Manchester United lucky to escape with FA Cup win vs. Sheffield United
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Three thoughts from Old Trafford where Manchester United slipped past Sheffield United, 1-0, to advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
1. Lucky escape for Man United
Manchester United's traditional penchant for late winners has not been forgotten yet, but there was no glory in this narrow victory. Wayne Rooney slammed home his 93rd-minute spot kick to end Sheffield United's brave resistance at Old Trafford, but the fact that United could be taken so far by a side from the third division should cause great concern.
Regardless of the winner, this was a move straight back to square one. An improved performance against Chelsea had brought hope, the tepid clash with Swansea had brought victory at the ninth attempt, but Manchester United's third home game in a row brought only renewed disappointment until the dramatic final act.
Louis van Gaal's side toiled against Sheffield United and were fortunate that Dean Hammond went to ground to connect with Memphis Depay's shin, offering the home side a get out of jail card that they did not deserve. This was bad football. Dull football. Joyless football. This was not good enough.
While some have been quick to field their reserves in the FA Cup, Van Gaal had no intention of following their lead. This was a strong United side, as well it should have been. With no Champions League distractions, this is a very winnable competition. It's been nearly 16 years since United's last FA Cup triumph and Arsenal's success last May lifted the Gunners above United in the all-time winners table. There was everything to play for and Van Gaal knew it. "When I am not obliged to rotate, I do not rotate," he said before the game. Thus there were only three changes with Matteo Darmian, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Marouane Fellaini coming in for the tiring Ashely Young and Morgan Schneiderlin, as well as the injured Phil Jones. But this show of strength meant nothing. It was 69 minutes before their first shot on target, a weak effort from Darmian that trundled into Sheffield United goalkeeper George Long's hands.
Perhaps this shouldn't have been any surprise. United have only scored three first-half goals at home all season and none at all since Sept. 30, and one of those was an own goal. If nothing else, Old Trafford is certainly a stadium where you never have to worry about turning up late.
It was all so static and unadventurous. Possession was retained with ease and Sheffield United, after a start ferocious enough to startle anyone who watched their tame capitulation to Peterborough, ceded territory happily. United lacked inspiration and played so slowly that perspiration wasn't a problem either. Borthwick-Jackson was one of the few signs of hope in the malaise, pushing up from left-back and causing problems, but with Rooney controlled and largely nullified, there was no focal point for the attacks. At one point, Fellaini launched a long ball towards Juan Mata, as fundamental a misuse of resources as you'll find in modern football.
The second half brought more of the same until a burst of pressure from the Blades, unsuccessful sorties from Billy Sharp and Chris Basham, was the signal for a change. Off came Ander Herrera and Mata for Depay and Jesse Lingard, with Van Gaal hopeful that a dual injection of pace would bring a transformation. It did at least bring a shot.
On 66 minutes, Depay cut inside and launched a howitzer that screamed past Long's post and clattered into the advertising hoardings. The United fans mockingly celebrated the effort as if it was a goal. Depay slipped another one wide in the 90th minute, but there was no laughter this time. Many of United's fans were already streaming to the exits. You could understand their desire to leave, but they should have known better. Even when they're this bad, it's always unwise to write this team off.
2. Patience wearing thin at Old Trafford
All things considered, the resolve of the Manchester United supporters held up well here. For 39 minutes, they watched their richly remunerated players struggle artlessly against third-flight Sheffield United and they did their best not to moan about it. But then Bastian Schweinsteiger pushed the players' luck a little too far. Striding forward towards the opposition penalty area, he looked up to assess his options, stopped dead in his tracks and started to circle around, looking to pass the ball backwards. That was it. The United fans were furious, howling at him for his lack of imagination, for the team's lack of guile, for everything that they are now and for the curse of the memories of what they were.
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United players shouldn't break up their own attacking moves for safety passes in any circumstances, but certainly never at home to limited opposition. There is admiration for Van Gaal here, particularly in his bloody-minded approach to the press. There is support too, a mocking chant for Jose Mourinho from the visiting fans was quickly shouted down by home supporters who mistakenly thought it was coming from their own ranks. But patience is wearing thin. The belief that supporters deserve value for their money takes on a new dimension at Old Trafford. Season ticket holders were quite literally forced to buy tickets for Saturday's match. Given the standard of the football, you can understand why the club are reduced to this.
3. Tough break for hard-working Blades
It had been nearly 23 years since Sheffield United beat Manchester United, but the effort to repeat that success was palpable. Goals from Glyn Hodges and Jamie Hoyland gave the Blades victory that day and over 8,500 supporters made the journey to Old Trafford to see if it could happen again. They left disappointed, but filled with pride for the way their players fought.
Manager Nigel Adkins was effusive and excited before kick-off, leading to suspicions among some that he might be simply content to enjoy the day out. Those suspicions proved wildly misplaced. He sent his team out with two strikers, Billy Sharp and Conor Sammon, reverting to a 4-1-4-1 midway through the first half only after a close shave that saw Rooney through on goal, with David Edgar and Jay McEveley getting back just in time to snuff out the danger.
In the middle, Hammond and Chris Basham worked hard to reduce the space and close the gaps, denying United easy routes to goal. With Edgar and Neil Collins taking it in turns to rough up Rooney in the centre and with Antony Martial a peripheral figure on the left, chances were few and far between. And while the Blades spent most of the half on the back foot, they broke enough times to make their hosts nervous. Darmian was forced to head one Paul Coutts cross behind for a corner and Sammon stung the hands of David De Gea.
With a little more pace and little more luck, perhaps they might have conjured something up for themselves. At the very least, they deserved the chance to take Van Gaal's side back to Sheffield. Their only consolation is that if their players show this much will in the remainder of the season, they might not linger in the third flight for much longer.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.