Unlike what tends to happen with continental football, Reserves and Academy football have been widely popular with British fans for more than a century, having been created the first official competition back in 1911.
The Premier Reserve League was founded in 1999, being Manchester United the most decorated club since then with five regional titles (2002, 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2012) and four national titles (2005, 2006, 2010 and 2012).
A new system of competition was established for the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, in a bid to reignite both the Premier Reserve League (now referred to as the Under-21 Premier League) and the Premier Academy League (now referred to as the Under-18 Premier League).
The new set-up includes three categories, both for Under-21 and Under-18 players:
-Premier Development League 1: Academies with a Category 1 rating, 22 clubs (mostly from the Premier League).
-Premier Development League 2: Academies with a Category 2 rating, 23 clubs (mostly from the Championship).
-Premier Development League 3: Academies with a Category 3 or 4 rating, 65 clubs (from the League One, the League Two and the Conference).
As the season reached its half-way point, it is about time to check how things fared for Manchester United.
They were included in the group 2 of the Premier Development League 1 along with Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Newcastle United and Stoke City, and from August to December faced each other in a double round-robin.
The young Red Devils finished in 2nd spot in both competitions, automatically qualifying for the Elite Group Stage, in which they will face the best young players in the country:
-Under-21: Arsenal, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton.
-Under-18: Reading, Bolton, Everton, Chelsea, Fulham, Crystal Palace and Southampton.
It is worth to notice that Manchester United and Southampton are the only two clubs having reached the Elite Group Stage in both categories.
Manchester United Under-21
The team coached by Warren Joyce started the competition in fashion style winning the first three matches (1-0 v Stoke City, 2-1 v Tottenham Hotspur and 4-2 v Newcastle United) but then had a blip in form, resulting in just one victory out to eight encounters.
United had to wait until the last match of the first phase to seal his place for the Elite Group, as they had to win away to Aston Villa, something they achieve in one of the most convincing performances of the season so far courtesy of two goals from Federico Macheda and Bébé.
Joyce has utilized as many as 35 players, including first-teamers (Anders Lindegaard, Jonny Evans, Alexander Büttner, Darren Fletcher, Nick Powell, Bébé, Ángelo Henríquez and Federico Macheda) and Under-18 players (Liam Grimshaw, Mats Moller Daehli, Adnan Januzaj and Jack Barmby).
However, the core of the team was made of Reserves players born between 1991 and 1993 such as Sam Johnstone, Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wooton, Ryan Tunncliffe and Davide Petrucci.
On the other hand, other key players such as Michael Keane (Leicester City), Jesse Lingard (Leicester City), Joshua King (Blackburn Rovers) and Robert Brady (Hull City) were loaned to the aforementioned Championship sides in order to gain much valuable experience.
The ever-reliable Scott Wooton has arguably been the best performer of the season so far. The former Liverpool player has even featured four times for the first-team, including two Champions League appearances.
Manchester United Reserves are also in contention in both the Manchester Senior Cup (they have recorded three wins out of three matches) and the Lancashire Senior Cup (they reached the semi-final after beating Morecambe 1-0).
The most disappointing aspect of the season is undoubtedly William Keane’s horrific injury sustained while on international duty with England Under-19 in summer. The prolific striker is yet to play this season and could still be around a couple of months on the sidelines.
Manchester United Under-18
The team coached by Paul McGuinness is having a season of stark contrasts. On the one hand, the Under-18s have played some terrific attacking football. On the other hand, they have lacked solidity in defense. It could be said that, to some extent, the Under-18s have been mirroring the first-team.
The likes of Mats Moller Daehli, Adnan Januzaj and Andrés Pereira are a joy to watch with their sublime pieces of geniality, and James Wilson has consolidated himself as a proven goal scorer.
Right-back Donald Love is perhaps the revelation so the season so far, playing in so-called Rafael Da Silva’s style, while defender Liam Grimshaw and midfielder Ben Pearson have also been impressive.
The Belgian starlet Adnan Januzaj, who is still a 17-year-old lad, has been permanently promoted to the Under-21s for the remainder of the season and will likely be followed in the short-team by all the aforementioned.
An extended injury of the highly-promising centre-back Nicholas Ioannou has contributed to United’s defensive frailty, as he has been able to play only a handful of games this season.
The lowest point of the season was undoubtedly the Youth Cup third-round knock-out by Burnley at Old Trafford. A 4-3 defeat was very hard to stomach, especially considering that this bunch of players were poised for a long-run in the Youth FA Cup.