Manchester United will take a welcome break from Premier League duties when they travel to West Yorkshire this Saturday to meet Huddersfield Town in the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup. The reason this tie will be a welcome distraction from league action is due to the nature of the humiliating 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United last time out when United contrived to miss a number of very presentable opportunities during the course of the game at St. James’ Park. We were duly punished for our wastefulness as Rafa Benitez’ men grabbed the only goal through Matt Ritchie, from one of only two chances they created all day. However, it would be totally inaccurate to think that the Geordies didn’t deserve their victory- frankly (and most disappointingly, from a United viewpoint) they worked harder than our players, showed more desire and commitment, and if they can carry that desire into their remaining fixtures, Premier League football will again feature in Newcastle-upon-Tyne next season.
By contrast, United looked ponderous and predictable for long periods, despite dominating possession. Paul Pogba picked up a hamstring strain in the pre-match warm-up, and in reality, he should not have started the game, doing himself and the team a great disservice thereafter by putting in a poor display, so poor in fact that he was substituted moments after the home side had scored. He cut an unhappy figure on the bench, and once more the main focus of the national media has been on Jose Mourinho’s use of the Frenchman has a defensive midfielder alongside Nemanja Matic, a deployment that does not work in my opinion.
Huddersfield Town come into the game in fairly dire form, despite having won their last game 4-1 at home to Bournemouth. That result (along with their expected win at Championship side Birmingham City in the 4th Round replay) has been an anomaly in an otherwise terrible run of results for David Wagner’s men, results which have seen the Terriers drop into the relegation fight. The two sides know each other well, having met at Old Trafford on 3rd February when United avenged the earlier Premier League defeat at the John Smith’s Stadium with a 2-0 victory courtesy of goals from Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez. However, the F.A. Cup is a one-off game, when whoever ‘turns up’ on the day takes all the spoils.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (fluid 4-3-3)
GK: David de Gea – David produced a wonderful save to deny Jonjo Shelvey a spectacular early opening goal last Sunday, but was powerless to prevent Ritchie giving Newcastle United a lead they never relinquished. He will hope that those in front of him put in a much better performance on Saturday.
RB: Antonio Valencia– Tony is our best right-back, and I have no concerns in selecting him for this game. United would expect to dominate possession again in West Yorkshire, and hopefully, Valencia gets a few opportunities to push forward and support the attacks.
LB: Luke Shaw- Luke once again inexplicably sat out the defeat at Newcastle, dropped to the bench as Ashley Young was preferred at left-back. Young isn’t a poor player, but there is no way he is a better full-back than Shaw, and I’d have Luke back in the starting XI for what will be a vital game in the context of our season.
CB’s: Phil Jones & Marcos Rojo–Eric Bailly is on the verge of a return from injury (in fact, may be fit enough to sit on the bench), which can’t happen soon enough. Once again, the centre of defence proved United’s “Achilles’ Heel” at St. James’ Park, with the lumbering Chris Smalling proving he is simply not good enough to wear a United shirt; he actually should have given away a penalty for a trip on Dwight Gayle in the opening half, before a blatant dive (yes, we have a centre-half who dives…..) gifted the Magpies the free-kick from which they scored their winning goal. Jones was nothing more than steady alongside him, but I feel that Phil suffers from Smalling’s nervous indecisiveness, and I’d bring Rojo in to partner him for this game.
DM’s: Nemanja Matic & Scott McTominay– Matic looks exhausted, which is hardly a surprise as he is mostly doing the work of two players when partnered with the undisciplined Pogba. However, he is vital to our season, and I’d partner him with young McTominay, who has the positional sense to know when he needs to “stay” and when he can “go” forward to support our attacks. I understand that Ander Herrera remains out with a knock.
AM (C): Paul Pogba– Pogba is our best player, but has suffered from being played out of position for large parts of the season. On the few occasions the manager has ‘released’ him to get forward (the game against Everton at Goodison Park springs to mind), he has basically been the best player on the park, and I for one am mystified as to why Jose Mourinho has not reverted to a formation that moves Pogba fifteen yards further forward than where he is normally shackled to Matic. I’d certainly do just that- Pogba is an attacking midfielder, and that’s where he needs to be played. I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever about the boy’s ability: he’s world-class.
RF: Alexis Sanchez- Sanchez has consistently been one of the best United players in all the games he has played since signing from Arsenal, which won’t be any surprise to anyone ‘with eyes to see’. The boy is simply a brilliant footballer, and I hope he can adapt to playing on the right side of an attacking three, as that’s where we need him most. He was unfortunate to see a goal-bound effort cleared away after rounding the Newcastle keeper last weekend, but you can’t fault the lad for effort.
LF: Anthony Martial- Martial had a personal nightmare in the North-East, missing a great one-on-one with their on-loan debutant Czech goalkeeper in the first half, and then seeing a double-block on two goal-bound attempts late on as United desperately fought for an unlikely equaliser. Such profligacy is unusual for Tony Martial, and I’d hope if presented with similar chances on Saturday, Huddersfield Town will find themselves staring a heavy defeat in the face….
CF: Romelu Lukaku– the big man was again more ‘provider’ than finisher at Newcastle, but he has already experienced the joy of scoring a goal against Huddersfield Town, just a few weeks ago, and it would be a timely confidence booster ahead of the mid-week trip to Sevilla if the Belgian could notch another goal or two on Saturday.
BENCH: Romero, Lindelof, Lingard, Bailly (if fit), Mata, Young, Darmian.
The 2017-18 season now enters the ‘business’ time, when the destination of silverware and high league placings become more apparent. United have been making steady, if not particularly spectacular, progress this year (despite what the British press might tell you to the contrary…) and a top-four finish in the Premier League is still very much within our own control. However, for this season to be deemed a true ‘success’ in most fans’ opinions, a trophy or two would need to be added to a high league position in May, and it’s fair to say the F.A. Cup represents United’s best hope of that happening.
Quite frankly, I’m under no illusions about this squad having anything like enough ability (or luck) to get anywhere near a European Cup Final with the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich around, so I would be very surprised indeed if Jose Mourinho doesn’t field a very strong team at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday afternoon. David Wagner’s side have already shown themselves capable of causing an upset in this fixture, and if ‘lightning were to strike twice’ on Saturday, I will be a very, very unhappy camper indeed, because we have more than enough talent in our squad to overcome the Terriers over 90 minutes. I hope and expect our name to be in the hat for the Sixth-Round draw next week.