At the final whistle, a 4-2 win for Manchester United at League Two side Newport County in the fourth round of the FA Cup looked like a somewhat routine scoreline for the Premier League side. Sunday’s match, though, was not always business as usual at times for United, who once again were on the brink of crisis before turning things around.
To no one’s surprise, United dominated from the start and were up 2-0 by the 15th minute courtesy of goals from Bruno Fernandes and Kobbie Mainoo. Possession was very much in the visitors’ favor and they did well to limit Newport to just 124 passes over the course of the match and a passing accuracy of just 56.4%. Despite carving out a position of comfort, though, the match became an unnecessarily nervy affair for roughly a half-hour.
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Newport’s Bryn Morris scored an impressive goal to make the score 2-1 before halftime, and then teammate Will Evans completed the comeback with an equalizer in the 47th minute. The hosts overperformed to run up the scoreline and finished the match with just one expected goal, but United found other ways to invite the League Two side into the match. Newport made the most of their little time on the ball and racked up 17 shots, just five fewer than United, and had seven shots on target, only two fewer than the opposition.
To United’s credit, their shot quality was higher and they finished the match with 2.01 expected goals. They also got lucky, too — perennially inconsistent attackers Antony and Rasmus Hojlund ensured they would regain the advantage, but it is a trademark of theirs this season. In a season where they’ve conceded 52 goals across all competitions, they have been able to bail themselves out frequently by scoring just enough to pick up points.
Even that has been an inconsistent strategy, though. United have not played many comparable matches to Sunday’s match against Newport, when they were far and away the favorites against lower-tier opposition, but their third-round FA Cup tie against League One team Wigan Athletic is as good a comparison as any. If their 3-0 win against Wigan can be used as a measuring stick, then United underperformed against Newport — they had 33 shots that day, 14 of which were on target and 4.03 expected goals.
Their attacking output is especially unreliable considering the one consistency United’s demonstrated all season — a porous defense. Of the 31 matches they have played in all competitions so far, they have conceded two-plus goals on 16 occasions. It regularly ensures game management an uphill battle for the attack and makes Sunday’s performance against Newport feel like familiar terrain even though it was arguably fluky.
Halfway through the season, the fact that United create unnecessary problems for themselves serves as quite the indictment on Erik ten Hag’s second campaign in charge. There have been few improvements despite months of work, and though they averted the crisis on Sunday and will likely do so again, it seems like United are unable to remove themselves from this holding pattern. There’s no reason to necessarily rule them out of lifting the FA Cup — it’s a knockout competition, after all, which means unpredictability is more a factor here than elsewhere — but it just means that United’s endless rebuild feels nowhere near the finish line despite inclinations a year ago that it might be headed there.