Manchester United’s U23s continued their terrific form as they defeated Arsenal 3-0 at Leigh Sports Village on Friday night.
Goals from right-back Harvey Neville, forward Joe Hugill, and newly promoted first-team winger Shola Shoretire led the team to its third consecutive victory in Premier League 2 Division 1 following impressive wins over Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool in the last two weeks.
United entered Friday’s contest in sixth place with 21 points and climbed into fourth position with three points against an Arsenal side that had drawn its last two matches against Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Neil Wood made three changes from the starting eleven that mounted a 6-4 comeback win against Blackburn last Friday: goalkeeper Matej Kovar replaced fellow Czech Republic native Ondrej Mastny; central midfielder Mark Helm filled in for Dylan Levitt, who is on the verge of completing a loan to NK Istra 1961 in the Croatian First Division, according to the Manchester Evening News; and winger Connor Stanley started in place of in-form Amad Diallo, who was sidelined due to illness but has recorded three goals and three assists in his first two matches at the club.
Arsenal started the match quickly, forcing Kovar to come to the top of the box to stop an attack in the third minute. However, momentum shifted in United’s favor soon after and remained with the Red Devils for the rest of the game.
In the seventh minute, captain and center back Ethan Galbraith played a lofted ball over Arsenal’s back line to send newly promoted first team midfielder Hannibal Mejbri into the box one-on-one with keeper Arthur Okonkwo. Center back Daniel Oyegoke clipped Hannibal from behind in an attempt to stop the attack and received a red card, putting Arsenal down to 10 men for the rest of the match and giving United the opportunity to take an early 1-0 lead.
Hugill, who first team manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stated should be ruthless and take every scoring opportunity he can, failed to convert from the spot as Okonkwo easily saved the striker’s shot.
The 17-year-old redeemed himself in the 22nd minute by crossing the ball into the center of the box to assist Neville’s opening goal.
Neville said he was happy to score his first U-23s goal in an interview on MUTV following the match.
“It’s something I’ve really been striving to do, going forward, getting more goals, and helping the team,” Neville said.
A minute later, however, United was dealt a blow as Hannibal came off due to an apparent shoulder injury suffered in the 13th minute. The Frenchman attempted to continue playing after he lost his balance in the box and landed awkwardly on his right shoulder, but it was clear that he was in significant discomfort and couldn’t carry on. Bjorn Hardley made his U23 debut as he was substituted on and slotted next to Reece Devine as the center back duo, which moved Galbraith up the pitch as the No. 6 sitting in front of the back line.
The Gunners’ leading goalscorer Folarin Balogun had the chance to draw the game level in the 27th minute when he brought down a cross just above the six-yard box, but his shot was a routine save for Kovar.
The story for the remainder of the first half was Arsenal’s shaky defense, which seemed fortunate to escape the first half down by one goal. Two efforts by Arsenal defenders to either clear or play the ball to Okonkwo nearly resulted in own goals, and the team conceded two fouls at the top of the box within six minutes. Shoretire hit the crossbar with a beautiful side-footed strike on the first free kick, and Galbraith forced Okonkwo to stretch and tip his shot out of play on the second attempt.
Arsenal started the second half well, immediately calling Kovar into action to save Balogun’s perfectly placed strike following kickoff. That was the Gunners’ only significant chance of the half, however, and United truly displayed its talent in a dominant second-half performance.
Wood’s side was firing on all cylinders, using the creativity and technical ability of its midfielders to carve apart Arsenal’s defense and pick out through balls to forwards in the box. The game opened up in United’s favor as the team continued to attack and keep possession.
Stanley almost scored United’s second goal of the night in the 55th minute as he spun off of his defender and drove into the box, but Okonkwo saved his shot and the ball ricocheted off of the crossbar.
Four minutes later, left back Alvaro Fernandez received the ball from Shoretire at the byline and picked out Hugill, who poked it past Okonkwo for United’s second goal. He became the top scorer in Division 1 with 10 goals.
Although he didn’t score, Fernandez was United’s standout performer. The Spaniard continuously overlapped Stanley on the wing, whipped crosses into forwards in dangerous areas, cut inside into the box, and rang a shot off the post in the 94th minute.
Midfielder Charlie McCann looked destined to score in the 84th minute, but he skied a shot over the net from the center of the box. Helm, who performed well in midfield throughout the night, hit the crossbar a minute later after creating space with a couple of stepovers, nearly increasing United’s lead.
Four minutes later, however, United did just that. Shoretire sprinted at a defender, played the ball around him, and was taken down in the box for a penalty. The 17-year-old “wonderkid” converted from the spot with conviction to record his sixth goal of the season and make the score 3-0.
United once again displayed its incredible goal scoring prowess on Friday, increasing its tally to 42 goals scored this campaign. However, the side has also conceded 39 goals, making last night’s clean sheet far more valuable.
Wood spoke about the importance of the clean sheet in a post-match interview on MUTV.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Wood said. “I think the out-of-possession work that we’ve been doing in training and been working on, I think it showed quite well tonight. Every time it broke down, we had players around the ball, putting tackles in, sprinting back, so [I’m] very pleased.”
Amad, Shoretire, and Hannibal (barring injury) will continue to train with the first team in the meantime.