Manchester United U23s are under 23 in name only. Luca Ercolani was the only starter against Leicester aged 20 and three of his teammates are still 17 playing in an age group above.
The bench featured the much-hyped 16-year-old Shola Shoretire, introduced in the second-half. Leicester were skippered by Sam Hughes, 23, and their opening goalscorer Al Reghba turns 21 in January.
United’s promotion back to the top tier of the Premier League 2 ensures more strident tests against the best academies as their boys turn into men, but there is also the real risk of being sent back down. The U23s’ relegation two years ago was badly received by the club and on the 2018 pre-season tour by Jose Mourinho, who did not conceal his disapproval of naming relegated players in his squad.
Seasoned experts regarded the 6-0 thrashing of League Two Salford in the EFL Trophy last week as a false dawn and their league opener ended in a predictable defeat. Junior years are cyclical and last season the United second string were an ebullient bunch with a strong core, support from talents knocking on the first-team door and a stellar group of under-18s that underachieved in the 2018-19 FA Youth Cup. The current crop are too callow.
At least Shoretire did not look out of his place on his reserve bow. Privately, the United youth coaching staff have queried the presence of some of the older U23s and the swift promotion for Shoretire did not come as a surprise. He was close to a consolation goal in added time.
Already hampered by injury to Ethan Laird and Dylan Levitt’s loan to Charlton, United were also deprived of Teden Mengi at centre half, perhaps another indication he is soon to be assigned first-team status on a full-time basis. The United U23 coach, Neil Wood, has already seen his assistant Quinton Fortune leave for Reading and the already depleted playing department is bound to be raided again.
Mengi’s absence was offset by Dishon Bernard, a starter in the academy-laden Europa League tie in Astana last November, and the Londoner was the only United starter with a physicality to match their imposing opponents. Bernard has attracted interest from Football League clubs pondering late loans before the window closes on October 5.
Ondrej Mastny was a more accomplished presence between the sticks than the dropped Jacob Carney and unfortunate to concede to Reghba, played in by a deflection off James Garner from Bernard’s clearance.
United at least had the relative seniority of Ethan Galbraith and Garner in midfield, though there is confusion at United as to why Garner is stalling on a Championship loan move. Garner cut a frustrated figure again and could have settled into a Championship club over a fortnight ago, having spoken with the Huddersfield coach Carlos Corberan.
Garner and Galbraith, fresh from a 45-minute run-out with the first-team at Villa Park on Saturday were overwhelmed at times with Hannibal Mejbri too detached as the 10. Leicester hit the woodwork twice in the first-half and Hughes wasted two presentable headers at both ends prior to Reghba’s strike.
It was creditable enough that United went into half-time level yet the irony was they should have been ahead. Anthony Elanga, the only specialist forward in the front three, had his shot stopped and point-blank rebound blocked on the line.
The booming Leicester commentator in the gantry repeatedly referred to Elanga as ‘Elgani’ and was loud enough for the Swede to hear whatever wing he was charging down. The United U18s coped without Elanga for their FA Youth Cup run last season but are already over-reliant on his industry and without a suitable forward to alleviate the workload on the 18-year-old. Elanga had four attempts on target.
Hannibal Mejbri barely goes a game without a confrontation and was aggressively shoved to the ground by Mitchell Clarke, four years his senior, and had to be ushered away from confronting the linesman for not advising the referee to flourish red. Gallingly for Mengi, Clarke larruped in Leicester’s second.
United: Mastny, Ercolani, Bernard, Fish, Svidersky, Galbraith, Garner, Mejbri, Elanga, Stanley (Shoretire), Helm