Adian Manning and Harry Brooke have been regulars in the U21s midfield this season and have established a good rapport across the middle of the park.
In 2024, the U21s have switched to a more expansive 4-2-2-2 shape, which has differed from the first half of the season where they generally played in a 3-4-3 formation.
One of the main drivers for this formation change is a change in personnel. Emmanuel Adegboyega was the nucleus of the back-three back, with the aggressive centre-back playing in two different positions, in and out of possession. But with Adegboyega rightfully heading out on loan, it left them short of central defenders, with Waylon Renecke, Charlie Wilson, and Marcel McIntosh being the only three options.
However, the midfield dynamic has been similar across the season with Manning and Brooke being partnered with Brazilian Pedro Lima, with the latter playing in more advanced areas of late. This has allowed Manning and Brooke to familiarise themselves with each other’s game and build chemistry with one another.
One big similarity in their respective games as of late, is their willingness to back up a press. The U21s tend to be proactive out of possession, with the development team wanting to press high at any given opportunity. They attempted to trap the opposition on the flanks, intending to steal the ball back high in the opposition’s defensive areas.
Despite the U21s pressing as a unified group, there are occasions when opposition teams play through the press, meaning the role of the defensive pivot is important. Either the deep midfielders concede a high volume of space or they decide to back up the press.
Brooke and Manning have done the latter in recent weeks, portraying the forward-thinking nature of the team out of possession. For example, Brooke had wonderful success in retaining possession and winning tackles by following up the press against Stoke in the league.
Harry Brooke’s game has developed positively this season, with the midfielder showing more positive intent on the ball – an area of his game that could have been improved upon in previous seasons. The deep-lying playmaker has been magnificent in recent weeks, and his passing sublime. He has done brilliantly to constantly thread drilled passes into the strikers, enabling the team to link defence to attack.
Brooke’s quality in possession is easy to identify when he’s hitting those forward passes to his attacking teammates but his technical presence is recognised by the coaching staff too, as he is one of the main set-piece takers for the U21s. His quality from a dead ball was displayed during a PL2 game earlier in the season against Leicester, with the ex-Millwall midfielder assisting from two corners.
Harry Brooke has impressed during the 23/24 campaign. Credit: @norwichcityfc
Brooke’s reputation and role with the U21s team focuses heavily on discipline but with his confidence growing rapidly, he’s now travelling with the ball into attacking third areas. This is a massively encouraging sign for Norwich, as they need those traits desperately from central midfield, especially as Pedro Lima provided them before he was given more attacking freedom. However, there needs to be a balance between Brooke’s bursts forward and his protection to the back four.
Brooke’s midfield partner, Adian Manning has had a wonderful season for the development side, scoring six goals, which makes him the third top goalscorer for the U21s. The majority of those goals came earlier in the season when Manning was played as an attacking midfielder, however, the team has benefitted from his deeper presence.
Since making the move back to a double pivot, Manning’s involvement in games has been greater with more responsibility given to the ex-Watford midfielder.
One of Adian’s greatest strengths is his ability to dictate games from deep in a composed manner. With the U21s constantly looking to play into central midfield, it requires a player like him to receive the ball well under pressure before progressing any further.
Manning has portrayed across the season his close ball control, as well as his rhythmic dribbling which has got him out of tight spaces. In his last game, against Bournemouth, he highlighted this impeccably by gliding past his opponents and beating the press on numerous occasions.
Not only does Manning lead by example on the ball, but he also communicates well with his teammates – advising them where to pass. There have been countless examples of Manning demonstrating his view of where the ball should be played.
Linking back to Manning’s wonderful understanding in possession, his ability to increase the tempo of the play is good, with the 20-year-old, constructing one-two passes, as well as creating triangles across the pitch. He is incredibly brave to play through tight angles too, trusting his quality over the thought of a misplaced pass.
Adian’s technical quality in possession is based on the quality of his left foot, which was demonstrated earlier in the season with an array of wonderful goals. However, he transfers that quality into deeper areas to secure sustained spells of possession. He also uses that wand of a left foot to switch the direction of play, which makes the team more unpredictable in possession.
Over the course of the last few seasons, I have been critical of club for loaning out players too late, and I’m worried they may have done the same action again, with Brooke and Manning both deserving of a loan move this season. It might still be a possibility that they go out on loan to a National League club but Norwich’s preference would have been an EFL club.
With Manning signing a new contract this January, I wonder if there were any assurances made to his camp that a loan move would have been a certainty last month.
However, it will be a massive boost for Norwich U21s campaign, if they can keep them both for a full season. The pair have proved their worth as a partnership to the team, and with them both available the U21s have a great chance to be successful in all three competitions.