Manchester United scratched their way to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, courtesy a 2-0 win away to Huddersfield Town. Romelu Lukaku got both goals, netting his 20th and 21st of the season so far, on a night when Huddersfield arguably dominated the first half, and VAR was not far away from the action either.
Here are the major talking points from the game:
Lukaku’s finishing papers over cracks
United ultimately won the game comfortably; however, Huddersfield Town were the better side in the first half. They did not go in on level terms at half-time because of Romelu Lukaku’s smart finish from Juan Mata’s pass inside the 3rd minute. The Terriers dominated the half thereafter, without forcing Sergio Romero into a significant save. United struggled to impose themselves, particularly in midfield, while they were again poor in the air from corners and long throws. While United did better in the second half, and ultimately got some breathing space through another Lukaku goal, this was by no means a vintage performance, and the Red Devils will have to improve significantly if they are to come away with anything from Seville.
VAR causes concern yet again
The game was edging towards half-time, when a surging run from Ashley Young down the right allowed him to play Juan Mata through, who rounded the keeper and celebrated putting United two ahead. The flag had stayed down; however, referee Kevin Friend consulted with the VAR, and after a couple of minutes of waiting, ruled it out for offside. Problems arose when the images seen by the VAR were broadcast; the lines on the pitch looked as if they had been drawn by a six-year old, jagged and crooked, and in no way definitive enough to prove that Mata was offside. When an image with “proper” lines was broadcast, Mata looked to be offside by the smallest of margins; his knee was marginally ahead of the line. While the correct call was made by the letter of the law, this brings into question the role of VAR; it was supposed to be used only to correct “clear and obvious” errors. This was by no means one; it was an extremely tight, marginal call which in the days without VAR testing would have been accepted in the attacker’s favour without too much fuss. The cartoonish quality of the lines, as well as the marginal nature of the decision, meant that VAR was again at the centre of the debate after a football game, and there still significant questions over its usage with a World Cup on the horizon.
United’s aerial deficiencies are a concern
Jose Mourinho has always liked big, strong men in his teams. His United side are no different, with a number of tall players in the squad. The United lineup on Saturday featured eight players over six feet tall, if the goalkeeper Sergio Romero is also considered; yet the team struggled once again with aerial balls. This has been a consistent theme to United’s defending this season, and it is a surprising one, as Mourinho is known to be a meticulous planner of his defensive shape, especially while defending set-pieces. Here, United were panicked on a number of occasions whenever Huddersfield launched a long throw-in or a corner into their penalty area, which is baffling, given the size and stature of their players. Chris Smalling was especially vulnerable, losing a number of aerial duels, which is especially galling given his height. These problems seem to stem from a lack of defensive organisation, and one would’ve thought that Mourinho would have used the warm-weather training camp in Dubai earlier this year to iron out these issues. United’s lack of composure in the face of an aerial threat could prove extremely costly in the months to come.