Erik ten Hag will love what Zidane Iqbal did during Manchester United’s U21s defeat vs Bolton

December 14, 2022

Man United’s U21s were defeated 4-0 by Bolton in the Papa John’s Trophy Round of 16 at the Reebok Stadium on Tuesday..

Although Bolton Wanderers’ stadium will always be known as the Reebok Stadium to the football purist, it was renamed in 2014 and renamed yet again just four years later, changing to the University of Bolton Stadium following a new rights deal.

The Rebook Stadium was a happy hunting ground for Manchester United, who lost just once away at Bolton (November 2004) after the inaugural Premier League season, and it was the Under-21s’ turn to make a visit under the floodlights on Tuesday night.

Bolton were relegated from the Premier League in 2012 and they played a campaign in the fourth division as recently as 2020/21, but they’re back vying for promotion in League One this season, hence their presence in the Papa John’s Trophy.

Bolton’s manager Ian Evatt promised to take playing United’s U21s ‘very seriously’ in his pre-match press conference and he described the possibility of reaching Wembley in the final of the Papa John’s Trophy as ‘a massive carrot at the end’.

So it was little surprise to see Evatt make just four changes from the starting XI that was defeated by Shrewsbury at the weekend. The hosts were heavy favourites to progress from the Round of 16, but it would have been foolish not to respect United’s U21 side, which contained Di’Shon Bernard, Zidane Iqbal and Shola Shoretire in manager Travis Binnion’s starting line up.

There was talk on social media, which appeared sarcastic, about away tickets being like ‘gold dust’ for this match, but the players were greeted with loud chants of ‘UNITED, UNITED, UNITED’ from a packed section of fans when walking onto the pitch.

United started in the 4-3-3 formation and Zidane Iqbal was the anchor of the midfield three, with Charlie Savage and Shoretire ahead of him. Joe Hugill led the attack and Noam Emeran and Isak Hansen-Aaroen started on the left and right wing respectively.

Iqbal looks up to Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Liverpool’s Thiago and he was playing in the ‘connector’ role against Bolton, dropping deep and dictating the play from the back, just like De Jong, who Ten Hag desperately wanted to sign, does.

The 19-year-old started against Cadiz and Real Betis last week and he stood out from the first whistle in front of the United support, which soon broke into a rendition of ’12 days of Cantona’, with Monday’s fading snow surrounding the pitch.

Bernard and Bjorn Hardley started at centre-back but the pair moved wide when Iqbal dropped deep. The Mancheter-born lad looked classy with every touch and Ten Hag will be delighted to see he possesses the quality to play that deep midfield role.

Christian Eriksen expertly plays in that position for the first-team but Iqbal will soon have the 30-year-old looking over his shoulder. Although Iqbal was the U21s’ best player in the first half, he wasn’t involved in what could have been the goal of the season in the Reds’ academy. It was a trademark United counter-attack against a team that was victim to many in yesteryear.

Hansen-Aaroen, Shola Shoretire, Joe Hugill and Noam Emeran were all involved in that wonderful transition, with the four players beautifully playing one-touch football up the pitch, which resulted in the latter coming close to scoring.

It was a genuinely outstanding counter-attack, but there were few of those in the first 45 minutes, with Bolton gradually increasing the pressure. The hosts were dominating the possession and the youngsters had the challenge of weathering the storm.

In the space of two minutes, Bolton’s Will Aimson and Gethin Jones both somehow missed from two yards. Nathan Bishop was relieved, but he was called into action moments later and he produced an excellent save to ensure the scoreline stayed level.

The influence of Ten Hag was seen again with Bishop, who consistently opted to play out from the back. Bishop admitted to the Manchester Evening News in September that comes from Ten Hag and it’s clear he’s listening to the Dutchman’s instructions.

The chat in the media suite at half-time was about Iqbal and that wasn’t surprising. The physicality of Bolton’s first-team naturally gave them an edge, but the technical ability of Iqbal and co, and the hosts’ wasteful finishing, meant it was 0-0 at the break.

After the players defrosted during the interval, Bolton missed another huge chance from a cross. Bolton manager Evatt was exasperated at his side’s wastefulness on the touchline and he brought on the calvary at the hour mark to win the game.

It took seven minutes for Bolton to break the deadlock after those substitutions, but Binnion would have been disappointed at the manner of the goal, as it was Marc Jurado, whose header back to Bishop was short, that delivered a Christmas gift to the League One side. Bishop was left compromised after that pass and Dapo Afolayan couldn’t believe his luck when tucking home.

Bolton then extended their advantage in the 75th minute when Aaron Morlet scored a clever, powerful free-kick from the edge of the box on the left side, with Bishop caught at his near post. The goalkeeper was not happy and looked anger with himself.
That frustration was felt across the pitch and Hardley had to be separated from the Bolton players by the referee just moments later. The result was ruthlessly put beyond United with two quick goals and it’s little wonder that tempers began to flare.

United tried to respond but they couldn’t find a goal. Bolton then scored two deep into injury time to rub salt into the wounds. It was a gross lapse of concentration in the final stages and that is bound to be punished by senior professionals.

It was an admirable performance from Binnion’s side nonetheless, against a strong Bolton team, and it was fitting the game was played at the University of Bolton Stadium, as the U21s are looking to graduate from the academy.

Iqbal currently looks top of his class and it seems he could graduate with first-class honours.