Many look forward to the EFL Cup as a chance to see the players of the future. Well, at Old Trafford on Tuesday, the half-empty Old Trafford witnessed the United ‘reserves’ comfortably beat Burton Albion 4-1. Rashford, Martial and Lingard were all a joy to watch as they tore Burton apart, but there was still time for United to make a silly error to concede in the final minute.
Rather than start any young guns, Mourinho instead opted to field the second string of senior players. All eleven players were full internationals. Romero got his customary start in the cup, behind a defence of Darmian, Lindelof, Smalling and Blind. In front of them, veteran midfielder Michael Carrick sat alongside the previously exiled Herrera. Lingard, Mata and Martial all started behind Marcus Rashford. This was by no means a weak team, but the romantic fan might have hoped that Jose could have found room for McTominay, Mitchell or maybe even Gomes.
At the start of the game, there were some nervy moments as Lindelof struggled to find his feet, mislaying a pass that invited Burton pressure. But within 5 minutes United had opened the scoring. Carrick drilled a ball into the box at the feet of Lingard. He deftly killed the pace of the ball and laid it off to Rashford, who swept it past the Burton keeper. This settled the nerves of the crowd and allowed United to grow into the game.
Almost straight from kick-off, Herrera won the ball back and scampered through the empty midfield. He then laid it off to Lingard whose tame shot was blocked by the defence. In these early minutes, we saw both the best and worst of Lingard. His pace, off the ball movement and intelligence when assisting others seems to be improving every time he plays. This ability will be invaluable as the season goes on and the Reds have to break down a well-organised defence. But his utter inability to score simple chances (it seems he has no issue pinging one in from 30 yards) is stopping him becoming a truly elite attacker.
In response to the goal, Burton began to move the ball forwards and try to play through United, even worrying Romero with a free kick he flapped away. But by coming out and attempting to play possession football, they left so much space in front of their defence for United to break into. This is exactly what a Mourinho side wants.
12 minutes after his first goal, Rashford decided to score another. Receiving the ball 25 yards out with his back to goal, he slipped the ball inside and turned in one movement. Despite having legs like toothpicks, with minimal backlift, the Mancunian smashed the ball in off the left-hand post. At times last season, he seemed to have lost his ability to pull something out of nothing. This was a sign that it may be coming back.
The Reds then began peppering the Burton goal. Every United attack showed the utter gulf in class between the two teams. Mata had a shot saved after good work by Blind and Martial. The Spaniard then hit the post, nutmegging Akpan on the edge of the area in the process. Darmian followed the ball in, clipping it to the back post for Martial to attempt an overhead kick that was blocked. Mata had a further attempt from the edge of the area and Martial had two chances when he managed to beat the defence but failed to unleash a shot. Burton could not cope.
The third goal finally arrived with an ounce of luck. Martial danced his way through the Burton defence, flicking the ball off both feet and laying it off to Lingard just inside the area. Lingard dragged the ball back then attempted to place it in the bottom right-hand corner, only for Turner to block the ball, knocking it into the opposite side of the goal.
Burton’s only major chance in the first half had come while they were 2-0 down. Lindelof failed to head clear off a long ball, then lost sight of it as it looped behind him. The ball then found its way to Mason in the box who was denied by Romero. Lindelof was poor throughout, misplacing passes and looking nervous all night. This is all the more strange considering he played in a title-winning Benfica side last season. Mourinho needs to spend a lot of time drilling him over the next weeks if he’s got any chance of making it into the starting eleven.
At halftime, Luke Shaw came on for Juan Mata and United switched to a back three. Blind moved to left centre back, while Lingard played in the hole behind Rashford and Martial. This is only the second time we’ve seen the back three this season. Against Madrid, in the Super Cup, it was used to get more numbers in defence and play on the break. In this game, it was used to choke the game out. There were triangles all over the field and with so many technical players, the Reds found it very difficult to give the ball away. With a defensive cushion behind them, players are able to be more expressive in attack and run beyond their colleagues in front. It will be interesting to see when this shape is next deployed and for what motive: to defend or to destroy.
Immediately after the restart, Akpan managed to have a free header from a free kick. Luckily, he headed it far and wide of the goal, but it was poor marking from United all the same. Burton found gaps out wide just after halftime but were unable to create any meaningful chances. After this early chance, they regressed deeper again, looking very much like a defeated side.
Martial, who had terrorised Burton all night, then almost managed a wonder goal. Gliding through the defence with ease just by using his balance and agility, he made his way into the area. With a quick trick, he gained a yard on the defender but then hit his shot straight at the keeper. He’s easily the best dribbler at the club and when at full flight the most entertaining to watch.
He finally got his goal after flicking the ball over his own shin to Rashford just outside the area. The Mancunian outmuscled the Burton defender then gave it back to the Frenchman, who slotted home with his right. If United can foster this kind of combination play between a strike force (regardless of personnel) it might be worth trying to get two up more often.
In the main, the rest of the half was rather uneventful. United kept Burton at an arm’s length, keeping the ball and trying the odd flick and trick when possible, without trying to disrespect Burton. Martial still had time to fire a free kick into the outside of the side netting and we were able to see McTominay and Joel Pereira come on and get a run-out.
We should take some time to commemorate Carrick’s performance. The veteran midfielder played as if he was in a charity match, the only professional footballer against a team of celebrities; the Burton midfielders could have easily been Jonathan Wilkes and Jack Whitehall. Hopefully, this cameo will encourage Mourinho to play him more often this season. Pogba aside, he is by far the best passer in this United squad and they will miss him when he is eventually forced to retire.
Sadly, it was the young keeper Pereira who was at fault for Burton’s consolation goal. A dangerous ball was played in at the near post on the right. Mason had managed to get free, directing his header onto the bar. The ball, rather than go out, looped up in the air and fell towards the back post. Periera, looking like a waiter in a silent comedy trying to catch a falling plate, fumbled the ball. He managed to touch the ball three times before it hit the ground without actually catching it. Darmian poked the ball to Lloyd Dyer, who rifled home the only goal United have conceded at home this season.
A tie in the EFL Cup against a lower league side can be a bit of a banana skin for some teams. Any fear of that was extinguished quickly, allowing United to play with freedom and put on their most entertaining performance of the season. The first half was a joy to watch, the second was a lesson on how to see a game out (Pereira gaff aside). Here’s to many more performances like that this season.