Few United fans will disagree that heroes have been in short supply at Old Trafford this season, either on the pitch or in the dugout. Yet, while the first team labour outside the Champions League qualification places, struggling even to summon up the spirit to compete against our fiercest rivals in what remains of a disastrous European campaign, Warren Joyce’s Under 21s go from strength to strength.
Joyce’s lads have been playing in pretty much the same formation as the senior team throughout the season, yet the Under 21 boss has managed to extract flair and creativity from a system that, under Van Gaal, has only fleetingly looked capable of producing anything beyond the dull and mundane.
The young Reds sit top of the Under 21 Premier League at the moment, looking a good bet to retain the title they won last season. Much of this has been down to Joyce. With so many youngsters called upon to fill gaps in the senior squad this season, he’s frequently had to shuffle his pack. Recently he took charge in a Lancashire Senior Cup tie against Blackpool, who fielded several first team players. With so many Under 21 regulars on first team duty, Joyce was forced to field a team composed largely of youth team players. It was a crucial tactical switch from the boss that brought about an unexpected second half winner and victory; Joyce was on the touchline visibly urging Mitchell to push on higher up the pitch, and there was no surprise when Mitchell supplied the vital cross for the goal.
That kind of tactical flexibility has been paying dividends at Under 21 level for several years. It’s one of the reasons why players like Marcus Rashford and Guillermo Varela can make an apparently seamless adjustment to senior level; they’ve been so well-tutored in using the tools they’ll need to make such an adjustment. And it’s not only tactics – Joyce evidently instils passion and self-belief into his young charges. Witness James Weir surging into the box like a young Scholes to take the Reds to victory from a goal down at Middlesbrough recently – sheer determination wresting victory from a situation that had strongly suggested defeat.
More than anything else though, it’s been the enjoyment shown by Joyce’s team this season that has so delighted United fans, contrasting enormously with the toiling grimaces so often haunting the faces of first team players who’ve looked, for much of the season, like they’ve been doing a job someone forced them into. When those same individuals have dropped down to the Under 21s, as they often have when coming back from injury, they’ve appeared transformed, enjoying their football again, as if the spirit of Joyce and his young players has galvanised them suddenly into players worthy of the United shirt and happy to be wearing it.
When watching these United youngsters this season, I’ve often heard comments from within the crowd that we could do worse than offer Joyce a stab at the manager’s job at Old Trafford, at least in a caretaker capacity should Van Gaal be released early. But there’s little guarantee he’d succeed; I certainly wouldn’t underestimate the different challenges that role would bring. What I will say is, if United fans are looking for something positive to take away from a dismal season, Joyce and his Under 21s are it.