United problems laid bare by League One opponents
Manchester United progress to the fourth round of this year’s EFL Cup, but only after having their many problems exposed by third-tier Rochdale. It was a night that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will quickly want to forget, but it only raised more questions about the current state of this side.
This was uninspiring fare from United, even though Mason Greenwood’s breakthrough briefly threatened to save Solskjaer from a discreditable draw for the second time in the space of a week. Rochdale had a teenage dream of their own: Luke Matheson, a year Greenwood’s junior, volleyed in an equaliser eight minutes later.
It seemed as if United would be made to pay for too many poor, speculative efforts from range. Solskjaer’s side are still failing to create clear-cut opportunities against organised defences, but at least the penalty woes of the early weeks are behind them. Their spot-kicks were faultless, in fact, with Daniel James scoring the decisive kick and sparing his manager's blushes.
Rochdale show Manchester football can survive
The last few months have been among the most painful in the history of Greater Manchester football. The sad loss of Bury from the Football League and the near-death experience of Bolton Wanderers led many to question whether life in the shadow of United and City is sustainable in the long-term.
Rochdale, however, are proof that local community clubs in the region can survive and succeed. A noisy 6,000-strong following filled out Old Trafford’s away end better than some more illustrious visitors, while Brian Barry-Murphy’s team themselves made this cup tie a true contest.
Tuanzebe choice highlights dearth of leadership
It felt like a statement from Solskjaer. Rochdale-raised Axel Tuanzebe became the youngest player to captain United since Norman Whiteside in 1985, having skippered the club at every youth level before tonight. Articulate and intelligent, his leadership qualities are clear.
And yet it was a selection that spoke volumes, given the seniority elsewhere on the pitch. If a 21-year-old making only his second start in the best part of two-and-a-half years was the best captaincy option, what exactly does that say about his elders?
Rusty Pogba's miss nearly proves costly
One such senior player is Pogba who, in fairness, was returning from an ankle injury and playing for the first time since last month’s draw at Southampton. There were glimpses of his supreme ability, little flicks and turns, but just as many signs of rustiness.
He will regret, more than anything, the free far-post header after 34 minutes that, from no more than 10 yards out, he nodded over the crossbar. It was arguably United’s best chance of the evening, but one that their record signing could not convert.
Chong struggling to find his feet
Of the young players to be handed first-team opportunities by Solskjaer, only one is yet to really find his feet. Tahith Chong tracked back studiously, but failed to have much of an effect going forward and was replaced on the hour mark. He lasted only eight minutes longer against Astana.
Chong has demonstrated his ability in United’s youth ranks time and again. There is a player there, one United worked hard to sign from Feyenoord as a schoolboy and one Solskjaer has talked up ever since his return last December. One of the few plus points of this victory will be another cup tie and another opportunity to blood him through.
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