Memphis Depay provides a spark but Manchester United laborious again
Manchester United's dire 1-0 win over Sheffield United in the third round of the FA Cup may only bring further questions for manager Louis van Gaal.
The manner of the victory, this time over a League One side, was worryingly and familiarly laborious. On countless occasions, a Manchester United player would receive the ball without knowing what to do with it. As a result, passing was slow, and counter-attacking -- essential against a team that defended so well and sat so deep -- was unforgivably nonexistent.
It is difficult to see the rationale behind Van Gaal's game plan, given that his players are consistently positioned behind the ball and make very little effort to play it through the lines in the final third. This was a game when the tactical system seemed to inhibit individual players more than ever and if Van Gaal's team continue to produce performances of this nature, they will find themselves edging slowly down the Premier League table.
On a positive note, Memphis Depay was rewarded for his perseverance by being brought down for the penalty. Wayne Rooney handled the ensuing responsibility with impressive confidence, particularly given the anxiety of the closing minutes.
Perhaps this can be a moment for Depay to stake a greater claim as a starter, to add dynamism to his team's attack. If so, it has not come a moment too soon.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK David De Gea, 6 -- Did not have much to do but dealt competently with the one effort Sheffield United had on target and moved the ball out well from the back.
DF Matteo Darmian, 7 -- Probably his team's most resourceful starter. Had their first attempt on target and played as high up as a winger on many occasions, but was a little isolated when he came to attack.
DF Chris Smalling, 6 -- Dealt confidently with the visitors' few attacks. Passing was not quite as purposeful as in recent games.
DF Daley Blind, 6 -- Played the ball reasonably well through the lines and got forward but was unable to get his effort on target.
DF Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, 6 -- A competent performance. Was largely untroubled throughout, though failed to add much attacking thrust down the left.
MF Bastian Schweinsteiger, 6 -- Good positioning, taking the ball from De Gea almost as a third centre-back on occasion and spreading the play with confidence. Always looked to get the ball forward but suffered from a lack of passing options ahead of him.
MF Marouane Fellaini, 5 -- His play was slow rather than conspicuously poor, often seeming to form decisions after he had received possession. The team lacked continuity in moving defence to attack with him in central midfield.
MF Ander Herrera, 6 -- Typically busy but sadly ineffective. Perhaps the most purposeful in movement of his team's midfielders, but did not execute his passes in attack as well as he normally does, and was not as inventive with the ball as usual.
MF Juan Mata, 5 -- A poor performance in a game where, against a deep-lying defence, he would have been expected to set the tempo. Too few passes were played with urgency or dangerous angles.
MF Anthony Martial, 6 -- An evening of much toil for no reward. Martial worked hard on the flanks with little support. Was too often called upon to provide for others when he should be the focus of the attack.
FW Wayne Rooney, 6 -- Scored a last minute penalty with impressive composure to take his team through. Yet the rest of his performance was below-par, with his movement sluggish and his pass selection often tentative.
MF Jesse Lingard, 6 -- Made some useful runs, stretching the play for his team.
MF Memphis Depay, 7 -- A bright presence from the moment he was introduced. Hit two shots narrowly wide and his injury-time dribble saw him brought down for the game's decisive penalty.
MF Andreas Pereira, 6 -- A few bright moments but nothing too much to write home about.
Musa Okwonga is a football author, poet, musician, broadcaster and social commentator. He is on Twitter @Okwonga.