Having started the year with a win United started their FA Cup adventure looking for an easy passage through to the fourth round with an encounter against lower league opposition. Would it be that straight forward?


In: Borthwick-Jackson, Darmian and Fellaini.
Out: Young, Jones and Schneiderlin.


  • After a couple of improved performances this was a regression to earlier form. United were slow, unenergetic and unimaginative. Van Gaal admitted in his post-match interview that despite controlling the game this was a poor display.
  • United’s game again lacked pace. The tempo of their passing was simply too slow to put Sheffield United under any sustained pressure and until late in the game United’s quicker players did not attack Sheffield’s defensive lines with any conviction.
  • Sheffield set up as two defensive lines of a four and a five. United did not do enough with pace or movement to disturb this shape. The lack of pace in United’s game made it easy for our opponent to constantly adjust their shape as necessary whilst playing two deep midfield players meant that United did not get bodies between the two defensive lines often enough.
  • After the substitutions in the 60th minute this pattern did change slightly with United using attacking width to both stretch Sheffield across the pitch and in an attempt to get behind the defensive lines. Eventually this paid off with a run by Memphis drawing the foul for the penalty.
  • 2 shots on target are not enough to show for 71% possession against opposition from a lower league.


United set up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape with Fellaini playing alongside Scwhweinsteiger as the midfield pivots. Borthwick- Jackson came in at left back with Darmian at right back. Sheffield United started as a 4-4-2 but with Samon dropping deeper this became a 4-5-1 leaving the diminutive Sharp alone as the front man.

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United’s starting shape and Borthwick-Jackson, one of United’s better performers

United were uncharacteristically sloppy at the start and surrendered possession repeatedly in the opening 10 minutes by regularly hitting the ball long. Thereafter they settled down into a passing rhythm, albeit a slow rhythm. Much of United’s play was slow and also side to side with a preponderance of square balls across the pitch from the wide players back to the pivots and across the wide players on the other side. Most of this play was in front of Sheffield’s two defensive lines with United retaining possession but failing to make an impression. This pattern persisted for the first hour of the contest and resulted in a minimum of incident. There were however a couple of features to pick out.

The first was the performance of Borthwick-Jackson. 18-years-old and a local lad, he is exactly the sort of player United fans traditionally warm to. He can and should be exempt from any criticism not only because of his inexperience but actually because he showed some good attacking endeavour. He is not afraid to get forward and when he had the ball in wide areas he was not afraid to hit in a cross. This tendency generated United’s brighter moments in the first 60 minutes and can be contrasted to the performance of other players in wide areas who always seemed to take the easier safe option of playing in front of Sheffield and recycling the possession back to the midfield pivots.

Borthwick-Jackson - always prepared to deliver a cross

Borthwick-Jackson – always prepared to deliver a cross

The other feature of the half work commenting upon was the lack of movement. Generally the majority of United players tended to stay in their allotted zone or position or if they did exhibit movement this was both predictable and generally towards deep areas or square. There was then very little movement towards the Sheffield goal. What this meant was that the wide players, Mata and Martial ran infield and into a heavily populated zone rather than towards the bye-line. Rooney usually dropped deeper from his higher starting position and Herrera, and the pivots tended to play or move across the pitch. On rare occasions Schweinsteiger tried to break forward but these were rare occasions. The fullbacks did press forward at times but rarely broke beyond the Sheffield midfield five never mind their defensive line.

The game reached half-time at 0-0 with United having had a single shot on target.


The pattern of the game remained unchanged in the opening 15 minutes of the second half until Van Gaal decided to make a double substitution in the 60th minute. Mata and Herrera were removed, both players had been poor. Mata had very little impact on the game whilst Herrera had been his usual busy self but to very little effect. In their place United introduced Lingard and Memphis. Lingard replaced Mata on the right whilst Memphis was positioned to the left with Martial moving to a central position and Rooney dropping slightly deeper into the number 10 zone.

This had an immediate effect with the two wide men providing attacking width and renewed energy to the attack. They attempted to get behind the Sheffield fullbacks and on the occasions when they did come inside they at least got a shot away before they were closed down, (Memphis saw two efforts fizz past the near post, the first of which drew ironic cheers from United fans frustrated by the lack of attacking effectiveness). Lingard was particularly fluid in his movement popping up in a number of positions across the attacking lines. Rooney deeper now also showed good attacking movement and United generated a number of half chances.

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United’s shape late in the game and Memphis whose direct running made a difference

This attacking width at least stretched Sheffield across the pitch and allowed the wide players to get into one-on-one positions against fullbacks on occasions. The pace of the game was still too slow generally however to really trouble Sheffield.

On 77 minutes Van Gaal made his last substitution removing Fellaini and replacing him with Pereira. This was notionally a straight swap but Pereira tended to play higher initially and was more adventurous in his movement often leaving Schweinsteiger to sit deep. It was ironic then that when Schweinsteiger did press forward he picked up an injury from a 50/50 challenge which then saw him hobble through the rest of the game. That injury came in the 82nd minute and thereafter necessitated a more cautious approach from Pereira.

Memphis - an aggressive late run beyond the fullback drew a foul

Memphis – an aggressive late run beyond the fullback drew a foul

It looked then as if the game was going to end in a stalemate until in the 93 minute Memphis tried once more to get beyond his fullback. He muscled his way through requiring Hammond to come across. He caught Memphis on his shin and United had a penalty. Rooney stepped up and coolly finished. Boom!  1-0, and United had somehow avoided the need for a replay.


So uneventful was this game by and large that there was a danger that this could have been the shortest match report we have ever produced. This was a drab game and very poor performance from United. The main problem again was a lack of tempo in United’s play. This has been a recurring theme, not just recently but over the whole of Van Gaal’s time at United and whilst he himself has identified it he has seemingly been unable to satisfactorily address the issue so far.

United had looked brighter in their last two games and as the manager pointed out in his post-match interviews have at least gone through to the next round. That’s all on the plus side and whilst they maintained their 100% win rate in 2016 and kept another clean sheet a lack of pace in their play and imagination going forward continues to be a concern.

A significant issue is that United would have known Sheffield’s likely defensive strategy. As a lower league side it was highly likely that they would come to Old Trafford to defend and ask of United whether they could get through against two lines of defence. This is this United’s sides main weakness of course but what is most disturbing is that despite this recurring theme we seem to be getting no nearer to finding a solution.