Manchester United survive wobble against Cobblers

José Mourinho forced to call on the he cavalry to get through EFL Cup tie

Northampton 1 Manchester United 3

José Mourinho had seen enough. It was early in the second half, this EFL Cup tie was balanced at 1-1 and his Manchester United team had not only wobbled a bit at the back against the Cobblers, they were labouring for penetration in the final third. It all felt a bit Louis van Gaal. And so Mourinho called for the cavalry.

On came Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, mercifully for the manager and the club, they found the means to pull out of their nose dive. The crucial second goal was all about the precision and technique of Ander Herrera but Rashford had set up the shooting opportunity for him while Rashford himself scored the clinching third.

There had been a palpable change in mood at United since the derby defeat by City on the Saturday before last and this visit to Northampton had been framed by the trappings of burgeoning crisis. Mourinho had openly criticised some of his players, star names had underperformed and confidence was low. For only the third time in his managerial career, Mourinho had tasted three straight defeats; a fourth was unthinkable.


Thanks to Herrera and Rashford, he could depart in a more positive frame of mind. United were comfortable winners in the end; the wobble that had taken hold towards the end of the first half, when Alex Revell equalised from the penalty spot, overcome. Mourinho can look forward to the Premier League game against Leicester City at Old Trafford on Saturday with greater optimism.

This was a big match, with all of the classic old-school cup tie ingredients in place, including a small, tight stadium and local giant-killing fervour. But it had become even bigger on the back of United’s slump. For Northampton, it was a free hit. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Mourinho's selection was always going to be the subject of scrutiny and the headline items were that he made nine changes from Sunday's defeat at Watford, retaining only Wayne Rooney and Chris Smalling; there was no Paul Pogba in the squad and the Michael Carrick was back in midfield.

The United bench featured some blockbuster talents, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose image adorned half of the match-day programme’s front cover. When he had emerged for the warm-up, he took a moment to stop and survey the scene. Three home fans booed him. He looked distinctly nonplussed.

Mourinho started Rooney as the No 9 in his 4-3-3 formation, which had felt like a show of faith and if United were desperate for the soothing tonic of the early goal, the script had called for the under-fire captain to score it. The moment presented itself after the Northampton goalkeeper, Adam Smith, suffered a lapse in concentration to pick up a back-pass from distance.

Rooney stood over the free-kick, three yards inside the penalty area and to the left of centre. Earlier, he had worked Smith with a low shot and also been grateful for the sight of an offside flag after he had fluffed a close-range finish. Here, his set piece was hit low into the wall but it broke for Carrick, who was lurking in space on the other side of the area. He pinged a first-time, right-footed shot into the far corner of Smith’s goal to blow off the cobwebs, emphatically.

Northampton’s loss at Chesterfield on Saturday had ended a run of 31 league matches without defeat and, after the trials and tribulations of the recent past, they appear most assuredly on the rise.

United sought to dictate the tempo in midfield, with Carrick flanked by Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin. But Northampton subjected them to nervous moments at the back, where Marcos Rojo was uncomfortable and Tim Fosu-Mensah looked rusty, at times. Kenji Gorré left Fosu-Mensah for dust in the 39th minute only to see his rising drive hit the top of the crossbar.

Fosu-Mensah had headed against the crossbar at the other end – Rooney converted the rebound only to be flagged again for offside – and the game crackled to life when Daley Blind lunged in at Sam Hoskins to concede the penalty. Revell sent Sergio Romero the wrong way with his kick.

Despite the setting and the context, it was not a rip-roaring cup tie. For long spells, as United monopolised the ball, the atmosphere among the 7,798-capacity crowd was oddly sedate. Jak McCourt’s scything yellow-card tackle on Memphis Depay in the 47th minute felt like a response to half-time instruction for greater passion.

Herrera had advertised his goal. Ten minutes earlier, he had tried his luck from distance and watched the shot hit the outside of the post. When Rashford teed up him for another crack, he beat Smith with a fizzing low drive.

Rashford had the final word. Smith got himself into a pickle on the edge of his area, following Herrera’s punt forward, having possibly been unnerved by the sight of Rashford giving chase at high speed. Smith lost out in the subsequent challenge and Rashford walked the ball into the empty net.

West Ham v Chelsea
Manchester United v Manchester City
Arsenal v Reading
Liverpool v Tottenham
Bristol City v Hull City
Leeds v Norwich
Newcastle v Preston
Southampton v Sunderland
Ties to be played October 25th/26th

(Guardian service)