Manchester United were knocked out of the Capital One Cup after losing on penalties against Middlesbrough on Wednesday night, as they produced an utterly dreadful performance that will heap further pressure on Louis Van Gaal.
With Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo the only survivors from Sunday’s 0-0 draw against City, United looked lethargic, sluggish in possession and absolutely devoid of ideas for the best part of the 120 minutes and squandered a host of glorious chances to secure progression to the next round.
Here’s five talking points from last night
1) Have United taken a step back?
Devoid of ideas and bereft of momentum when in possession, sluggish off the ball and lucky to survive in more than one occasion against what should have been a vastly inferior team. Watching United stumble through 90 mind-numbingly minutes felt a lot watching a replay of their catastrophic semifinal exit against Sunderland two seasons ago, when David Moyes’ side displayed remarkable ineptitude before surrendering on penalties.
It was a very similar, and perhaps more worrying, tale on Wednesday night, with United incapable to muster more than two shots on goal in the first hour and only creating chances late on, when desperation had got the better of philosophy and tactical rigidity.
Ultimately, it was not good enough as Middlesbrough survived via a combination of glaring misses and poor refereeing decisions, but United and Louis Van Gaal can only blame themselves for the defeat.
2) How long will Rooney last?
Criticising Wayne Rooney these is days both utterly predictable and yet absolutely legitimate. The United captain, anonymous on Sunday, was abysmal yet again when introduced at halftime and one wonders how long Van Gaal can possibly continue to ignore reality.
The criticism, unlike what his advocates continue to claim, is not an act of scapegoating, for he wasn’t the sole responsible for yesterday’s debacle. However, the 30-year-old looked past his best again. Unwilling to shoot, unable to control a ball without it spiralling six-seven yards away and utterly devoid of confidence, Rooney adds nothing to this United side.
His predicament was perfectly summed up during the first half of extra time, when Marouane Fellaini led a 3 vs 3 counter attack. Having received the ball, Rooney stopped before checking back and knocking the ball backward by a couple of yards, thus nullifying any threat. His penalty miss was inevitable.
3) A missed opportunity
For the second consecutive season United have been knocked out of the Capital One Cup by a lower league club and while the scoreline wasn’t as embarrassing as last season’s capitulation against MK Dons, the outcome was just as bad. United don’t have any excuses either, for while Van Gaal made nine changes from Sunday, he started with eight full internationals. Whether it’s a problem stemming from the inability to take the game to the opposition, a crucial ingredient of cup football where lower league clubs often raise their game, or whether United are simply so tactically rigid than even beating a second-division side is beyond them, they’ve wasted a glorious chance. With Chelsea and Arsenal getting knocked out on Tuesday, United ought to have seized the opportunity of what was arguably their best chance of silverware this season. The League Cup might not set the pulse racing but establishing a winning mentality is priceless, a mantra Fergie drummed into his players.
4) Memphis needs to improve
There’s little doubt that Memphis Depay is one of the most talented youngsters in European football, as he demonstrated during his PSV spell. Conversely, there’s no denying that his career at United has got off to a rather unimpressive start. Dropped for the games against Everton and City, the Dutchman was given a chance to impress agains Middlesbrough but he fluffed his lines in frustrating fashion. Sloppy in possession and prone to pick the wrong option, the United number 7 never showed glimpses of what he’s capable of and he remains some way short of adapting to the demands of English football. The comparisons with Nani are premature but while the Dutchman looks a player capable of winning games on his own on his day, he looks worryingly uninterested when lacking self-confidence.
5) Romero shows best and worst of repertoire
The days when Sergio Romero was Manchester United’s first choice goalkeeper feel like a real long time ago. As it turned out, not even keeping three consecutive clean sheets ensured the Argentinian a regular starting spot and he was back on the bench as soon as the saga surrounding David De Gea was over.
On Wednesday night one had to wonder how Louis Van Gaal thought the former Sampdoria keeper could challenge for a place in the starting XI, as he almost conjured up the most catastrophic of own goals when he came within an inch of turning an innocuous back pass into his own net. Admittedly, the Argentina international produced a series of smart stops but he remains far from the assured second choice keeper United need.
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