Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s interest in the Carabao Cup continued last night — but a penalty shoot-out victory against lowly League One opposition hardly lifted the growing air of gloom building around his club.
Sergio Romero’s save from Jimmy Keohane proved pivotal as Daniel James successful conversion earned United a
5-3 success but, as Solskjaer maintained his trust in youth, he was nearly undone by a Rochdale teenager.
Mancunian Luke Matheson, who turns 17 next Wednesday and is the youngest senior player in his club’s history after making his first team debut 12 months ago, claimed a dramatic late equaliser.
With 15 minutes left in the tie, Oliver Rathbone lofted a rather hopeful-looking cross from the left-hand by-line into the United area and the right-back arrived to send a well-driven, if slightly awkward, finish flying into the home goal.
Earlier, it had looked as though teenage forward Mason Greenwood had come to the rescue of Solskjaer’s stuttering side for the second time in a week.
The 17-year-old, match winner against Astana in the Europa League last week, struck again after 67 minutes last night from a Jesse Lingard through-ball.
Greenwood intelligently made room for himself before switching the ball from his right to his left foot and depositing it clinically into the Rochdale goal.
But this was another painful lesson for Solskjaer’s young charges.
Axel Tuanzebe was handed the captaincy at the age of 21, on just his seventh start for the club, as he became the youngest player to wear the armband for 34 years.
The romantic interpretation of the choice was the Solskjaer was acknowledging the fact that the defender had been raised in Rochdale, after moving to the town from the DR Congo with his family aged four.
But with senior stars like Paul Pogba and Phil Jones alongside him in the starting line-up, the selection begged the question of whether the United manager was also making a comment about the under-performing older players who played alongside Tuanzebe.
The point was underlined early in the game when one of the first-teamers enduring a torrid time at present — Fred — gifted the ball to Callum Camps and Tuanzebe himself was required to make a well-timed tackle to prevent the Rochdale man from sprinting into the United area.
That might have proved a rare foray forward for a League One side some 53 places beneath their hosts in the pyramid, but what followed was hardly a relief for Solskjaer and the growing unease and pressure that is swirling around Old Trafford at present.
Since opening the season with a four-goal win over Chelsea, United have scored just five goals in six games and, despite the difference in standing and resources between the two sides on show last night, there was no sign of that statistic improving dramatically.
A poor clearance from keeper Robert Sanchez allowed Pogba a shot which flew well over while the keeper punched clear from Tahith Chong’s cross to present Andreas Pereira with a shot, which the netminder did well to hold on to.
Sanchez, on loan from Brighton, also did well to stop a Marcos Rojo header, as the defender appeared on the end of a United counter-attack and Pereira cross.
Pogba was also guilty of a wasteful header, from a magnificent Greenwood cross on 34 minutes, that should have given United the lead.
And even when a slip by Jimmy Keohane allowed Lingard to play Greenwood through on goal, Sanchez was equal to the challenge and succeeded in making a strong diving save.
Solskjaer was forced to maintain his faith in youth at the interval when Phil Jones was taken off, apparently trough injury, and the United manager brought on 19-year-old defender Brandon Williams for his first ever taste of senior football.
Not surprisingly, given the growing disquiet around United, there was more urgency about their display after the restart although, incredibly, they should have been behind on 52 minutes from Rochdale’s first serious attack of the game.
It was created by Rathbone, who beat Rojo and Fred far too comfortably in the United area and reached the by-line before dragging a low cross through the six-yard area.
Camps appeared on the end of it with a simple finish that looked to be heading into the home goal, until Aaron Wan-Bissaka made an extraordinary goal-line clearance, scooping the ball away to safety, much to the disbelief of United and Rochdale players alike.
It was an escape that invigorated the Premier League outfit who had opened the second half with a Pereira shot that was deflected just wide of the goal.
After his defensive heroics, Wan-Bissaka marauded down the right, producing a near-post delivery which Greenwood turned goalwards for Sanchez to save well once more, and Lingard’s shot on the turn flew just wide from the edge of the area.
Greenwood, too, was finding his range, drawing another good positional save from the Rochdale keeper after his pace took him beyond the visitors’ defence.
And the introduction of Daniel James, one of the few United players to be earning any plaudits to speak of this season, not only took the transfer cost of Solskjaer’s on-field line-up to around £250m, but also added the pressure mounting on the minnows.
MAN UTD (4-2-3-1): Romero 6; Wan Bissaka 7, Tuanzebe 7, Jones 5 (Williams 45, 6), Rojo 5; Fred 5, Pogba 5; Andreas Pereira 6, Lingard 7 (Mata 84), Chong 5 (James 59, 6); Greenwood 7.
ROCHDALE: Sanchez 8; Matheson 8, Keohane 7, McNulty 9, Norrington-Davies 7; Dooley 8 (Wilbraham 74, 7), Morley 7, Williams 7, Rathbone 7 (Andrew, 80, 7); Camps 7, Henderson 7 (Ryan 88).
Referee: John Brooks 7