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. 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 dull. 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. The late face-saver cannot hide the fact that Manchester United’s first shot on target took 70 minutes to arrive.
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 and slow build-ups that failed to gain any momentum, and he somehow kept a pedestrian Bastian Schweinsteiger on for the whole 90 minutes.
Sheffield United’s brief was clear and well-executed: to stay compact behind the ball and make their opponents work hard for an opening. Manchester United seem to have been working to create an opening for weeks now and Van Gaal admitted beforehand that 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 United’s credit it did not look as if one side was two whole divisions lower than the other, though equally the ease with which the visitors kept their hosts at bay reflected poorly on the quality of Manchester United.
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 German fell over, claiming a foul in the area, a decision which was not forthcoming, though he should really have stayed on his feet and done better with a pass that picked him out perfectly in a good position in front of goal.
David de Gea had relatively little to do at the other end. He reacted well to save from Conor Sammon, only finding out afterwards that the referee intended to penalise the striker for handball in the build-up. 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 United 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 visiting supporters in the top tier of the East Stand.
There was ironic applause from the away end when Mata managed a cross from the right early in the second half. It was comfortable for Long to deal with but it was as if Manchester United had forgotten how to get men wide or make forward runs. 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. Sheffield United coped, so Van Gaal’s next wheeze was to send on Jesse Lingard and Depay for the last half hour.
Depay actually managed a shot a few minutes after coming on, quite a slick effort that flew only a foot or so outside Long’s right-hand upright. This time there was ironic applause from the Manchester United supporters. The mini-standing ovation in the main stand was going on behind Van Gaal’s back but he will get the idea eventually that a point is being made.
In the end “Fergie time” came to the rescue. Easily Manchester United’s most threatening attacker, Depay managed to make the difference during a whopping six minutes of stoppage time, carrying the ball into the box and drawing a wild challenge from Hammond. Tough on Sheffield United, but only the League One club’s accountant could have been looking forward to another 90 minutes of this. The cheers for the winning goal were not ironic, or wild, just sheepish.