Monday 5 December 2016

Comically boring United are rescued in Fergie time as Scholes laments 'depressing' performance

Manchester Utd 1-0 Sheffield Utd

Paul Wilson

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Wayne Rooney: on target from the penalty spot. Photo: Reuters
Wayne Rooney: on target from the penalty spot. Photo: Reuters
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney scores from the penalty spot. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Sheffield United's David Edgar and John Brayford (centre) applaud the travelling fans after the final whistle. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Apparently anything can happen in the FA Cup. With due respect to Sheffield United, who played extremely well and deserved a replay, nothing happened here until Memphis Depay won a penalty in stoppage time to allow Wayne Rooney to spare the home side's blushes.

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To say the result was an injustice would be to risk the understatement of 2016. Rooney put away the penalty confidently enough after Dean Hammond had fouled Depay, but before the ball was placed on the spot the Premier League side seemed to be having difficulty working out where the goal was.

Even by Manchester United's recent standards, this was almost comically boring. The 10th successive Old Trafford first half without a goal was followed by another 45 minutes of the same. Being held scoreless by Chelsea or West Ham is one thing, but when a League One side can manage it questions need to be asked, and should still be in spite of the late facesaver.

Once again Manchester United played far too much sideways football, favouring possession when penetration was called for and consequently barely managing any attempts on goal worthy of the name.

When Depay came on as a second-half substitute and was impudent enough to go for a goal almost immediately he was cheered as if he had just supplied the winner at Wembley.

Against a lower-division side Depay should probably have been on from the start, just for his pace and directness, yet Louis van Gaal preferred a cautious approach, slow build-ups that failed to gain any momentum, and somehow kept a pedestrian Bastian Schweinsteiger on for the whole 90 minutes.

Van Gaal picked his strongest available side for the visit of the League One side but though Manchester United had the bulk of the first-half possession they found it difficult to find a way through Sheffield's packed defence.

The visitors did not come merely to sit back; they occasionally got the ball to Connor Sammon or Billy Sharp up front, though it was clear the brief was to stay organised and compact at the back and make the home side work for an opening.

Manchester United seem to have been working to create an opening for weeks now and Van Gaal admitted beforehand he hoped the stylish goals against Swansea last week might signal the end of what he called a "terrible" spell at the end of last year. No such luck. Anthony Martial was back to being peripheral on the left, Rooney struggled to find space in the middle and Juan Mata was involved without being effective.

Old Trafford regulars have become accustomed to first-half performances without any goals but this one was almost devoid of chances or excitement. To Sheffield's credit it did not look as if one side was two whole divisions lower than the other, though it was equally possible that the ease with which the visitors kept their hosts at bay reflected poorly on the quality of Manchester United.

Some of the Premier League side's basic control was at fault, with Sheffield United frequently being given the chance to intercept when passes rebounded from their intended targets.

The only goalmouth incidents of any note before the interval amounted to a couple of through balls for Rooney to chase - he latched on to one but took it too wide, George Long came out to smother the other - and a decent opportunity for Schweinsteiger from Daley Blind's diagonal ball.

The home side's attacking efforts in the first half were best summed up by what happened in stoppage time. Mata successfully conned the Sheffield defence into expecting a cross from a free-kick from a wide position then rolled the ball backwards for Blind to shoot from the edge of the area. It was a neat training-ground move only spoiled by a shot that almost reached the Sheffield supporters in the top tier of the East Stand.

Van Gaal tweaked his tactics for the second half to the extent of deploying Marouane Fellaini higher up the field. There should have been ironic cheers at that really.

In the end "Fergie time" came to the rescue. Depay, easily Manchester United's most threatening attacker, managed to make the difference during a whopping six minutes of stoppage time. While he was possibly looking for a penalty there did appear to be contact.

Tough on Sheffield, but only the League One club's accountant could have been looking forward to another 90 minutes of this.

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