This felt inevitable. I've seen it before several times this season alone. Alarm bells do not need ringing and the philosophy doesn't need binning - this was the result of several relatively unavoidable factors combining and playing up against an experienced United team always likely to win games at this level in this particular, unexciting way. They sat back, camped in their half and then broke using their experience in key positions finding holes in our questionable defensive shape, finishing well. They were 2-0 up from two chances at one point, despite having 30% possession. They do that at every level in all the derbies - u16s, u18s, right through to the 21s. They beat us at the start of the season 4-1, with Wilson running through and scoring all four goals. Identical. Fast man up top, big strong lads at the back, knock it through a young developing defensive line and score - It works at this level, I guess.
We weren't helped by the returning loanees. Evans looked awful at CB, suffering from a poor loan spell at Scunthorpe and once again being played out of position. Fofana, for all his physique, isn't as smart a footballer as many of the younger lads who are coming through the ranks behind him - he was always going to struggle returning to a team increasingly possession based when his main weaknesses while out on loan at Fulham were, according to a fan of theirs I spoke to recently, his first and second touch. Hiwula, too, didn't look in sync with the rest of the team, playing up top in contrast with the left-wing role he had at Walsall. Coupling this with the fact that many of our younger u18 starlets looked absolutely exhausted meant the team felt unbalanced and we moved the ball far too slow; that earlier midseason spark has fizzled out somewhat for many of the younger players, understandably too. Most of them have played many, many games this year and they're still incredibly green. Angelino, Barker, Byrne and Bryan didn't look anywhere their best and they haven't for a few weeks.
That explosive form that punctuated a large part of the middle of the season wasn't a flash in the pan, it was the result of a confident, expressive team playing in a balanced eleven full of youthful exuberance, technical ability and skill who had slowly, but surely, found their feet after being asked to move up an age group. Recently this has now become a team (not really by choice or design - just necessity) containing slightly older players most looking for clubs in the future (Intima, Fofana, Hiwula, Evans, Horsfield) and you can tell. Their development is still important to the club and rightly so - we have to do the upmost to find them a club if it isn't to be with City, and it still may be, but it has definitely impacted on the form of the team and consequently the surrounding younger players who just haven't adapted to the changes, due to a combination of confusion, being played out of position, and tiredness. This is natural and was always going to happen. Youth team squads are often bitty and fragmented and it's understandable that this will at times affect the players.
This isn't City's strongest team at u21 level. Far, far from it. Move Maffeo over to right back, bring in Tosin and Humphreys in defence. The injured pair of Boadu and Ambrose would bring pace, power and technical ability to our forward options. Iheanacho up top, Celina, perhaps. We have an abundance of talent in reserve - the thing that ties them together? They're incredibly young. That's cause for optimism and patience. It's easy to forget too that the out on loan quarter of Denayer, Lopes, Cole and Rekik are still u21s for City and this team, and you'd wager with good reason that tonight's result would be very different if those four were available. The u18s in tonight's team are not handling this end of season nigglyness and the fractured inconsistent teams and squads that come with it,particularly well - because they're tired. That's fair enough. This will happen - it's fine. They've done a lot this year, played some fantastic football, the vast majority of them have reached two finals, jumping between age groups as if its easy at times. They've won a cup as recently as last Friday, gone far in the UYL and become arguably the best footballing youth team in the country. Most of them had never played for the u21s before at the start of the season.
There is no cause for concern. Our young players still stuck to their game, they tried to play football the right way. It didn't happen, but they tried. That takes character, and its something they have in bucketfuls. They need a summer off now to assess all the many great things they've accomplished this season, and they'll come back stronger, more mature and ready to push on to greater things next year. Yes, we lost, but the United team we saw tonight isn't a United team to be excited about. It's a dogged one set up to be successful at youth team level, defending deep in their own half in front of 16,000 home fans, with experienced first-team who know how to attack. Ah well - good luck to them. I think our kids have more of a chance.