There was always going to be a huge element of risk when Manchester United drew up their transfer plans for their youth players last summer.
After winning promotion back to the Premier League 2 Division One most would have expected Neil Wood’s side to retain their best youth talent and look to seize their return to the top level of youth football. They didn’t.
Instead the United chiefs took the selfless approach, allowing the older members of their squad to pursue vital loan moves elsewhere, leaving manager Wood with an exceptionally young squad, even by U23s level.
It was a huge risk. Even given mitigation it would be global news if United were relegated again, but it is credit to an incredible pool of players that they are now dreaming of winning the league instead.
Scoring six goals in successive wins over Liverpool and Blackburn helped restore the goal difference to neutral after a testing start to the campaign, now United are starting to show real signs of progress in a squad inspired by the talents of Hannibal and Shola Shoretire – both shining in the vacancies left by the absent loan stars.
Their win over Arsenal on Friday night was a huge show of character from a United side which possesses both the silky individual talent of their recently promoted first-team stars and the streetwise brawn required to grind out difficult wins in testing conditions.
It was always going to take something special to warm up Leigh Sports Village on a freezing Friday night, thankfully the under soil heating wasn’t the only thing which rose to the occasion. Those facilities are the very reason United U23s play at Leigh, with club officials confident the game was never in doubt of being postponed, despite the temperature dropping to minus four.
Dylan Levitt missed out on the match as he nears a loan move to Croatian side NK Istra on loan until the end of the season, so it fell upon Ethan Galbraith to pull the strings in midfield. He did just that.
Channelling his inner Tom Brady with a smart ball from deep midfield the Northern Ireland international carved open the Arsenal defence, Hannibal taking the ball down before rounding the keeper.
The 18-year-old, ones of thosedpromoted to the first-team bubble, looked certain to put the ball into the back of the net, before being downed by the cynical Daniel Oyegoke. A red card for the Arsenal defender and the chance for Joe Hugill to showcase why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is backing him to take penalties at this level.
Maybe he shouldn’t have. Hugill’s weak effort easily saved by Arthur Okonkwo as he dived low to his level.
United should have been ahead, it is credit to Wood’s side that they responded in the perfect manner, suffocating the Arsenal threat and commanding the tempo of match.
Soon they’d have their goal, Harvey Neville firing in low from the edge of the box after a clever pull back from the left win. It’s been a while since a Neville opened the scoring for United.
Then a blow for United as Hannibal went down and took a blow to his arm. He tried to continue, but grimaced, shortly being replaced by Bjorn Hardley – making his debut at this level.
So with Amad out with illness and Hannibal off the pitch United were down to just one player who is in their first-team bubble; Shoretire. He certainly relished the limelight.
A quick Ronaldo-chop from the 17-year-old on the edge of the box drew an obvious free-kick. Shoretire took responsibility himself, drilling an effort off the bar. Arsenal’s rattling woodwork the only thing preventing United from more than a one-goal lead at the break.
After the break came a period of play which defined the game. A sensational save from the vocal Matej Kovar denying the lively Flo Balogun, before Tim Akinola headed wide from a corner.
United were on the ropes, but soon they’d be on the attack. Shoretire twinkling on the left wing and inspiring his teammates to lift their heads and regain their composure.
A second was to follow as Hugill made immense for his penalty miss in style, capitalising on a loose ball in the six-yard box to expertly poke the ball beyond the hapless Okonkwo. Not the most spectacular he’ll ever score, but one of the sweetest.
As the clocked ticked down United asserted their dominance, Shoretire tormenting the Arsenal defence with his perpetual dribbles into the box.
His reward was a late penalty, as an Arsenal leg clumsily flawed him. There was nothing clumsy about the finish, as Shoretire took the ball and calmly slotted it into the bottom right corner – the goal his performance deserved.
With another impressive win under their belt United are now up to fourth in the league, only one point behind leaders Man City – although there are still plenty of games to play before the table really tells the truth.
United’s priority remains the process rather than consequentialism at youth level – but soon they could be reaping the reward of a league title for their brave transfer risk which has already allowed the next group of hopefuls shine well ahead of schedule.