gyliano Van Velzen, a tall powerful winger or forward who arrived from Ajax last year and young Norwegian midfielder Mats Daehli who joined United on the recommendation of Ole Solksjaer from Stabaek. On a home front a familiar name is that of Barmby, Jack that is, son of Hull player Nicky, a strong left footed winger who featured in the tournament last year as well.

United started their campaign in Ballymena against Venezuelan side Zamora FC with what turned out to be a comfortable 4-0 win after the aforementioned Van Velzen settled United down with a smart finish after the goalkeeper parried in the 7th minute. United lined up in a very fluid 4-3-3 formation with Daehli clearly the fulcrum of the side as United looked to play out through him on most moves. The passing was short and sharp as United controlled the game in the first half but they couldn’t find the killer final ball in behind the opposition defense. The 2nd half started with a bang however as tall center back Tyler Blackett won the ball in a strong tackle and quickly slipped the ball to Barmby on the left wing. Barmby and center forward Tom Lawrence played a quick one-two which sent Barmby driving into the box from the left before drilling the ball high inside the near post to make it 2-0 after 41 minutes (the halves are 35 mins). Zamora were soon down to 10 men after yet another rash challenge and United wasted little time in taking advantage of the extra space and time with 2 subs combining to make it 3-0. James Weir produced an outrageous heel-flick to control the ball in the middle of the pitch before slicing the defence open with a ball to James Wilson who rounded the goalkeeper and coolly slotted the ball into an empty net. Minutes later Van Velzen showed strength on the right wing to stay on his feet and drive a great cross in for the unmarked Kenji Gorre (16) to guide his header back across goal into the far corner. Stand out of the game was undoubtedly Daehli who’s passing range and industry in the midfield was recognized as he drew a huge cheer from the crowd, subbing out once United went 2-0 up.

Manager Paul McGuinness said: “I think we controlled the game, and we could have one or two more goals if we had the right pass at the right time. Our control of the game and the ball meant that they tired towards the end and gaps began to appear for us. They were similar to South American opposition, sharp and skillful, but we controlled most of the game. County Tyrone are next and we know it’s always difficult because people are keyed up to play us, and the Irish teams have strong players so we know we will have to be at our best.” (Courtesy Milk Cup website)

Tuesday night at a packed and sunny Coleraine Showgrounds saw United rotate some of the squad to keep things fresh with five games over five days, as day one stand outs Daehli and Barmby started on the bench against County Tyrone. United dominated the first half but yet again had to settle for only being one up at the break. James Wilson capitalised on a defensive slip after a long diagonal ball from Charni Ekangamene to confidently drill the ball into the left hand side of the net. Just as on Monday night United’s possession game wore out the opposition in the second half. Van Velzen effectively settled the game after 41 minutes as he passed the ball into the corner from the top of the box following Wilson’s assist. Daelhi was introduced after 45 minutes along with Kenji Gorre and 3 minutes later the two combined well to set up Rothwell, who produced a delightful drag-back and finish making it 3-0. Barmby came off the bench to also make an immediate impact as he seized on a weak goal kick to smash the ball in from 20 yards out on 63 minutes. The Tryone side seemed to lose spirit at 0-4 down and United went on the score three more in the remaining 10 minutes with some first class finishing. Rothwell scored his second with a shot from 25 yards that left the ‘keeper rooted to the spot, Gorre stroked home after starting and finishing a move himself and Jack Rudge wrapped the game up in injury time.

United faced Hartlepool in Limavady on Wednesday night looking to build on an impressive start to the tournament with eleven goals for and none against. Having already rounded the keeper and fired over on his weaker right foot, Jack Barmby pounced on a soft back pass to keep the ball in play before rounding the keeper and two defenders to put United one up after 11 minutes. It was Barmby who was again involved two minutes later as his shot from the right hand side of the box was spilled by the goalkeeper to leave Rudge with an easy tap in. Untied were not having it all their own way however and were being put under more pressure at the back by a physical Hartlepool who got their reward by pulling one back after 26 minutes, everyone unsure whether the ball had gone straight in from the corner or if it was an own goal. Rudge re-established United’s two goal cushion right on half time, superbly pulling down a long through ball from Ben Pearson before calmly rounding the ‘keeper and slotting the ball into the goal. United eased off in the second half knowing they had already made the semi finals but wrapped up the game in style as crowd favorite Daehli nutmegged the goalkeeper to wrap up a fine team move and make it 4-1.

Paul McGuinness however was not as impressed with his side’s performace, feeling they had not controlled the game as well as in the previous two nights, although he did recognise that Hartlepool had given Utd a sterner test.

