Let me ask you for a stat. Since Steve Bruce took us back to the Premier League in May 2013, how many Cup ties have we played?
That’s three and a half seasons of football. How many Cup ties?
Furrowed brows and muttered comments along the lines of ‘umm, quite a few’ greeted this inquiry in the pub before yesterday’s match.
I won’t detain you further.
The answer is that this match at Old Trafford was the 31st Cup tie in that span, embracing Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, and there are at least two more games in Cups to come before this season is out. That’s a lot of Cup ties. I haven’t gathered the detailed statistics but I imagine that in the club’s history there have been full decades of grimly unsuccessful Cup football that have fallen short of the number of games we have accumulated in just three and a half seasons. And it’s not simply a matter of quantity, it’s quality too. We played plenty of Cup matches in the 1990s, and the vast majority were utterly miserable affairs, played out before sparse crowds, especially in the case of two leg League Cup ties, and featuring regular defeats to the likes of Rotherham, Macclesfield and Lincoln. Our recent exploits include not only Europe, but also an FA Cup Final plus a trip to its Fifth Round, a League Cup Quarter Final last season and now this, the club’s first ever League Cup Semi Final. There have been some genuinely magnificent occasions, and not only in victory. Last night doesn’t quite have the glitter of the Cup Final, but it was a very positive experience.
In fact this was about as uplifting as a defeat can get.
Even if Marouane Fellaini’s goal, the second of the game, just three minutes before the end probably means that our chances of rescuing the tie and returning to Wembley are realistically negligible, Jose Mourinho will still not be given the luxury of being able to select a bunch of reserves and juniors for the second leg in Hull. And that is a tribute to the commitment and skill that our players (and manager) invested in this intriguing match.
On a dark damp Manc of an evening we carded a 4-5-1, evidently designed to flood midfield and deter the home side’s ability to attack our frankly flimsy back four with pace:
Meyler Huddlestone Maguire Robertson
Snodgrass Henriksen Mason Clucas Tymon
That’s a line up that wouldn’t have surprised you had it been chosen by Mike Phelan, so our new manager isn’t attempting anything radical yet. To be fair, he’s scarcely got the personnel to get a feasible side out on the pitch, never mind work some tactical wizardry, and in fact we were able to name only 6 rather than the permitted 7 on the bench. United managed to find the full 7 and, Fosu-Mensah aside, they were all big name internationals too. The main point of note in our selection is Josh Tymon picked for midfield with the more experienced Andy Robertson tucked in behind him at full back. I’m not sure if that counts as a huge vote of confidence in Tymon or a reflection of concern that the lad might get ruthlessly exposed at left back in such surroundings, and I suppose Mr Silva himself is still forming preliminary judgements on how best to play and who best to pick.
Off we go, and we might have expected an opening salvo featuring controlled passing, calmness in possession and the sheen of confidence, but we might not have expected it to be supplied by Hull City. It is, however, a delightfully encouraging beginning, snapped only by loss of the ball, a fast break and a superb right-handed save from Juan Mata’s shot by Cup goalie supreme Eldin Jakupović.
When he’s good, he’s very good. It’s the other times that worry me.
Sir Harforth Maguire was described in a recent national newspaper report – on the Everton match, I think – as Beckenbauer-esque. Not, I hope, a nod to his creative tax ‘planning’, but rather a generous comparison to our mountainous defender’s ability to bring the ball upfield with pace and intent in the manner of the greatest ballplaying defender the game has ever seen. On 9 he does just that, and the self-styled Theatre of Dreams is left in awe of the power and presence of our boy’s glorious maraud to the very edge of the home penalty area.
The home patrons are so impressed that we can almost hear them.
Well, hello, we’re playing with poise and ambition here, and it’s terrific stuff. Markus Henriksen foolishly tries to impose his physical presence on Pogba, but Henriksen has none, Pogba has plenty, and once our Norwegian bantamweight is finally scraped off the turf and ushered towards the sideline, it is clear that his evening is over, courtesy of a shoulder injury. Long term, we can ill afford the loss of any of our meagre pool of available players but on this occasion the enforced change – Abel Hernàndez up front and Adama Diomandé to drop back to cover the right side of midfield – is clearly an improvement for the purposes of this particular match.
