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Starting XI: The Manchester United U23s Edition

If the season ever restarts, these young Reds are ready for a playoff run

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League 2 Photo by Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

Everything that you need to know about the Manchester United U23s...

(1) While the U18 season hinged on a FA Youth Cup run (and a possible semifinal date with Chelsea), Manchester United’s U23s have found much better success in league play. The Reds sit just behind unbeaten West Ham — and well ahead of third-place West Brom — in the Premier League 2 Division Two.

(2) Unfortunately, only top spot earns automatic promotion to the Premier League 2’s top division. On the bright side, the U23s remain well-placed for home pitch advantage in the semifinal and final — provided the playoffs ever happen.

(3) When West Ham defeated United 2-0 in January, that marked the first time all season that the Reds failed to score. That’s not too surprising, considering the U23s boast attacking talent like Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes, Aliou Traore, D’Mani Mellor, Arnau Puigmal, and Largie Ramazani. Even James Garner, who plays in defensive midfield, gets in on the act — having scored nine times for the U23s.

(4) Back in February, the U23s jetted over to Portugal for a mid-season training camp and friendly versus Benfica. In that match, the young Reds fell 2-1 in what was still a hugely-encouraging display against a mix of the Portuguese giant’s B-side and U23s. Aidan Barlow continued his strong play with United’s only goal on the day.

(5) Dave Kelly, Manchester United’s senior sports scientist, on the benefits of this warm-weather training camp:

With the sunshine, we have some positive effects on the players. It can help increase performance. Some of our lads are from abroad and are predisposed to low levels of Vitamin D when they come to the UK because they’re used to the sun in their countries. It’s an essential vitamin which is produced by being in the sun and can increase levels of fitness, muscle strength, and stamina.

Another key benefit of coming here is the recovery of muscle tiredness because the warm weather makes them more pliable. The lads are in a better frame of mind too and, from my perspective, the warm weather is a key part of our U23s program. It’s a win-win for the coaching staff preparing the team and for me from a physical conditioning perspective.

(6) At U23 level, loan moves can be just as important as match results. Let’s take a look at some of the youngsters sent out on loan by Neil Wood and Quinton Fortune:

  • Ethan Hamilton suited up for Southend United during the first half of the 2019/20 season. The 21-year-old made 18 appearances for the League One side, scoring once and chipping in with an assist. He then went back out to Bolton Wanderers for the second half, establishing himself as a regular starter across midfield for the troubled club.
  • George Tanner made 28 appearances for Morecambe in the first half and then moved over to Salford City in January. Expect to see plenty of loans to Salford in the future owing to their Class of ‘92 connections.
  • Alex Fojticek and Max Taylor both spent time at Stalybridge Celtic in the Northern Premier League.
  • Forgotten man Cameron Borthwick-Jackson struggled to find playing time on loan at Tranmere Rovers and stepped down to Oldham Athletic in League Two to get his career back on track.

(7) In what might end up being their final game of the season, Manchester United’s U23s defeated Stoke City 3-2 on March 2. James Garner notched a brace and Angel Gomes scored as United kept up the pressure on leaders West Ham. Both Tim Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe also played that night in a bid to regain match fitness for the first team.

(8) 20-year-old Aidan Barlow spent the first half of the season on loan in Norway, scoring two goals in seven appearances for Tromso. It was an experience that the attacking midfielder feels will propel his Manchester United career:

I’ve noticed I actually learned a lot from playing against men in Norway and gained experience from it. I’ve got to take that ownership with the younger players coming up and guide them through it as they are new to things and, at times, might struggle in games like the one against Benfica. But it’s the only way they are going to learn from it.

(9) Fullback Ethan Laird and goalkeeper Paul Woolston both signed new contracts in February. With the club forced to scramble to convince Tahith Chong (mission accomplished) and Angel Gomes (still waiting...) to extend with just months left on their current contracts, it’s good to see them getting out in front with quick deals for Laird and Woolston.

(10) Laird, as you might remember, made his first-team debut at FC Astana in November and then played again two weeks later against AZ Alkmaar. Manchester United currently overflow with promising young fullbacks, but Laird’s stock remains sky-high within the organization.

(11) Another encouraging storyline of this U23 season is how many of the club’s U18 players — Teden Mengi, Hannibal Mejbri, and Dillon Hoogewerf chief among them — have played double duty for the U23s. The future is bright for Manchester United at all levels.