It was sixth versus seventh in the last game of the Premier League 2 season. The sides had played each other on the same day last week, when Manchester United came out resoundingly on top with a 6-2 win and went a point ahead.
Hoping for a reaction, Derby County made seven changes and used a diamond formation. At the tip of the diamond, Louis Watson had nine first team appearances this season, while United gave starts to under 18 regulars, Charlie McNeill and Isak Hansen-Aaroen, at this level.
The visitors pressed aggressively early on, United struggled to play it out and through midfield.
On the ball, Derby threatened down United’s left and got in behind left-back, Reece Devine, who isn’t a regular in the position.
Devine, however, adjusted and contributed in attack.
On the 13th minute, United looked dangerous when Shola Shoretire linked up well with Mark Helm in the final third. Helm spotted Shoretire’s clever run through Derby’s defence and scooped a ball over the top. Shoretire just couldn’t reach it to finish.
Derby eked out more possession after that. They passed it crisply and won midfield duels. But against the run of play, United scored on the 26th minute. The Reds worked the ball through midfield and out to the left where Devine dribbled forward with pace. He beat the opposing full-back before laying it off to Hannibal Mejbri inside. On the stretch, Mejbri dug out a powerful strike that hit the left top corner from just outside the D.
Charlie Savage came on for the injured Mark Helm on the 33rd minute, another with little experience at this level.
Derby controlled possession for the most part and played some direct long balls at United’s defence but captain, Will Fish, and Max Taylor at center back handled attacks well until just before half-time.
Left back, Dylan Williams hooked a great cross over the United center backs to the back post but Derby top scorer, Cameron Cresswell, headed just wide.
After the break, Derby started well. They pressed with energy and passed one-touch in the final third, although United did still threaten on the break.
The equaliser came on the 52nd minute. Again, with one-touch passing, Derby worked it out to their right back, Connor Dixon in space. He whipped in a brilliant cross, which Cresswell powered in with a diving header through Ondrej Mastny’s gloves. However, Mejbri had been down with a head injury just before the goal.
Minutes later, after getting fouled and still frustrated, Mejbri waved the imaginary card at the referee looking for his opponent to be booked. The referee instead issued Mejbri with a second yellow for dissent.
It wasn’t long until Derby capitalised on United’s ten men. Picking it up in the middle, Watson moved it out to the right. The driven low cross into the box went through forward, Festy Ebosele, before falling to the arriving Watson, who side footed it high into the net.
United coach, Neil Wood, shuffled the team to try to stabilise things. He went to a back three and brought on Omari Forson and Alvaro Fernandez but Derby continued to push the home team back.
Derby put the game out of reach on the 69th minute with an incisive counter-attack. Watson was involved again in midfield where he moved it quickly to Ebosele on the right. Ebosele then drove at the United defence, facing them up, before squaring it to the left inside the box. Cresswell stepped onto it, drilling it into the roof of the net.
After that it was damage limitation for United. Derby had several more good chances while hemming in an increasingly frustrated United side up to the final whistle.
Though United’s side was young, the defeat will underline the step-up required at under 23 level for next season.