Cobblers. No, not Manchester United’s current standard of football, though it really is that bad, but the first opponents they have been able to beat in four matches. Northampton Town of League One. That’s Division 3 in old school speak. A win’s a win’s a win, though United should count themselves lucky they had the chance to face a helpfully lowly opponent to halt their miserable run of defeats.
Even then they couldn’t help nearly shooting themselves in the foot. There has been a clarion call for Wayne Rooney to be dropped from the team. He’s been condemned as a has-been – washed up, unfit and slower than a slug. A third round in the EFL (aka League) Cup against a lower league team presented the ideal opportunity to show his detractors they were wrong. Unfortunately, slicing a sitter wide from 5 yards early on only served to reinforce their criticisms. He did subsequently get the ball into the net, only to be rightly flagged offside. When things don’t go your way, they really don’t go your way.
Almost as loud has been the clamour for Michael Carrick to be reinstated in his deep lying midfield role. Carrick is a strangely divisive figure in football. Half think the United midfield doesn’t function without him; the others that he is the best midfielder in the world when he is given all the time and space in the world, but a calamitous liability when put under any kind of pressure. Against the third division team he gave United impetus, drive and their opening goal. An idiotic mistake by the Northampton keeper Adam Smith, who chose to pick up a back pass, lead to a free kick in the penalty area, which was blocked but ricocheted to Carrick, who smashed home to give United the lead.
At this point you might have expected United to stamp their authority on the match, but foot themselves shooting in the has been United’s forte recently, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the defence started getting themselves in a muddle because they had collectively forgotten to inform each other of their intention and kept going for the same ball. It was inevitable that the comedy defending would lead to the equaliser. When Daley Blind conceded a penalty after a clumsy foul on Sam Hopkins, the football headline writers must have been gleefully typing the funeral rites.
Thank goodness United have one genuinely world class outfield player in Marcus Rashford, who scares the pants off other teams because he has one frightening talent – pace. It was his pass to Ander Herrera, who drove the ball into the corner from 20 yards, that put United ahead. Seven minutes later, Herrera returned the favour when he hit a speculative punt upfield for Rashford to chase. The ball should have been the keeper’s but with Rashford bearing down on him, the keeper completely misjudged the bounce, and in a millisecond, Rashford had the ball and was bearing down on the goal. Finally, United had that winning feeling back again even if they needed a couple of gift horses from the Northampton goalkeeper.
That winning feeling might not last too long. They face Premier League champions Leicester – yeah, still getting used to that one even after all these months – on Saturday. And in case United have any idea that the League Cup might continue to offer a respite from their Premier League struggles, they have only gone and drawn Manchester City in the next round. Yeah, it doesn’t rain, it pours.