|United players celebrate Juan Mata's goal, off a clever free-kick|
In the end, we learned that there is in fact a bottom line to United's crisis. Perhaps League Two is more or less the level at which this confidence shot side can be comfortable in a game of football.
The Bt Sport cameras made their way to the Shopshire town of Shrewsbury for what was, for the neutral at least, a potential giant killing in the offing. The League Two side simply had to match United for effort, if not skill, and the 11 time FA Cup winners would have succumbed. Such are the confidence levels among Louis van Gaal's players.
It was therefore a tad anti-climatic for the TV audience when it became apparent that the hosts were overawed by England's biggest Cup draw. Indeed, the home side managed just the one appearance in the United box in the entire opening half. Sergio Romero could have taken a newspaper with him to his goalline and it wouldn't have really mattered.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the hosts' efforts was that Chris Smalling opened the scoring from open play, underlining the dearth of urgence to retain a constant presence at the back. The England defender has been wasteful with his head lately despite getting into good scoring positions but at least found it in himself to put away a forward's finish. Juan Mata's free kick, the subject of controversy, gave United an extremely rare commanding lead before halftime and Jesse Lingard took his now trademark bow (also known as 'the dab') after effectively ending the tie with a third goal off a deft Ander Herrera cross. As is the norm under Louis van Gaal, three goals is the statutory maximum United can muster regardless the opposition.
Not that there were no opportunities to score more goals. Memphis Depay continued his wretched form in front of goal by attracting the laughter of the home fans with a number of wayward shots. Now there is one player whose confidence is so low that he doesn't know it. At times it feels like he has over estimated his abilities and underestimated his opponents. At least on this occasion, the team never suffered from his ineptness.
Louis van Gaal, no doubt because of the amount of pressure he is under, has taken advantage of every positive result to paint a rosy picture about United's season. The Dutchman, back into his confident skin, went on about how United are 'just six points' behind the top four, how they remain with 'a lot of competitions to win' and how they will regain their top dogs status when players return in March.
Whilst on the one hand, van Gaal was technically right to enthuse about a saved season so far, it is the consistency, or lack of it from his side that has him clutching at straws to convince the world media and fans that United are 'not that bad' after the most basic of wins. Often times under the Dutchman, van Gaal's United have been on a run that threatened to revive their fortunes, only to slip into comma at the next half-decent opposition.
|Jesse Lingard celebrates United's third goal|
Indeed, last season's 5-3 defeat at Leicester City aptly summarises the Dutchman's reign at the club in 90 minutes. For 65 minutes, United were cruising, top of their game, and leading 1-3 at the King Power Stadium. For the last 25 minutes or so, United crumbled under the most basic pressure from Leicester and the rest, we know, is history.
The popular line in the media ahead of the match on Monday night was that Louis van Gaal's job depended on the result (a theme that has reigned over the club for two months without baring its claws). There is, as a result, a section of fans that are torn between supporting the club and wishing for a result that would end the Dutchman's tenure. As such there is a growing frustration that whenever van Gaal appears on the edge, he gets the required result to keep him in the job. To live to fight another day, if you will.
Thursday's meeting with FC Midtylland, in which United trail by a goal is slated to be the next point at which van Gaal's latest alleged stay of execution is evaluated. The Danish club will certainly offer more of a game to United than Shrewsbury Town did last night. Whether United can step a level is much less certain.