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Manchester United academy players are getting the best preparation for first-team promotions

It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, Manchester United’s task at the start of every single season is to end it with at least one piece of silverware. They haven’t achieved that since a triumph in the Europa League five years ago.

United’s season used to be declared a success solely on whether or not they had won the Premier League title, and even sometimes it felt like an underachievement if they were only able to win that.

In recent years, those standards have slipped. Erik ten Hag will be desperate to win his first trophy at the club this season, but ultimately, his debut campaign will be judged on whether or not he can guide United back into the Champions League.

Oddly enough, there is one competition United could win with relative ease if they wanted to this season, though that doesn’t mean they have any interest in doing so.

Eyebrows were raised on Tuesday night when Liverpool took to EFL Trophy action against Rochdale, using the clash with their League Two opposition as an opportunity to get more minutes under the belt of summer signing Arthur Melo

The player, capped 22 times by Brazil, was then replaced by 33-year-old midfielder Jay Spearing, who is also a coach in the Liverpool academy set-up. They still lost the match, but it hardly felt like it was in the spirit of the competition.

It is now six years since the EFL changed the format of the competition, inviting 16 teams from clubs with Category One academies to participate in the 64-club competition, giving Premier League and Championship clubs a chance to give meaningful match experience to their bright young hopefuls.

The competition has been heavily criticised since those changes, with many believing the tournament was devalued by caving into the pressure of larger clubs, resulting in many boycotted matches across the country. Bradford famously substituted their goalkeeper after just three minutes in one game in order to comply with the competition rules, while Leicester once fielded a squad worth £45 million in a 2-1 win over Scunthorpe.

Lower-league teams were fined for selecting weakened sides and interest dwindled, with many fans now only interested once their side reaches the semi-finals or the Wembley showpiece.

The EFL Trophy requires any competing side to have at least six players in the starting XI who were under the age of 21 on June 30, 2022, and they can only include a maximum of two players who were over the age of 21 and had made 40 or more appearances at senior level.

It basically means United can use anyone they want, though their focus has always been on using the competition as an opportunity to field their youngsters, rather than pushing the rules to their limits and utilising established players.

United were knocked out in the group stage last year, having reached the last-32 of the competition on the previous two occasions, but it proved to be another valuable experience, with Zidane Iqbal, Charlie Savage and Charlie McNeill having all made their senior debuts since featuring in it last season.

It’s a feeling which is also shared by the players, with promising striker Joe Hugill relishing the opportunity to put his 6ft 2″ frame to the test against defenders he’d rarely face otherwise in the Premier League 2.

“I love it really because they are big physical centre-halves and it is just another aspect of my game to improve on,” he told the Manchester Evening News after scoring against Bradford last year. “Knowing what it is like in the Football League, if you come here in a cup game or like tonight in the Papa John’s, it is good for all of us really.

“It is quite different to play against the men who play long-ball football, but it is another aspect we need to improve on.”

United were successful in their opening win against Carlisle this time around and will be hoping to get out of the group stages again when they face Barrow and Fleetwood away from home next month.

A trip to Wembley might be the dream destination for

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