Manchester United’s defensive ranks at under-23 level have become depleted over the past few weeks.
With Di’Shon Bernard on loan at Salford, Teden Mengi was then loaned out to Derby County. An injury to Will Fish then put more strain on the options, and led to midfielder Ethan Galbraith lining up at centre-back.
United had one other option, promoting Dutch talent Bjorn Hardley from the under-18 side.
Hardley was on the bench against Arsenal on Friday and when Hannibal Mejbri needed to be substituted after an early injury, on he came, with Galbraith moving back into midfield.
What followed was a measured, impressive performance as Hardley showed he is more than capable of stepping up to under-23 level, featuring for 67 minutes in total during a 3-0 win.
Arsenal’s promising striker Folarin Balogun barely had a sniff at goal, despite being so talented that he already has two Europa League goals to his name. Hardley played a big role in successfully keeping him quiet.
Hardley’s weekend was only half-done. The reason he did not start against the Gunners became apparent, when he lined up as a starter for the under-18s against Manchester City less than 24 hours later.
The under-23 game kicked off at 7pm on Friday night and by 11am on Saturday, Hardley was lining up at centre-back in a key under-18s game against rivals Manchester City.
He was excellent once again as a Charlie McNeill inspired side won the game 4-2. The victory means United sit six points clear at the top.
Hardley played just the first 45 minutes before being rested. His job was largely done with United 3-1 up. The only goal the team conceded when he was on the pitch was one where the team expected City to put the ball out of play, only for them to play on and score.
United signed Hardley from NAC Breda in 2019, the same summer Hannibal Mejbri was brought in.
Hardley’s first season was spent entirely with the under-18s, where he was used at left-back as much as he was at centre-back.
This season he has defined his position and while United clearly see him as a key part of a potentially title winning under-18s side, he is also ready to step up to under-18s level.
Summer signing Willy Kambwala is currently out injured. When he returns for the under-18s that could push Hardley up to the 23s more regularly.
It is great to see so much talent coming through the ranks. While much of the recent excitement has been about attacking options like Joe Hugill and Shola Shoretire, Hardley’s progress is a reminder that United have promising defenders too.
Over the next 12 months the 18-year-old has a real opportunity to further establish himself as a top prospect for the future.
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