The draw late on Wednesday night pitted United against last year’s winners, Senegalese side Etoile Lusitana. United made the unusual move of switching wide forward Van Velzen to the left back spot which had been occupied by Blackett for the last 2 games and Ekangamene for the opener. Perhaps it was a problem position or maybe to counteract the height of the huge Senegalese side but Van Velzen seemed uncomfortable in his new role and Etoile made many early attacks down his side. United were not afforded the same space and time as the three previous games and a large part of the first half was a scrappy midfield battle. Rothwell and Daehli were trying their best to dictate the tempo of the game but a very athletic Etoile closed them down at every given opportunity. Thomas Lawrence had United’s only shot of note in the first half as Daehli and Gorre combined well but the angle was against Lawrence and the Etoile goalkeeper saved well. Rudge replaced Ekangamene at the break as United looked for a little more craft in the midfield and he worked the keeper well with a swerving shot on 53 minutes. As the game wore on United were starting to dominate possession and it was strong interplay between Daehli and right back Luke Hendrie that created the solitary goal of the game. Hendrie’s perfect cross was bent right between the goalkeeper and center back, creating the uncertainty which allowed substitute Barmby to nip in and prod the ball towards the back post where Lawrence touched it over the line for the winning goal in the 58th minute. Coach McGuinness was much more vocal in this game showing the step up in competition compared the relative ease of the three wins earlier in the week. The reward for eliminating last year’s winners was a Ballymena final on Friday night against Qatar side Aspire, who destroyed Desportivo Brasil 6-1 in the other semi final and had scored 19 goals in their 4 games to date.

For the final McGuinness continued with van Velzen as a makeshift left back but sprang another tactical surprise by moving playmaker Mats Daehli up to one of the 3 forward positions. Daehli had played as the most attacking of the three midfielders to date, frequently joining the three forwards, but it seemed a strange decision to remove him from a position he had excelled in, especially for the final. United, as in the other games started a little slow but were not allowed to get away with it against stronger opposition and instead of going 1-0 up they were 0-1 down after only 6 minutes. Van Velzen was beaten for pace on the wing and Cedric’s cross was met with superb header from 6 yards by Drame who had ghosted in between McCullough and Blackett. 15 minutes late the same two players combined again to make it 2-0. Blackett and van Velzen both backed off Cedric who slipped the ball through to Drame who got across captain McCullough’s path to beat ‘keeper Joe Coll at his near post. Moments later the giant Drame completed a superb hat trick as he out jumped Blackett with a flicked header into the roof of the net to complete his second hat trick in as many nights and win the golden boot. It took until the 47th minute until United registered their first shot on goal with Daehli hitting it straight as the Etoile goalkeeper from just outside the box. Drame then assisted on goal number four for the Africans who scored at the second time of asking through Babacar following Drame’s cut back from the line after some neat footwork. The obviously frustrated Jack Barmby pulled a goal back minutes later when he scored from a tight angle following a deflected free kick by defender Blackett which broke into the forward’s path. However with only ten minutes left there was little chance of senior side style comeback and Etoile put the final nail in Utd’s coffin with a fifth goal in the 65th minute.

As the Northern Ireland Milk Cup forms a key part of United Academy side’s pre season many lessons can be taken from the tournament for Paul McGuinness and his staff ahead of the league season. United were given little opposition in the first three games but it gave the opportunity for the first year academy scholars to blend with those returning for their second year and replacing those that have now moved up the reserve level. Throughout the five games it was clear to see that the players were being asked to play a very specific style of play and work on some key tactics. At this U17 level it seems the emphasis is still very much on tactically developing the players for the senior team, whereas some of the other teams in the tournament were clearly more focused on immediate results. Even in a tight semi final and one-sided final Utd’s youngsters still tried to play their short, sharp passing game. Throughout the week their fluid 4-3-3 formation was always evident, the front 3 constantly rotating and the current most attacking of the 3 midfielders often getting right up past the forwards. Often it was difficult as an on-looker to know which of the 6 forwards and midfielders at any given moment were playing which position due to constant change and freedom the system afforded them. Having spoken at length to Kenji Gorre’s father Dean (new Ajax U18 coach) during the Hartlepool game he agreed this system was only possible with the highest caliber of player and is part of the reason why United spend so much time and effort finding the best players from all over the UK and Europe to make it work. Every corner United took over the 5 games was a short one, clearly something the coaching staff used the tournament to work on. United never ‘hoofed’ the ball away, even under pressure, preferring to try and play their way out of danger, confident in the knowledge that the odd error now would pay dividends in their long term development. Until the last pass or in the final third of the field 95% of passes were to feet, tiring the opposition out and allowing United to dominate possession. In the warm up for the Wednesday game against Hartlepool one of the coaching staff emphasized to the players about the necessity to remain calm under pressure and find a team mate with a simple pass on the ground, naming Barcelona’s style of play. The quick closing and pressure of both Aspire and Etoile will prepare the team well for the season ahead and higher levels in this respect. It would not be a surprise at all to see some of the standouts from this group gain some reserve team playing time this season and a year from now some may make first team debuts as Sir Alex Ferguson bloods some of them in the League Cup. Keep an eye on both Mats Daehli and Jack Barmby in the years to come and perhaps in the future we may talk about this group as the “Class of 2012.”

Gary Fowler twitter @TheBoyRed7


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