Manchester United managed to successfully book themselves a trip to play Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park in the FA Cup after they beat Warren Joyce’s Wigan Athletic in the fourth round at Old Trafford.
United had made nine changes from the side that lost 2-1 to Hull City in midweek – although 23-year old Paul Pogba’s goal on the night was enough to see them through to another final in Wembley – their second in the space of nine months. Regulars in the Premier League in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia, David De Gea, Michael Carrick were all rested for the emphatic 4-0 win against the Latics, thanks to an encouragingly positive performance from Anthony Martial who set up two of the four goals.
In addition to Anthony Martial’s inclusion, the game saw left-back Luke Shaw earn himself a place in the starting eleven after limping out at half time in the EFL cup quarter-final against West Ham United, with a problem Jose Mourinho described as a “little injury” at the time. The 21-year old did not set the world alight with his performance on Sunday but his return could not have come at a better time when the club find themselves right in the middle of a hectic schedule. At right back, it was the 19-year old Timothy Fosu-Mensah that started in place of second-choice Mateo Darmian and the Dutchman hardly put a foot wrong and often supported the side with aggressive forward runs.
In midfield, United started with Marouane Fellaini, who scored the opening goal in the closing stages of a tepid first half, set up by the 32-year old German veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger who started his first game for Manchester United in over a year. After showing signs of a lack of match fitness, Schweinsteiger seemingly grew in to the game, created the first goal with a wonderful cross into the box minutes before the half-time whistle.
In the second half, United gained complete control of the match, and Bastian showed glimpses of quality in the build-up to the third goal and got himself in to the score-sheet minutes later, capitalizing on a mix up in Wigan Athletic’s box to convert a well taken goal to make the score 4-0 – the sixth time the Red Devils put four past an opponent under the Portuguese. That display did have an impact as Mourinho later confirmed in the post match press conference that the German was not going to be sold in January and also confirmed that he would be included in the club’s Europa League squad ahead of their double-header against St.Etienne in the Round of 32.
The icing on the cake was the two debuts that the manager handed in the later stages of the game. Under 23’s captain and center-half Axel Tuanzebe and goalkeeper Joel Pereiera were given a taste of what it feels like to play in front of 75,000 people at Old Trafford on Sunday as they came on for Fosu Mensah and Sergio Romero respectively. 19-year old Tuanzebe, in particular, was name-checked by the manager as early as pre-season and it would be surprising if that was his final involvement with the senior squad this campaign.
After the sale of two members of the senior squad in Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay in January, it seems that United are walking a tight rope in terms of squad depth. Mourinho, who has already insisted on the difficulty of the fixture list ahead, decided on keeping the squad as it is, allowing no further departures at least until May.
Ashley Young, for example, was attracting interest from several clubs – domestic and abroad, but the manager made it clear in his pre-Hull City press conference that the 31-year old was going to stay with the club owing to the nature of their schedule ahead which will see them play seven games (in four competitions) in the space of 26 days. He said,
“He stays – he is selected for tomorrow (v Hull City). He stays with me until the end of the season. We don’t have players in, we don’t have players out. So we lose players and it looks like it isn’t important because they aren’t first-class players, but in the end they are important.
We are in the cup competitions, we have had the Manchester City match postponed (due to FA Cup commitments). We have the Blackburn match in the FA Cup and if we win, we have another matched to be postponed. We are in the Europa competition with more matches.”
Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have steadied the ship and done a commendable job so far to stay in the race for top four in the Premier League, reach a cup final, ensure progress in the FA Cup and remain in the Europa League draw – all with a very good injury record. But between now and May, if they are to end up with relative success in all four competitions, they will need to maximize squad utilization and count on fringe players as much as the usual suspects.