It seemed unlikely, prior to this game, that there was anything United’s young team could do to challenge the news about Angel Di Maria on the back pages tomorrow morning. They managed it, however, in a defeat if crushing severity that is only mitigated slightly by the inexperienced side Van Gaal opted to put out. If we’ve endured some rough times recently, few of them have rivalled this in terms of severity and outright humiliation.
United’s forward players actually saw a lot of the ball early on and, had we turned this possession into a goal, the night may have progressed differently. Chicharito was almost put through by an Anderson pass from midfield while keeper Martin had to come smartly off his line to thwart Welbeck ten minutes into the game. The Reds failed to capitalise on this early pressure, however, and MK Dons gradually came into the game and took the lead in the 26th minute when poor defending from Jonny Evans, easily the most senior of United’s back three, allowed Reeves to intercept and supply Grigg, who converted the gifted chance with ease.
The goal came shortly after Kagawa had been forced from the field through mild concussion and there was a familiar sense of heads dropping in the United ranks, something that has become an unwelcome characteristic in some many Reds performances of recent times. There was no hint that the new system was presenting problems for the players, nor that anyone was under-estimating the occasion or the opposition, simply a feeling that current Manchester United sides do not possess the character to deal with adversity. The remainder of the game served to emphasise this in a manner that could scarcely have been anticipated by anyone, least of all the victorious home fans.
The rest of the first half saw the Reds giving the ball away with worrying regularity, with panicky balls forward to the front men that were easily mopped up by a Dons defence growing in self-belief. Powell and Anderson were consistently being outfought in midfield and it was little surprise that Van Gaal decided to change things at half-time, Janko giving way to Perreira in an attempt to further strengthen his side’s attacking options. Dons may well have had a penalty early in the second half when Evans appeared to handle in the area. In any case, United weren’t able to benefit from any fortune attached to the referee’s decision, and Grigg doubled the home side’s lead and his own tally when he chested the ball home from a left-wing cross after the Reds had been too easily carved open, not for the first time, nor the last. The goal was a killer, coming as it did after a brief period of promising United play. With Pereira operating in a central midfield role and Januzaj filling in at right wing-back, the Reds had loaded their forward armoury still further when James Wilson was brought on to join Chicharito and Welbeck up front.
The daring formation was partly to blame for the Dons’ second goal but it was further sloppy defending that presented them with their third, Reeves once again being allowed the space to put in Afobe, who slipped the ball past De Gea to heap further misery on the young Reds. Wilson produced a trademark effort to work the keeper soon afterwards, but the fact that it was United’s first shot on goal and came around the seventieth minute mark spoke volumes about the game and the performance. Januzaj also fired wide of the post as United pressed forward to salvage some pride but there was a sense of inevitability about the final Dons goal, the Reds’ defence falling apart once more as Afobe’s persistence gave him his second of the night.
Wilson was once again denied by Martin before the end. The young forward had arguably been United’s best player on the night but, sadly, there were very few competitors for such prize. It’s often been a characteristic of Van Gaal sides down the years that devastating defeats have been an unlikely springboard to remarkable periods of success. If that’s a slender hope to cling to at the moment, there must also be a concern that so many of the young players who featured in this defeat will have had their confidence sapped in particularly destructive way. We’re out of the League Cup, which hurts a bit; the manner of the defeat undoubtedly hurts much, much more.