There might not have been a louder cheer inside a crowdless Old Trafford than when Scott McTominay rifled the ball into the Scoreboard End net. Snow was still drifting around the stadium, the temperature was minus one and the cup tie had segued into extra-time.
If only McTominay had been on from the start, Manchester United might have been spared another half-an-hour. The 24-year-old now has three goals in three games and seven for the season – more than midfield colleagues Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek, Nemanja Matic and Fred combined.
The Scot’s goal-getting is such a standout development of his game McTominay, a striker in United’s junior teams, was introduced ahead of Edinson Cavani. Jose Mourinho promoted McTominay and all 14 of his goals have come on Solskjaer’s watch.
McTominay was nearer his own goal when Anthony Martial started United’s breakaway and, on a night that Solskjaer rotated, McTominay reminded him he has the fitness to forego a rest.
Seven quarter-finals within two years is an impressive hit-rate for a manager who conceded in the match programme he, too, is ‘continuing to learn’ on the job. United have reached the last eight in every competition Solskjaer has managed them in and they channeled the disappointment of their last eight surrenders to Wolves and Barcelona by progressing to semi-finals last season.
Typically, this was another slugfest on home turf. “Stop f—–g giving the ball away,” Solskjaer shouted in the 115th minute. He will be particularly grateful for the five-day gap between West Ham and West Brom away following the two-hour slog and such tight games have denied United outright championship challenger status as they fade into also-rans.
The inclusion of the enthralling Amad on the bench has upped Solskjaer’s core squad to 23 players but too many of the reserves are distrusted. The more Donny van de Beek plays, the more out of kilter he is with the rest of his teammates and it is easy to see why Van de Beek is not getting a look-in when United are on Premier League duty.
Van de Beek’s pressing is non-existent, a symptom of the possession-based football he was schooled in at Ajax, famed for pioneering the 4-3-3 formation when United function in a 4-2-3-1.
United coaches had to remind Van de Beek to muck in, especially as he was well placed whenever they had the ball, diplomatically admonishing Fred for not playing a pass and took exception to some backchat from Mason Greenwood.
During a stoppage, Solskjaer became animated with Van de Beek, demanding more urgency, and Carrick sidled over for a chat. Van de Beek was identified as a playmaker upon his signing but is not going to oust Bruno Fernandes, more involved and more energetic.
It is Van de Beek’s misfortune is he is directly compared with the phenomenal Fernandes and if he is to force his way into Solskjaer’s side it is in one of the deep-lying midfield roles, especially as Solskjaer was too conservative with his choice of Fred and Nemanja Matic there.
This was the second time Van de Beek endured a chastening start against West Ham, having been hooked at half-time at the London Stadium two months ago – still his last league start. “Well done, Donny,” Dean Henderson encouragingly hollered. Van de Beek’s face suggested he knew he hadn’t.
Inexplicably, United took 72 minutes to send for the cavalry despite mustering two attempts on target. Fernandes and Cavani warmed up, sat down, warmed up, and sat back down again, with the exercise seemingly out of necessity amid the swirling snow and minus temperature.
Fernandes finally entered with Scott McTominay, so Solskjaer at least accepted his midfield axis was too cautious as he banked on the Scot’s goal-getting. Fernandes did more than Van de Beek with a first touch that sent West Ham defenders scurrying towards their own goal. Inexplicably, Cavani was told to put his tracksuit top and bib back on.
Curiously, Cavani replaced Mason Greenwood, the standout starter in attack for United, and he was unfortunate to be hooked again. It is getting to the point where Solskjaer seems in thrall to Marcus Rashford, even though his strike straight at Lukasz Fabianski caused his manager to pirouette in frustration.
Harry Maguire attempted to advise Rashford on his sprinting strategy and the No.10, sensitive to criticism, was unimpressed. West Ham were once Anthony Martial’s whipping boys though he regressed after pillaging two goals in the 9-0 shellacking of Southampton. Rashford at least deftly teed up McTominay.
West Ham were so wasteful with the ball they must have wished Carrick was in their dugout. “Keep the ball,” Declan Rice implored his sloppy teammates. David Moyes was so dissatisfied he made three substitutions before the second-half and Mipo Odubeko, once in the United academy, was a substituted substitute.
Solskjaer, infamous for delaying substitutions, persisted despite United’s sole chance coming from a corner that Victor Lindelof turned onto the post, via an excellent save from Lukasz Fabianski. The highlight of the half was when Aaron Cresswell informed the linesman that belatedly raising the flag for offsides was a ‘s–t rule’.
Henderson was vigilant on his obligatory cup appearance, palming out a cross away from danger and taking authority at a corner by alerting teammates to the ‘inswinger’. It was from that delivery Craig Dawson almost nodded in an added time winner to spare everyone extra-time.
United energised their attack with defenders, replacing the full-backs with Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams. The replaced Aaron Wan-Bissaka paid a belated paean to Marcos Rojo by chomping on a banana. McTominay made the night fruitful.