A truly satisfying and deserved victory following on from a confident, powerful midweek performance at Southampton. Ten days ago we went to Old Trafford and somehow came away with a 4-0 defeat. It was a frustrating game - City controlled possession that day looking to play positive, technical football. They were let down by a lack of a real cutting edge and some understandable naivety in front of a 16,000 strong crowd. United on the other hand sat back, content with a defensive approach, using their experience and nous to counter. They scored four. It was a 4-0 victory, yes, but it was an underwhelming 4-0, mainly built around the experience of Wilson and Januzaj. They were efficient and functional, but lacked notable talent or intelligence, Januzaj and Wilson aside. Experienced players playing at a level below their current status will do that. Along with Blackett who was solid at the back in the previous encounter, both of them were absent today.
City had Kelechi back through the middle, offering the cutting edge we sorely lacked at Old Trafford. Pozo was shunted out to the left with Barker positioned in the unfamiliar position of right wing. Ntcham, Glendon and Byrne held the midfield and Evans and Humphreys continued their partnership at centre-back. Our two Spanish starlets, Maffeo and Angelino were either side of them and Angus Gunn returned for O'Brien in goal. It didn't take long for the pattern of the game to develop. It was identical to the away trip - City would look to pass it around, trying to play their usual measured possession game and United would sit back, defending solidly, content to knock it forward fast and direct whenever they could, using their pace and power to try and initiate an attack or two. We largely handled it well. So it was no surprise that we went in 1-0 down at the break…
Typical. They scored just before half-time from a corner, Fletcher tapping the ball in from a few yards out. It was all too predictable. I said it in my report from the previous game, but it needs repeating again. United do this at youth level - they're efficient, they win often and they know how to grind our results. Be it at u16s, u18s or u21s. Time and time again. They're seemingly content with this, but from where i'm sat there's little in their performance and if they're happy with that then that's fine, but City want more than that from their players and rightly so. It felt like groundhog day when the players left the pitch after 45 minutes, but there was still solace to be taken from our general attitude. We were still the team looking to move the ball intelligently and we didn't lower ourselves to United's overly physical approach.
The second half was much better. Nemane came on for Pozo and took up the right wing position, meaning Barker could move back over to his usual slot on the left. And then the Kelechi show began. He was magnificent. He equalised after an hour with a truly remarkable goal, reminiscent of Bergkamp at his pomp, spinning away from one player before elegantly gliding past a second and cooly slotting the ball past the keeper. His second, and City's third, was also of the highest quality. His delightful first time flick found the onrushing Ntcham who powered past the United defence. Iheanacho followed, taking the ball off Ntcham before looking up and drilling the ball into the far corner. Clinical and exhilarating stuff. Between those two goals, Angelino had given City the lead after a well-worked short corner routine left him with a shooting opportunity. He didn't need a second invitation, powerfully slamming the ball past O'hara with the aid of a deflection.
3-1 wasn't flattering. It was a great end to the season for Vieira's men, a performance both full of individual quality and team effort. Gunn was measured and confident in goal (the rumoured loan move to Aberdeen would be great for him) and Angelino and Maffeo were both terrier-like, as ever. Maffeo in particular was up against a giant - United's left winger was 6'2, at least. A powerful and fast runner with skill too, yet Maffeo came out on top. No mean feat, but something we've come to expect. Ntcham ended the season on a high and was the pick of the midfielder three - his direct and powerful running caused United all sorts of problems. It wasn't all brute force either, there was more subtly to his game than sometimes evident, showing an awareness of others around him spreading the ball well. Perhaps the summer's come too soon for him. Byrne and Glendon were both bright, tirelessly taking the ball from the centre-backs and looking to turn and play it forward and Evans had a tidy game in defence. Pozo, sadly, was the one real weak link. He had a torrid time over on the left, constantly muscled off the ball and sloppy in possession. He was replaced at half-time. It doesn't look good for him as things stand - he may get another year but he's fallen a little this season in general and the fact that a 17 year old first year graduate, albeit a talented one in Nemane, immediately offered more balance to the team on arrival is cause for concern. City are patient and he will surely get another chance but the likes of Garcia, Boadu, Ambrose and even the very talented u16 Fernandes may make it hard for him to even get a game next season at this level. A loan to Spain seems inevitable.
Cameron Humphreys in defence was outstanding. It's hard to believe he's still sixteen. Yes, sixteen. And he won't turn seventeen until August either. He's strong, incredibly confident on the ball, a little like Demichelis when in possession, and he has a turn of pace too. To look as composed as he does at u21 level is an impressive feat. He has no right to excel at this level yet. If City manage it well then Denayer, Tosin and Humphreys could be the clubs centre-backs for years. They all have that much potential. Fingers crossed. Barker was good when moved over to the left. He nearly scored a couple too and the first half aside, where he was willing and eager but clearly not comfortable in a position alien to him, he was involved often causing United all kinds of problems down the right. Kelechi was fantastic. There isn't much more I can say about him, but he's now scored 6 in 7 at youth level, despite missing several months through injury at a new club, and he's technically not even a centre-forward. He prefers playing off the striker. He will surely be in the first team squad next year. Some players have that little spark that makes them stand out and he is one.
It was fitting that a performance of this much quality would see the EDS out for the year. It's been a good season for the club at this level - we've had some lows, naturally, but also many highs with what is a very young team. Younger than the vast amount we play at this level. Next season will see many of the more experienced players go out on loan i'd expect, with the likes of Wood, Nemane, Boadu, Tosin, Humprheys and Garcia stepping up and it'll be a very interesting 12 months. I'll most likely be writing some reviews up over the coming weeks during the off season, and also some thoughts on what I expect will happen next year, but before that a few of our EDS lads will get a chance in the first team as they play two friendlies in the US next week. I'll report on both.