Manchester United pay the price for squad decisions in defeat to Middlesbrough – Samuel Luckhurst

The Old Trafford kiosks had to pull down the shutters at half-time. An announcement that no food or drink would be sold elicited chants of ‘We want Glazers out’. In the museum, there is a shortage of cups.

Those who remained for extra-time might argue it a more parsimonious act under the Glazer ownership than any thrifty transfer windows. The players will not sup champagne from the FA Cup and that is partly down to decision-making in January.

Even when the good times looked to be returning to United, the bad is lurking around the corner ready to smack them square in the face. United fans sang about going to Wem-ber-ley but they will not be for at least another year. Ending their trophy drought depends on the Champions League.

Anthony Elanga’s body language was of a rookie struck by stage fright and his decisive penalty endangered spectators in the Stretford End. The United supporters chanted his name from him and Cristiano Ronaldo put an arm around the teenager’s shoulder as the Boro players charged towards their followers from him.

Elanga should not have been needed. Some of the football United played, admittedly a second-tier team, was of a style that appeared in Ralf Rangnick’s brochure. Yet regulation time ended at 1-1.

United hit the crossbar, the post, the side-netting, the goalkeeper, the stands and had a goal chalked off. Cristiano Ronaldo spurned a penalty and Middlesbrough’s equaliser was via a clear and obvious handball.

Appropriately for a side who failed to score outright against a questionable goalkeeper, United yielded in the penalty shootout without drawing a save from Joe Lumley. United’s only goal in the 90 minutes was an own goal and they should have known not to underestimate the steely determination of Chris Wilder, a shock victor at Old Trafford last year with Sheffield United. He has done it again.

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United found themselves in the perilous position of having one senior attacking substitute for extra-time – Juan Mata, starter of two games this season and out of contract in June. His entrance from him left United with an XI recruited by five different managers.

Edinson Cavani was still in Uruguay and Jesse Lingard was granted additional time off after a trip to Dubai in January. This is why there is no cup culture at United, seen in another crisis. They have now lost seven of their last eight shootouts.

United owe Elanga and United supporters legitimate explanations for their absences. A 19-year-old was left to carry the can in front of 70-odd thousand supporters and millions on terrestrial television. Elanga’s promising breakthrough has encountered its first shattering setback.

Rangnick despaired at some of the finishing and it was as much the cause of United’s eviction from the FA Cup as anything Middlesbrough mustered. United unleashed 17 attempts at the flimsy Lumley’s goal before half their defense went walkabout and Middlesbrough pounced through an equalizer that challenged the basic premise of football.

Duncan Watmore’s handball was so patent the Middlesbrough analysts in the press box restrained themselves until the Video Assistant Referee extraordinarily confirmed it was legitimate. Then they celebrate. United should not have let it come to that.

Ronaldo became unnatural with his shooting amid the heckles from the Teessiders and Rashford, cute in scoring at Brentford, regressed to taking a punt. I have made way for Elanga with the game deadlocked. By then, desperation had crept into United’s play and Middlesbrough were comfortable.

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In such defiant scenarios from the opponents at Old Trafford, the goalkeeper is usually possessed. Lumley, a journeyman loaned to eight clubs by Queens Park Rangers, was distinctly unimpressive. United even had the benefit of shooting at the Stretford End when the Middlesbrough supporters were in the Scoreboard End.

The scoreboard should have run out of room. A Friday night domestic cup tie was enlivened by the ebullience of Bruno Fernandes and elegance of Paul Pogba, two draws for matchgoers to click through the turnstiles, whatever the weather. Jadon Sancho moved with the slickness of a marquee signing and Raphael Varane’s reading was a tutorial for budding centre-backs.

Like Keane, Pogba sports a 6 on his back in the midfield and played with alacrity. His footwork from him on the ball was precise in his first match for 94 days, dropping deep to offer for the ball and then busting a gut to supplement the attack. It sought the penalty Ronaldo pulled wide of the post.

Following his substitution, Pogba was active during the changeover in extra-time, motivating teammates. This is the Pogba on and off the pitch United will miss.

Ronaldo scored two penalties against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup in 2007 the Teessiders’ bitterness over his replay winner almost 15 years ago was perhaps channeled into the uproarious celebration at his miss. United’s profligacy continued with Fernandes blazing a volley over when he had the entire penalty area to himself and frustration threatened to creep in.

Yet Middlesbrough did not heed the warning of United’s lofted passes over their back three and Sancho procured the breakthrough, via a decisive deflection off Anfernee Dijksteel. Sancho’s ingenious early chip pinged the crossbar and he was denied a goal again, with it credited to Dijksteel.

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Still, Sancho was buoyant. That Rangnick started Sancho in his preferred role on the left rather than Rashford, shifted to the right, would have lifted his morale from him. The January break had permitted Sancho time to take stock of a galling season and recalibrate. A family bereavement doubtless weighed on his mind in his previous cowed cameo at Aston Villa and he merited the generous applause that greeted his enforced withdrawal from him.

Sancho’s strike ought to have ended Middlesbrough’s lucky streak. United were so dominant they almost struck from a corner. It was a travesty the first-half scoreline was restricted to one – via an opponent – and their frivolous finishing continued against Lumley.

The longer the game the more confident Lumley became. Even when he transgressed badly, Fernandes missed a near-open goal. It was Middlesbrough’s night.

And United fans did not even have any comfort food.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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