On 18 Mata sets up Mkhitaryan who sidefoots wastefully wide. United, however, are not putting us under sustained pressure. Mata is terrific, incessant energy, readiness to look for the ball and do something constructive with it. But the rest of this lavishly expensive and grotesquely over-praised line-up? Not impressive at all. Their main aim is to isolate David Meyler and in that quest they have some success, and Meyler never looks positionally certain at right back, which is after all far from his preferred position. He sticks in, however, like the excellent pro he is. But our defensive duty is eased by some pretty thin performances from men in red. Pogba looks disinclined to get forward, committed to policing deep midfield. Maybe he’s following instructions, but for 90 million or whatever absurd price was paid in the summer, I’d want a bit more attacking adventure. Mkhitaryan looks, well, OK, no more than that. Better than our players? No, not noticeably. The team sheet tells me Herrera was playing, but he competes with Jeremy Corbyn as the UK’s current Mr Invisible Man. Rashford up front looks in need of a burly partner in the mould of Andy Lochhead, while then there’s also Wayne Rooney. This is some kind of slightly off colour joke, no? Man who for five or so years has been demonstrably too unfit and slow to play serious professional football at the top level, still allowed to trot on to the pitch and wander around like grandad joining in a teenagers’ kickabout? His sole role, judged on last night, is to whine at the referee, and had Kevin Friend applied the rules properly he would have whipped out a yellow card at least once. (Apply the rules properly? To Manchester United? At Old Trafford? I know, I know, dream on, theatregoers.)
On 27 the Jak saves from the temporarily advanced Pogba, and a minute later Rashford shoots over the top. Up the other end and for a moment United look undone as a delicate Dio header is directed back across De Gea towards the far post. But it hits that far post. And anyway the offside flag is raised.
We’re sturdy here. It’s not backs-to-the-wall, it’s far more convincing than that. Compared to the relentless and at times terrifying pressing intensity imposed on us by Liverpool at Anfield earlier this season, the Manchester United experience is a great deal less demanding.
Four minutes added, half time, nil nil.
On 50 Rooney collects the ball in space and shoots past the far post. Pitifully poor.
Our shape looks good. Ryan Mason is having – by far – his best game for us, neat touches, ready movement. Tom Huddlestone is showing tremendous application and calmness at centre back, even though I’d worry if he comes up a bruiser of a centre forward who’s good in the air. Dio has moved to the left side, and Robert Snodgrass to the right, to protect Meyler, and United need to step it up if they are going to harm us.
They do so.
It happens at the far end from us, and it all looks a bit messy from a distance, but our defence has been stretched by a decent move, the ball is crossed, and Mata converts a chance from close range. The scorer has certainly been by far the best player in red.
Rooney is promptly subbed off – presumably referee Friend is thought by Mourinho to need no further nagging – and on comes Martial. The pace increases with the sluggish Rooney’s departure, but Harry is not perturbed: he injects not one but two massive interceptions to break up hopeful attacks. The colossus that is Harry Maguire will never be accused of a lightning turn of foot, but, properly coached, he is well capable of a good top Division career, and wherever he ends up he will deserve the respect of the fans for his truly excellent attitude.
We’re enjoying it, despite the deficit. We’ve been given much better seats than normal, high up behind the goal opposite the Stretford End instead of shoved into the poky corner we get allocated for League games, and the City support, enjoying the team’s resilience, is in full voice, in contrast to the home support, which has no voice. And we have got a new hero. His name is Marco Silva. We like him. We have a song for him too, to the tune of Glad All Over. It’s great. He’s great. If only the club had owners who are not spiteful, stubborn and vindictive, you could start to imagine a couple of weeks in which Mr Silva brings in four or five key reinforcements, a couple of months in which he learns what is at its disposal and places his imprint on the side, and then a glorious March, April and May in which we swing through a relatively kind run of fixtures and rise confidently to 17th place in the table.
Don’t think about it. Not going to happen. The Allams will not let it happen. But we like Mr Silva so far, though he needs to attune his ear and understand when we are asking him for a wave, and then give us one.
On 65 a fine move involving Snodgrass and Meyler allows Dio a shot at a bicycle kick at the back post, but the acrobatics are too demanding and the ball clears the crossbar. Ten minutes later, another chance, as Shaun Maloney, replacement for Dio, is provided with a shooting opportunity with his very first touch after a terrific surge down the left inspired by Robertson, but he slices his effort well wide.
In truth we are struggling by now, as United dominate the possession in a way that they had been unable to achieve for the first hour of the match. Lingard is on for Mkhitaryan – extra pace. Pogba hits the post with a free kick. We hang on.
United’s final substitution removes the excellent but tiring Mata in favour of cheap elbow merchant Fellaini. And, painfully, this criminal of a footballer adds a second goal. Again, it’s down the far end, so hard to get a clear sight of what occurs, but it’s a ball to the back post, looping header, tired defending.
There’s time enough for the flattered home side to flatten our hopes definitively, but our boys hang on and repel attempts at a third goal. But it comes at a cost. Tymon is injured, and has to come off, looking very sore.
All to play for in the second leg? Mmm. Sort of. We are in truth highly unlikely to come back from this two-goal deficit, despite Hull City’s recent reinvention as Cup kings. But we played good football last night and, even if it is the Allams that will always have the last word while they remain in charge, Mr Silva looks well able to serve up some watchable football for us between now and the end of the season.
Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)