Respite for Van Gaal as Man United ease into the FA Cup quarterfinals
SHREWSBURY, England -- Three thoughts on Manchester United's 3-0 win against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup fifth round.
1. Man United ease through
In the sleepy Shropshire town where Charles Darwin was born and educated, Louis van Gaal's Manchester United tenure was in danger of extinction if his team suffered defeat to a club 59 league places beneath them. Instead, after winning 3-0 at Shrewsbury, the Dutchman survives for at least the next few days.
The week ahead will bring tougher tests in the form of Thursday's Europa League rescue mission against Midtyjlland, followed by Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday. But, unlike Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini's surrender at Chelsea, Van Gaal could not afford to write off the FA Cup as an unwelcome distraction.
If he is to keep his job until the further reaches of the season, then the competition must provide hope that a poor season might somehow be rescued. United will face West Ham at Old Trafford in the quarterfinals.
Just over a year ago, Van Gaal's side travelled to League Two Cambridge in the fourth round and escaped with a 0-0 draw after barely creating a chance.
On Monday, they created lots of opportunities -- Shrews goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler made some fine saves, the pick of which came just before the half hour from Anthony Martial -- but had to wait until the 37th minute for the opening goal, when Chris Smalling's deflected shot saw United's pressure finally tell.
Shrewsbury's regular employment of nine men behind the ball had left centre-back Daley Blind in particular with acres of room to find passes, but it was Cameron Borthwick-Jackson's diagonal and Morgan Schneiderlin's header that put United's captain on the night through to score.
Juan Mata's deft free kick, which sent Leutwiler the wrong way, gave United the type of half-time cushion they have so rarely enjoyed this season. And on the hour, after Shrewsbury had gained a head of attacking steam and thrown off the caution of the first-half, Ander Herrera deftly set up Jesse Lingard at the far post to secure United's progression.
2. Midtyjlland misfits get another chance
Eight of the players, who gave one of the poorest United performances in recent memory when losing 2-1 at Midtyjlland last Thursday, retained their places in Van Gaal's lineup, though with 14 first-team players unavailable, there was nobody else to hide their modesty.
Michael Carrick's omission from midfield appeared a correct decision in the light of a personal horror show in Denmark, though his post-match criticism of United's performance may not have left his manager particularly well disposed, either.
As it was, Schneiderlin, who played in League One for Southampton and has greater mobility than his veteran teammate, far better suited this occasion.
Another lacking form is Memphis Depay and opponents at every level are now aware of what appears to be his only attacking move: Cutting in from the left and the right-foot blast.
Twice Shrewsbury failed to stop the Dutchman performing it in the early stages, but both times home fans laughed as shots rattled off the roof of the Salop Leisure Stand. The third time, it was Depay's left foot that forced a fine save from Leutwiler, low to the left.
But from there, as happens too often, Depay became a bystander and United's best attacks of the first half down the left came from Borthwick-Jackson. Depay began to look annoyed and was especially irked when a 27th-minute free kick, lashed from the edge of the penalty area and heading goalward, came off Anthony Martial's and deflected over.
Borthwick-Jackson, who missed the Midtyjlland defeat due to illness, showed why he has been a rare ray of light in United's season, only to be replaced at half-time by teenager Joe Riley after picking up what looked to be a painful knock.
United fans should worry about that and Lingard limping in the later stages, as well as the injury to sub Will Keane that reduced United to 10 men for the closing stages.
3. Hosts suffer for lack of adventure
Shrewsbury manager Micky Mellon took his coaching badges alongside Ryan Giggs, but their footballing lives have been hugely divergent. Mellon, a journeyman Scot, who played at Burnley, Blackpool and Tranmere Rovers, is scrabbling in the undergrowth of the English game.
As Fleetwood Town's manager, he unearthed Jamie Vardy but his current band, in the League One relegation zone, lack such talent. They had lost three of their last four home games, with the sole win coming when they defeated Sheffield Wednesday in the fourth round.
In midfield, Ian Black, recently of Glasgow Rangers and who won a Scottish Cup with Hearts, had a reputation north of the border for marrying his midfield craft with some sharp practice, and he left an early bruise on Ander Herrera with a crunching challenge that referee Bobby Madley appeared to miss.
It was Black's job to send forward the long passes that Van Gaal had suggested in pre-match would be the Shrews' prime weapon. And United were somewhat uncertain under the lofted ball, with Blind especially uncomfortable. But Mellon's team failed to get Jean-Louis Akpo one-on-one with the Dutchman and, instead, Blind was able to dominate the match.
The half-time arrival of former United trainee, Larnell Cole, gave the home side extra zip in attack, especially in the period immediately after the break but, by then, they had already paid for their lack of adventure and lack of composure in possession.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.