Reaction as Manchester United qualify for the League Cup semi-final.

Under Jose Mourinho Manchester United had a terrible tendency to play down to the occasion or opponent; it seems the worst habits are a little harder to kick than others. Having struggled against Rochdale earlier in the competition, a similarly insipid first half performance was the reward for those who turned up at Old Trafford for this event.

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Critics have observed Nemanja Matic’s fairly swift decline into a pedestrian midfielder with a limited range of passing; Juan Mata’s fairly gradual decline into a playmaker able to exchange tidy passes but offer little else in terms of invention; Andreas Pereira’s plateau as a midfielder who makes the wrong choices when given plenty of space; Luke Shaw’s inability to be fit enough to outpace defenders on overlaps. (Add to this list Ashley Young’s capability to get booked after being caught out of position, and Harry Maguire’s increasingly common tendency to hit inaccurate, casual passes.)

These are Premier League observations, so to see them inflict United against lower league opposition can only be a matter of greater concern. Yes, United are not gifted with players who can unlock defences, and yes, Colchester unapologetically put ten men behind the ball, but with around 80% of the ball, Solskjaer’s men should still have found a way through.

On this occasion the ability of the players is laid bare. You cannot hold Solskjaer to account for tactical failure when the responsibility is on players of this level to comfortably make the supposed class difference count. It should give food for thought for those who insist a more experienced manager could eke more out of this team – a team who, lest we forget, have by and large already been given the benefit of the doubt for under-performances under previous managers.

Martial and Rashford should be using such games to fill their boots; their first-half efforts showed a distinct lack of composure. 

Thankfully, their boots were a little fuller just 16 minutes after the break, when Colchester — perhaps naively sensing that they could be rewarded for adventure like previous pragmatic opponents of United — explored their right sided options. Maguire was actually exposed for a moment and the visitors might have felt a better delivery would have presented a different complexion to the game. As it was, United immediately countered, and Rashford showed that when it mattered, he could be clinical with the big chance when space presented itself.

The opening goal was crucial and opened the floodgates as Colchester didn’t quite know what to do. Space was left, and United killed the game off with two more goals before the visitors decided to tighten it up. The problems that seemed as if they would be highlighted if United failed to win suddenly seemed less of an issue. Pereira, Matic and Mata were tidy. Young’s crosses looked promising. Martial had tricks. 

United were at their best when James Garner and Brandon Williams were expressing themselves, but, it’s easy to say that when their involvement came when the game was won. Whether or not it would have made a difference if the visitors had been more compact, well, that is open to question, so again, it’s probably not wise to question the manager’s selection.

So a routine win then, and qualification for a cup semi-final; an achievement not to be sniffed at, though one each of Solskjaer’s post-Ferguson predecessors has managed. So the task will be first in getting to Wembley and then attempting to win the League Cup, before we assess how well or how poorly Solskjaer did. 

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On tonight’s evidence, you can only beat what’s in front of you; United’s job was made a little easier by the visitor’s kamikaze defending. The doubts over their capability to break down defences — any well-organised defence, seemingly — can only be stronger on tonight’s evidence.

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