With this tricky looking fixture away from home and key players missing from the squad, the game was far from a foregone conclusion, but an immense display from my Man of the Match Tyler Blackett and a showing of similar proportions from Mats Daehli ensured United safely navigated their way into the quarter finals to face either Charlton Athletic or Spurs at home (venue undecided as yet) later this month with a 5-1 win.
Regular readers of my match write-ups will be only too aware of how many times this team has failed to start quickly and paid the price, on Thursday night the unit proved that maybe lessons had been learned. It was clear to see there was a determination not to concede in the early stages of the game. Yes they gave away chances and lost possession to a very well schooled Swansea team that was keen to move the ball around and make their home advantage pay right from the outset, but they weren’t going to penetrate United in this mood, not since United learned in the last round that grit and guts harvests rewards.
Alex Bray and Josh Sheehan on the wings were key to Swansea’s ambitions with Luke Williams in midfield feeding passes out wide for them to challenge United’s usual weakness at fullback. With in-form James Loveridge looking dangerous inside and outside the box and with or without the ball, it seemed like United’s defence was in for an uncomfortable night, but they soon got to grips with the threat as Swansea ran out of ideas.
After a short spell of Swansea pressure was well dealt with single-handedly by Blackett the fullbacks began to grow in confidence. Fifteen year old Nicholas Ioannou, again drafted into the team just as he was in the last round versus Derby County (this time as cover for the injured Luke McCullough) had another promising night with the help of Blackett. His positioning was slack for the Swansea goal but other than that the lad again showed remarkable courage to perform in front of a reported 4,000 spectators (I reckon more like 3,000 but who’s counting?!), he even get himself an unexpected assist along the way.
Luke Hendrie and Jack Rudge were ordered to cover and support both attack and defence in a two man midfield that is starting to look a potent combination in front of a front four. They carried out the task with intelligence beyond their years. With Sam Byrne ordered to chase down and pressure the Swansea defence, the workrate and dogged persistence of the two midfielders helped United gain – and then keep – possession of the ball and field position.
You have to admire Swansea for believing in their ‘pass and move – play it out of defence’ philosophy, but they were certainly guilty of overplaying and not learning from their mistakes throughout the entire ninety minutes.
For me, anyone who doesn’t see talent in Adnan Januzaj isn’t really watching the same player as I am. He’s skilful, confident and possesses great footwork and vision, however, his late omission from the team due to an apparent injury was the catalyst to this game becoming somewhat of an exhibition show. His absence allowed Mats Daehli a more central and free role rather than his usual wider role. Adnan is direct, he loves to collect the ball just inside the oppositions half and run at players to get them back tracking and on the wrong foot. Mats on the other hand likes to find space further up the field and dance his way across field. Swansea’s jittery defenders couldn’t deal with him as he cleverly drew them in then delivered pass after pass between players who’d isolated themselves through their own indecision. Mats had a field day and it was no surprise that GvV produced one of his best displays for the club with Mats pulling the strings, GvV can rarely keep up with Adnan to link up but with Mats it was simple, he just needed to pick the right moments.
A missed header from Loveridge and a well tipped over the bar shot from Nathan Waters was all Swansea had to show for an opening half hour that saw them trade blows with United. The pressure game was working and United were winning possession easily and were never far from goal when it happened. Barmby wasted some good opportunities when he had space and time to move into but chose to shoot when there were better options, Hendrie was unlucky not to score from close range after another teasing run and exquisite Daehli pass saw the overlapping Weir break free down the right and deliver an accurate cut-back into the box. The effort was well saved, but United were starting to figure out what was going to win them the game, and Mats Daehli was integral to that.
It took until the 39th minute for United to break the deadlock when an Ioannou clearance out of defence caused more indecision in the Swansea defence. The keeper came, the defender was unsure, Barmby was positive. He beat everyone to the ball and touched it past the onrushing keeper, with much to do and from an acute angle just inside the box, Barmby side-footed a shot that by-passed two Swansea defenders trying to cover, a little reminiscent of Mark Hughes in Rotterdam in ’91, only this was from the other side.
1-0 and probably a fair reflection of the first half, but a minute later Byrne and Barmby linked up to set Daehli rushing through from just inside the oppositions half. Bearing down on goal and 3v2, United looked odds-on to double their lead, Daehli made no mistake in picking out van Velzen at the back post and he was left with a simple tap-in. Subsequent appeals for offside against Daehli were fruitless and the goal stood, further examination of replays confirmed Daehli had timed his run to perfection.
2-0 was now looking a little unfair on Swansea at the break but worse was to come for them. Barmby again benefitted from a misplaced Swansea pass and he drove goalwards from the right, he played a fortunate one-two with van Velzen then blasted a shot that fell kindly for Byrne despite it unwittingly hitting him on the back of the legs. Byrne beat the keeper with the outside of his boot and got his reward for a fine first half effort that saw him closing down in the final third and not allowing the opposition to settle for a moment. He was long overdue being replaced when Gorre came on for him after 80 minutes, the biting cold and the workload had left Byrne blowing for air throughout the entire second half! Again there were futile calls for his goal to be chalked off for offside but Byrne was miles onside when Barmby blasted the original shot.
The second half was something of a precession with the game already in the bag for United. It began in pretty much the same way the first had ended and saw van Velzen benefit from a decent James Weir foray into the danger area, Weir’s pass to van Velzen on the edge of the box was smartly touched out of his feet and into space beyond two defenders before passing a curling shot into the net for 4-0.
It’s hard to say how much of van Velzens success was down to him or the eagerness of Swansea’s defenders to drop off, but either way I hope he realises that his directness and overlapping runs into space really bore fruit for him, he doesn’t need to pick the ball up on the halfway line and perform 838 stepovers and beat 45 men to get where he’s going.
Barmby was replaced shortly after and Swansea decided enough was enough. They eventually realised that occasionally they need to be a bit more direct to get United on the back foot. A few minutes later they got their rewards with a goal for James Loveridge who was left unmarked by Iaonnou and then ignored by a fascinating decision by Wilson to walk away from the danger. A cross from the right was skewed in the air by Loveridge who had time to hit the deck, get up unopposed and collect the rebound before calmly finding the corner of the net with a well struck volley. The marking was awful from United and they were rightly punished for failing to deal with the cross and failing to get tight to their markers.
For the remainder of the night Swansea continued to give the ball away and United took their foot off the gas. There were two goals disallowed for offside on the occasions United decided it was time to turn up the heat, one was the correct decision the other wasn’t but it was irrelevant and it was left to Tyler Blackett to cap a wonderful night and wonderful individual performance with a moment of real power and finesse.
Gorre won a freekick on the edge of the box which was played short for Blackett to blast (and I mean BLAST) into the net from fully 25yds with just a minute or so to play.
One player to note from the evening who you might not have heard of before was Under 16 player Josh Harrop. Josh was called into the squad to replace Adnan Januzaj and came on for Hendrie for about quarter of an hour. In that time, Harrop looked comfortable on the ball and didn’t look at all out of place. Josh first came to my attention last May when a makeshift United U18s team took on Everton at Carrington, he’s blessed with balance similar to Daehli, his movement and physique are similar to Lawrence and he’s highly thought of within United. He makes the step from U16s to U18s next season and definitely a player to look out for.
The next round must be played by the 26th February and either played at Old Trafford or Moss Lane in Altrincham. These boys have come a very long way in six months and they deserve your support. One thing is for sure, they’ll put on a show for us and give it all they’ve got….who can ask for more than that?