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Manchester United starlet Willock: Utrecht experience gives me a chance

The Manchester United academy is used to welcoming players from Europe but in Matty Willock, they have sent one the other way.

The 21-year-old midfielder swapped the fringes of Jose Mourinho's first team for the Netherlands and FC Utrecht in the summer.

The reason, he says, was simple. To improve.

"I've settled into the place," Willock tells ESPN FC.

"I'm enjoying training and I feel like I've settled in quite well. There is a different style of play over here compared to England.

"Over here I think it's a lot more tactical and you play out from the back a lot more in Holland than you do in England. It's good for me because I'm learning a different style of play, which I think has definitely improved me as a player.

"Off the pitch, it's different. Obviously, I'm used to being around my family all the time. I'm adjusting to life off the pitch, as well."

Willock, who joined United in 2012 after being released by Arsenal at 15, has split his time at Utrecht -- sixth in Eredivisie -- between the first team and the youth team.

He's made three substitute appearances for the seniors, including in a 2-1 win at Ajax in November.

"It has been great to be involved, whether I've come on or just being on the bench," he said.

"I'm happy to be involved with the first team and it was great coming on against Ajax. There were a lot of fans there and it was a great result for the team beating Ajax away. It was brilliant and it was a great experience for me.

"We want to push as high as we can and I think we've got a great bunch of players here and a great manager. I think we can definitely be around the top of the table at the end of the season."

Willock is one of three footballing brothers. Chris, 19, left Arsenal for Benfica in the summer while Joe, 18, has made six first team appearances for Arsene Wenger's side this season.

Matty, the oldest, had other options in the summer. He could have stayed at United, where he was named on the bench twice last season, or gone on loan to another English club. Instead, he chose a different challenge.

"To be honest, I didn't really think about going abroad until my agent gave me some loan options," he says.

"I just thought that coming to Utrecht would be a big opportunity. It's different, and I thought I would learn a lot. Especially as a young player, it's good to have different tools so I thought that if I could come over here and learn as much as I can then it would be great for me going forward.

"I think Chris is the same. Obviously Benfica is a massive club and it's a big opportunity for him. He wanted to be around the first team, so I think that was a no-brainer. In terms of my decision, I don't think it affected me. We're on different paths."

Utrecht play NAC Breda on Saturday in their last game before Eredivisie's winter break. Willock will train with United at Carrington during the lay-off before returning to the Netherlands for the second half of the season, which kicks off in January.

It's a chance for sit down with Nicky Butt, United's academy chief, who Willock says was instrumental in his decision to test himself in Europe.

"I spoke to Nicky and he said it would be a great opportunity for me to go," he said.

"It's a good club and we'll be aiming to get into Europe and he thought for me to be a part of that would be a good experience. "Nicky speaks to me regularly. He's played so he knows everything that we're dealing with as a player. He keeps in touch with me and gives me advice all the time."

As an energetic box-to-box central midfielder, there are few better role models for Willock than a man who came through United's academy to play 387 times for the club, and win 39 caps for England.

"Nicky has had a great influence on my career," he adds. "Whether he's been coaching or reserve team manager, he's always taken an interest in me and he has really helped me a lot."

Willock, a former England Under-19 international, signed a new two-year contract with United before agreeing to spend a season away from Old Trafford.

And after getting a taste of Mourinho's first team at the end of last season, he is keen to use his experience to help challenge for a place in next year's squad.

His former reserves teammate Scott McTominay, 21, has already made eight first team appearances this season, and Willock admits his aim is to follow in his friend's footsteps.

"I'm focused on Utrecht at the moment," he said.

"I want to get into the team regularly and help the team as much as I can and see where I am at the end of the season. If I go back to United, I want to be around the first-team and try to challenge for a position.

"I trained with the first team quite a bit last season, which was an unbelievable experience. To make the first team squad twice was great.

"My main goal last season was really to try to train with the first team more and try to get closer to it. I was at that age, turning 20, and I felt like it was the right age for me to try to step up.

"I worked as hard as I could and towards the end of the season it started to pay off. "Scott is a good player. I played with him a lot in the youth teams. He works so hard and it's definitely inspirational. If he can do it, there's no reason why, with hard work, I can't."

And his advice to any other young English player who has the chance to head to Europe?

"I've spoken to quite a few players at home and a lot of my friends who play and they've asked me what it's like," he said.

"I've told them that it's a great experience to come abroad. You can learn so much. I think it makes you a better all-round player. Hopefully I'll improve while I'm here. "I've only been here a few months and even though I don't play every game, I've improved so much. I've learnt a lot and that's why I would advise anyone to do it. It's great experience."