Manchester United fell at FC Astana 2-1 after the Reds — who had already clinched a place in the Europa League group stage — traveled to Kazakhstan with a squad of mostly youth team players.
Solskjaer returned to his preferred 4-2-3-1 that was successful during THAT 10 minute stretch last weekend against Sheffield United in the league. With league duties and injuries looming over an otherwise unnecessary cup matchup, Solskjaer elected to trot out a lineup featuring mostly players that played on the U23 and U18 teams in recent years -- and Lee Grant who is old enough to be many of the players’ father.
The breakthrough came in the 10th minute. Luke Shaw served up from the left wing to Jesse Lingard who was lurking at the top of the box. The United captain (!) drilled the ball with his right foot and it took a deflection off an Astana defender. The Astana keeper, Nenad Erić, didn’t have a chance to save the deflected shot, and Lingard trotted to the corner flag sporting his JL celebration.
The youth players on display in the starting XI proved Solskjaer right that the future is bright. James Garner and debutant Dylan Levitt were cool in possession in the center of the park as the teenage duo were concise with their passes completing a combined 100 out of 103 passes in the first half. Ethan Laird started as the right fullback and proved he was capable at taking on attackers and also overlapping on the wing for overloads — United’s right hand side is clearly locked down for a generation.
However, the wheels came off in the second half as Astanta continued to grow into the game and United failed to kill the game off. In the 54th minute, Shaw juked multiple defenders as he cut towards the near post from the left wing and served up a perfect ball to Tahith Chong. Unfortunately for the winger with an uncertain future at United, he scuffed his shot over the wide open goal. Astana marched right up the field after Chong’s miss. Roman Murtazayev snuck a ball past Axel Tuanzebe inside the box and Dmitri Shomko tucked the ball past debutant Di’Shon Bernard and Grant to level the match in the 55th minute.
Seven minutes later, Astana took the lead. Bernard wasn’t asked to do as much as his debuting counterparts in the first half, but the second half proved to be a nightmare for the youth player. The new starter, who nearly recorded an own goal in the 48th minute after deflecting a dangerous Astana cross just over the crossbar, took his chance to score on his own goal after Antonio Rukavina raced up the right wing without any issues from Angel Gomes and Shaw. The right back played his ball off Bernard and it flew past Grant into the net.
United had a two minute stretch where they nearly found their equalizer. Gomes earned a free kick at the top of the box in the 77th minute after he was fouled during a dribble. He placed an incredible free kick over the wall and on target before an even better save was made by Nenad Erić. United’s chances of tying up the match were dashed again when Erić denied a one-timer from Greenwood that was set up by Gomes.
Ultimately, the team would struggle to breakdown the more experienced and organized defense of Astana and the 2-1 scoreline would hold until the full-time whistle.
Despite the loss, the match against Astana awarded incredible opportunities for many of Manchester United’s youth players to earn their first team debut before they needed to buy proper shaving supplies. While some understandably struggled, the likes of Laird, Garner, Levitt, Greenwood and Gomes proved or continued to prove why they deserve consideration for the senior team.
United are back to England to face newly-appointed Aston Villa on Sunday, Dec. 1 with many of the squad’s regular starters enjoying a full week of rest after the disappointing 3-3 result at Sheffield United. The turnover will be quick after facing off against Tom Hanks’ favorite squad. Manchester United will then host José Mourinho’s Tottenham barely a year after sacking the Portuguese manager.