Rashford and Greenwood haul United out of third gear with late flourish
Mata 44 pen, Rashford 88, Greenwood 90+2
The best you could say for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is that it could have been so much worse for a Manchester United team still trying to gain their fitness in a race against time as the season progresses, while they try to keep pace with the rest of the Premier League.
As for the League Cup, United are into the fourth round after victory over a Luton Town team who thought they deserved more on a warm evening at Kenilworth Road, where United played with the intensity, at times, of an early pre-season tour game. On Saturday that was enough for Crystal Palace to seize the initiative, although this time there was not quite the cutting edge about the Championship opponents to take on a United side stuck in third gear.
For all the difference in their circumstances, there are currently only eight league places between Luton, with two wins thus far in their Championship season, and United with their one defeat.
Nathan Jones’s side had a confidence that grew as the game progressed and was then worn away as Solskjaer sent on Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Greenwood, who between them added two goals in the last five minutes of the game.
It was the first goal for Greenwood since he was sent home from England’s Nations League trip to Iceland and Denmark this month and Solskjaer reflected on the teenager’s progress later. The United manager says that he thinks Greenwood will one day develop into the archetypal No9, albeit less of a “battering ram” striker. “For him to be a No9 he needs to learn how to head the ball,” Solskjaer said. “And if he wants to do that he’s welcome to come and practise with me.”
There was one each for Rashford and Greenwood, to add to the penalty scored by Juan Mata just before half-time. There were 10 changes from the starting United team who lost on Saturday, with only Harry Maguire retaining his place.
There were nine changes to the Luton team who beat a Derby County side featuring Wayne Rooney. Luton were playing their fifth game of the season and they stayed in it until the last two minutes of regulation time.
There was no doubting United were ponderous in attack against a Luton side who try to pass the ball. Solskjaer’s side, which included a debut for Dean Henderson, who made a good save with the score at 1-0, could not raise their tempo to dominate Luton as might ordinarily have been expected, although they were solid in defence.
There were good performances in the Luton side, who have arguably a much bigger game at Vicarage Road on Saturday: the first Hertfordshire-Bedfordshire clasico in 14 years.
The young Irish full-back Peter Kioso, and the more experienced Kazenga LuaLua both made inroads at times. There was just a shortage of chances.
“I’m just proud of the [tactical] structure we showed and how we went about it,” Jones said. “We were playing in League Two three years ago. The 3-0 flatters United slightly. It looks like it was a comfortable win for them, but it was anything but.”
Luton went in at half-time a goal behind to Mata’s penalty, clipped past goalkeeper James Shea after George Moncur tripped Brandon Williams.
Up to then United had struggled to get in behind their opponents. Luton had attacked United, especially Aaron Wan-Bissaka down the right flank, where LuaLua got in behind.
Ryan Tunnicliffe, once of United, played in front of the Luton midfield and offered another line of cover. There was one wayward header from Eric Bailly that opened up some space for LuaLua.
“You can see we need match time,” Solskjaer said. Henderson had to deal with a different challenge: long periods of inactivity and then a major save to make. Of Maguire, Solskjaer said: “Harry just needs to play to get sharpness and fitter. He never wants to rest.”
Henderson’s save came from defender Tom Lockyer and then there was a clearance off the line from Bailly.
At that point Solskjaer made his substitutions. Greenwood laid the ball off to Rashford for him to finish just inside the box and then the United teenager bent the ball around Shea for the third goal.
It will have been a relief for Solskjaer, but much greater challenges are ahead. United go to Brighton on Saturday for a game they really cannot afford to lose, and the season is only just in its second week.
Luton Town (4-1-4-1) Shea 6; Kioso 7, Lockyer 7, Bradley 6, Norrington-Davies 6; Tunnicliffe 6; Clark 6 (Cornick 76), Shinnie 6, Moncur 7 (Lee 76), Lualua 7; Hylton 5. Subs Cranie, Parson, Sluga, Mpanzu, Collins. Booked Kioso, Hylton.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1) Henderson 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Bailly 6, Maguire 7, Williams 6; Fred 6, Matic 6; Mata 6 (Greenwood 78), Van de Beek 6 (Fernandes 78), Lingard 6; Ighalo 6 (Rashford 79). Subs Grant, Dalot, James, Mengi. Booked Williams.
Referee Tim Robinson (West Sussex).