United progressed to the fourth round of the League Cup with a win that was comfortable at the beginning, comfortable at the end, and very nearly a complete fiasco in the middle.
For the opening half hour, United looked every inch the strolling aristocrats, and it was a surprise they only managed the one goal. Wayne Rooney — a striker again! — had already miscued in front of an open goal and just failed to reach a fizzing Marcos Rojo cross by the time Adam Smith, under no pressure, picked up a backpass from midfield. United's captain hit the shot into the wall, but the rebound fell to Michael Carrick on the edge of the box, and he passed the ball into the far side of the net.
With Northampton waiting for Rojo to fall over, as he kept threatening to do, United could have doubled their lead when Timothy Fosu-Mensah, charging down the right flank, met a deep flighted cross with a meaty header that clanged back off the underside of the bar. Rooney bundled home the rebound, but was rightly flagged offside.
Then it all went a bit weird. Northampton started to probe down their left and Fosu-Mensah, so confident going forwards, found himself exposed going the other way. Though the equaliser, when it came, was very much a group effort. Rojo screwed a clearing header across his own box and Fosu-Mensah, dawdling, was beaten to the ball, which then rebounded off Morgan Schneiderlin and back into the middle of the box. Daley Blind stuck out a foot and tripped Sam Hoskins, and Alex Revell tucked home the penalty.
He then could have won another a few moments later. Sergio Romero, looking every inch a backup keeper, charged out to the corner of his box to contest a long ball and just managed to get a fingertip to the ball before clotheslining the forward.
The second half began with more United pressure and, in response, an uptick in applied violence from Northampton. Two minutes into the half, Jak McCourt picked up a yellow card for a two-footed scissor tackle from behind on Memphis Depay, and then substitute John Joe O'Toole — a man who was once sent off on his own tribute day — crunched into Morgan Schneiderlin's ankle, then elbowed the midfielder in the stomach. Moments later, Kenji Gorre flew through Ashley Young, though luckily nobody appeared to be seriously hurt.
Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were introduced before the hour, but Northampton's forcefulness was matched by their determination in defence, and though United were bossing possession, clear-cut chances were thin on the ground. Which is why, perhaps, Ander Herrera decided to take a more direct approach. First he hit the post from twenty-five yards, and then he scored United's second from twenty.
United finally secured a two-goal lead and killed the game with quarter of an hour to go. Ander Herrera — whose performance, along with Michael Carrick, did his reputation no harm at all — hacked a long clearance into the empty Northampton half, vaguely in the direction of Rashford. The youngster looked second favourite but kept chasing and arrived at the edge of the box at the same time as the ball, much to the consternation of the panicking Smith. One air kick later and Rashford was through and clear, and if you needed any reason to love him any more, he proceeded to absolutely hammer the ball into the net from about two feet out.
Look at it! pic.twitter.com/BAtFK98Sp6— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) September 21, 2016
Irritatingly for match report writers looking for a final paragraph, nothing much happened after that. So let's pop straight to the conclusion. After a bizarre week of dismal results and poor performances, United emerged with both a much needed win and another sharp reminder that there is still work to be done, particularly in defence. But then, we knew that anyway. On to round four.