Manchester United avoided a giant upset, and perhaps Louis van Gaal the sack this evening, as Wayne Rooney converted a stoppage time penalty to see off a brave Sheffield United.
Many of the problems dogging the Red Devils this season were in plain sight at Old Trafford, as the might of Manchester were made to look average against a League One side.
Not to do the Blades a disservice, who defended stoically and attacked well at times, but this United should really be wiping the floor with them.
There were two World Cup winners in midfield, England’s record goal scorer, a £28m midfielder and a striker worth up to £58m all playing today. On paper, that sort of pedigree should be beating most teams.
However, as we know, the game doesn’t work like that. Still, while the home side dominated possession for large parts of the game, little was done with it.
That’s been an issue for van Gaal and his charges all season, so here’s another FIVE things we learned.
Many fans often call for the inclusion of Ander Herrera in the starting line-up, putting the Basque playmaker in a light he perhaps does not yet deserve. Granted, the 26-year old was in sparkling form towards the end of last season, but perhaps van Gaal is right to leave him out as often as he does.
The former Athletic Bilbao man was frankly useless this afternoon. The dynamism that is so often ascribed to him was not all evident and his passing range was limited simply to looking for Juan Mata. Now, the strict restrictions imposed by his manager may be the case, but Herrera looked as functional as any run of the mill midfielder today, against League One opposition.
So, why is he heralded as such a gifted playmaker?
Memphis Depay has been criticised since his summer move from PSV, with many believing he offers more style than substance when given a starting berth. However, his brief cameo today coincided with United’s best spell of the game.
The Dutchman offered more energy in his half an hour or so than his teammates had done all game. While this could be attributed to the opposition’s tiring legs, at least the 21-year showed glimpses of what he can do.
By far and away the best player United could offer today, he drove his team forward with boundless energy after replacing the largely ineffective Juan Mata. His shot after cutting in from the left was the first real attempt on goal and duly met by ironic cheers from the United faithful.
Eventually won the penalty after some good work, crucially for the manager who dropped him.
While it’s premature to say he’s going to work out as hoped, the Dutch star at least tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck in order to break behind enemy lines.
Much has been made about Wayne Rooney this season, the converted spot kick being only his fourth goal of the season. It looks very much that the nation’s record poacher is losing his immense powers, though the reason is not quite clear.
Is it simply a natural decline after over a decade at the top? Or is van Gaal’s system doing him no good? Probably a mix of both.
Yes, he is not as much influence on proceedings as he used to be. Yes, he could probably do more to get into the box at times. Still, the 30-year old is arguably one of the most gifted technical players this country has ever produced and is never likely to take up the role of a traditional centre-forward.
When he inevitably drops deeps, how can he get on the ball if no one passes to him? The possession goes from side to side, then backwards and out to the wings. It’s methodical and slow.
To lambast the skipper may be a tad unfair, considering the midfield is doing nothing to help him.
It’s been all too easy to scapegoat Marouane Fellaini as the source of all evil at the Theatre of Dreams ever since his move from Everton in 2013. While that clearly isn’t the case, it’s time van Gaal shifted the Belgian out of the club.
Perhaps in a situation akin to international colleague Christian Benteke at Liverpool, the 29-year old is an effective weapon when the team plays to his strengths. However, clubs the size of the North West giants do not tend to play that sort of game, rendering talents of such ilk a tad useless.
Deploying him as a deep-lying playmaker, as van Gaal did this evening, is the most obvious example of the all adage ‘square peg in a round hole’. The former Everton man is never likely to spray passes around the middle of the park in order to build attacks from deep, or even drive his team forward.
Even pushed forward after the substitution of Ander Herrera, the afro haired Belgian international continued to be pretty absent. Passing the ball along the floor at a plodding pace is simply not his game.
With Memphis Depay and Juan Mata, or Andreas Pereira as it was today, incisive wingers who don’t naturally stay wide, his aerial threat isn’t used at all.
While United offered a hugely disappointing display, credit must go to Sheffield United, who really deserved something out of today.
45 places separate the two in the English football league structure, though you would have not at all guessed it when watching the game. The Blades defended deep, without parking the bus, and attacked well at times.
While they perhaps could have been a tad more adventurous going forward, it’s hard to at all criticise the Yorkshire outfit. Some extra quality in the final third and they surely would have run out winners, with yet another giant killing under their belt.
Dean Hammond’s challenge late on in the game was rash, but it should not take away from the stoic work he and his teammates did all evening at the Theatre of Dreams.