Manchester United eased into the fifth round of the FA Cup with a comfortable 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.
Like many Premier League managers, Jose Mourinho made several changes to his starting XI. Luke Shaw made his first appearance since November, Bastian Schweinsteiger started a match for the first time in over a year but first team regulars Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo also started against Wigan, giving United a strong, if rotated, selection.
Manchester United’s first-half performance was sluggish and pedestrian. What was most interesting to see was the influence of Shaw and Schweinsteiger and the impact of United’s team shape and playing style. While the application was poor, the intent and the ideas behind United’s system were promising and unlocked further potential within United’s squad to improve even more, even beyond the better performances earlier in the season.
With Schweinsteiger playing in the deepest midfield role as the single pivot, he allowed Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah the freedom to attack and push forward in the same way Michael Carrick gives the side the freedom to take greater attacking risks. While Luke Shaw’s performance was a quiet one, there were intermittent bursts of his pace and attacking intent down the left-hand side which mimicked the quality provided on the right-hand side all season long by Antonio Valencia. By offering width and an attacking threat in advanced areas of the pitch, Shaw can provide United exactly what Valencia has done so impressively this season. On that right-hand side, Valencia’s width allows the right winger to move in off the touchline and become a creative influence and goal threat in central areas. If Shaw can find a consistent level of performance, United will finally have some balance on the left-hand side, while also liberating forward players like Anthony Martial, who are much more effective when allowed to cut inside and threaten the opposition goal.
Like Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger is a calming influence with a wealth of experience and footballing intelligence. Today he showcased his quality against a team that was well disciplined, defensively compact and resolute. He was United’s best player in a dull first-half and was consistently trying to open the game up with forward passes, trying to break the lines of the opposition by moving United forward, rather than playing it sideways and backwards when the more progressive options seemed riskier. He capped a good 45 minutes with a fine assist, setting up Marouane Fellaini’s opener with a wonderful cross.
In the second half United were much better. Aided by a lead that prompted Wigan to adopt a more adventurous style, Manchester United played with greater urgency, more speed and more intensity, producing much better football and scoring a further three times.
One of the biggest catalysts for United’s resurgence was a slight alteration to their attacking shape. Anthony Martial moved out to the left-hand side, Wayne Rooney led the line up front and Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan adopted freer roles in the second-half. With Rooney as the focal point of the attack, United had a reference point for each phase of their attacking play. As a much more physical forward than Anthony Martial, Rooney was able to hold his own against Wigan’s imposing central defenders and could hold the ball and bring others into play much more effectively. Of those players supporting Rooney, Anthony Martial was perhaps the most threatening once he was back in a more comfortable position out wide.
Attacking at speed, both with and without the ball, United’s forward players made the most of the space afforded to them after the break and Martial came to life. Providing two assists, the second of which capped a wonderful sweeping counter-attacking move, he started to make the most of his opportunity and impressed all on-lookers as United made the game safe. Once Mkhitaryan made it 3-0 to United, confidence grew and we started to see the signs of a more fluid Manchester United. One touch passing, slick movements and interchanging positions, the performance started to resemble that of a full-strength Manchester United side, all without really getting out of first gear.
Just like they did against Hull City in midweek, United cantered through this game with ease. At times it felt like a training session, at others it felt like the players knew they were going to qualify for the next round with ease. What was different, of course, was the result. United had won. It wasn’t an overly impressive performance. A routine win against Championship opposition would rarely stand out, but what this afternoon did offer Manchester United fans was a glimpse at the outer edges of the squad. So far Mourinho’s man-management has been thoroughly effective. If we can get the best out of Luke Shaw and Bastian Schweinsteiger, then United could make a big impact this season.