By Nathan Thomas.
Wednesday night’s Champions League victory over SC Braga ensured that United finished top of Group H with two games to spare. An all-conquering campaign it has not been, but when compared to last season’s shambolic group stage, there is surely little room to grumble after Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez ensured United made it four wins from four after a strange game in a rain-soaked Estadio AXA.
Manchester United’s safe passage to the knock-out stages ensured not only that United can concentrate solely on the League – with forthcoming games against Galatasaraay and Cluj being de facto dead rubber – but it also gives Sir Alex Ferguson an opportunity to blood some of his young charges in fierce European environments.
As someone who attends reserve games regularly this prospect fills me something of a giddy excitement. Although hopes that the ‘Class of 2011’ containing the likes of Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Zeki Fryers may go onto to emulate the halcyon ‘Class of 1992’ have been dashed with all three making fairly acrimonious Old Trafford exits; United’s reserve contingent still possesses an abundance of young talent.
The most recent game – against Stoke on Monday – wasn’t the most enthralling of games and certainly wasn’t the best the lads have played but it did churn out some very nifty individual performances. Since signing from Crewe in the summer, Nick Powell has settled into life at Old Trafford very comfortably. It is likely that Powell’s signing was brought on by the departure of Paul Pogba, a player who I and many others greatly admired. It was a shame that things could not be resolved with Pogba, as I felt he was a nailed-on certainty to make the United team. The way he would float across the park, despite being a gangly six-foot plus, evading markers and penetrating defences was at times a joy to behold. I absolutely buzzed off both he and fellow midfield compatriots Morrison and Tunnicliffe and it would have been superb if they could have made the United first team together. Still, maybe United are better off without the former two. As talented as they were, Morrison’s lack of attitude and Pogba’s perceived lust for the ‘Benjamin’ may in the long run see United emerge better off.
Four million pound may seem a lot for an 18 year old but it was clear from the offset that United may have found a gem. Crewe Alexandra are widely known and respected for their excellent youth academy and it is clear that Powell has been schooled in the correct way. Against Stoke on Monday, he was head and shoulders above any other player on the pitch. So he should be, you might retort, but when you consider the likes of Bebe, Macheda and Josh King, all players who should be well beyond reserve level yet continue to flatter to deceive, it is encouraging to see that Powell is well beyond that level.
I read in FourFourTwo over the summer that United coaches expect Powell to be an established first teamer by the start of next season and you’d have to pretty ignorant to suggest that this wouldn’t be possible. There is certainly a gap in United’s midfield for someone to come in and take charge. Michael Carrick is probably the only player in that position who can safely say that he has made the position his own, but with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes edging closer to retirement, Darren Fletcher still easing himself back in after a lengthy lay-off and Anderson and Tom Cleverley with a lot to prove – a space is there.
Powell certainly does not seem fazed by it all, after coming on as a substitute to make his home debut against Wigan in September he proceeded to cap the day with a stunning debut goal. His ability to shoot from distance is another valuable string to his bow. United don’t really have that in the midfield at the moment, yes Scholes can do it but he often opts for the killer pass, sometimes the team are often guilty of over-complicating things when a merely a shot would suffice.
Nick Powell does have competition though, mainly in the form of Ryan Tunnicliffe who, despite his questionable auto-mobile antics, is a thoroughly exciting prospect. I have watched Tunnicliffe develop since his days in the U16’s and he has matured into a wonderfully talented box to box midfielder. His form has been rewarded with two appearances in the League Cup in which he coped well, particularly against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge where he demonstrated his seemingly limitless energy, mucking in both in defence and attack. He will likely need a good loan move in order to aid his progression to the first-team, an area where Powell is ahead of the young Mancunian, and it is important that the club actively seek one out for him.
It is unlikely that Tunnicliffe will be short of offers, his tenacity and desire would be an asset to many a’midfield, and the recent loan moves for Lingard and Keane – both promising prospects in their own rights – shows that the club are keen to provide regular first team football for these lads. The dangers of not acting quick enough are evident in a player previously mentioned in this article – Federico Macheda. It seems like yesterday when Macheda announced himself to the world in the most dramatic of style by scoring the winning goal in the 3-2 victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford as United fought for their eighteenth league title. In the days prior to that game Macheda had scored a hat-trick for the reserves against Newcastle at St. James’ Park and was at a similar stage to the likes of Tunnicliffe and fellow reserve striker Will Keane. Having gone above and beyond reserve team level Macheda was given a number of first team oppurtunities before a number of unsuccessful and admittedly questionable loan moves, added to unfortunate periods out injured have halted the Italian’s progress. The lad is stuck in a rut at the minute and it is a shame for him. His agent came out on Wednesday stating that it is likely that Macheda will leave United in January citing lack of opportunity as the reason. In fairness, you can hardly blame the lad; with van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck all ahead of him it is unlikely that he will find himself in the United team any time soon.
It would be a shame if Macheda did leave, given the promise he once possessed. However, if he does he should serve as a lesson to the club in handling the latest batch of young charges as it would be a crime to let their talent to go to waste.
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