United’s attacking play was a little too unstructured at times with Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Donny van de Beek regularly interchanging behind Odion Ighalo, who remained well within the confines of the penalty area.
But when he did play on the right Mata linked well with Van de Beek, cutting inside and exchanging passes with the Dutchman, whose awareness in stepping over the ball set up a good chance for Mata before he did score from the penalty spot.
Mata is clearly no longer a player who can run games like he used to and he does look a bit of a throwback in Premier League terms now, but crucially he looks a better player for United when there are intelligent players around him.
The Spaniard is now often used in cup games when he features with United’s second-string and if we’ve learned anything over the last 12 months it’s that the squad depth at Old Trafford is simply not good enough.
That is not the case with Mata though. His game noticeably improved earlier in 2020 when he benefited from Bruno Fernandes’ arrival. With the Portuguese playmaker central and Mata on the right, they would regularly combine and were clearly two players on the same wavelength. Now the same looks to be true of Van de Beek.
Mata is clearly not a right-winger in the mould of Jadon Sancho and he shouldn’t be starting for United in that position on a regular basis in the Premier League, but he must be a better option off that flank than Daniel James, who is clearly a left-winger.
The last time Mata started for United in the Premier League was February 1, the day Fernandes made his debut. He might not be a natural fit in that front three, but his ability to combine with whoever plays that advanced midfield role now could be crucial, creating space and passing opportunities to supply Rashford and Martial. He would certainly benefit from having players like that ahead of him, rather than the static Ighalo.
The importance of Maguire
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 10 changes from the side that lost to Crystal Palace on Saturday and it was only ever going to be 10, as captain Harry Maguire is as close to undroppable as any footballer at the moment.
Maguire doesn’t deserve to be dropped on form, of course, but there is an argument he is due a rest and United need to be conscious of the demands they are placing on their £80million centre back.
This was the 27-year-old’s 18th start in a row for United and the reliance on him is clear in that not only did he start here, but he also started against LASK Linz at Old Trafford back in August. That is a game where United led 5-0 on aggregate from the first leg. In total the former Leicester City defender started 61 games for club and country last season.
The reliance on Maguire is all the more unusual given United have eight central defenders in their first-team squad at the moment. It’s damning that the England international is basically seen as a must-start, whoever partners him.
There may have been a reason for Maguire’s start at Kenilworth Road, giving him the chance to form a partnership with Eric Bailly, but United need to be careful they don’t overuse him.
While the spotlight has been on David de Gea at the start of this season and the debate remains about whether the Spaniard will keep his slate clean and keep his place in the United side, Dean Henderson has to make sure he’s faultless when the chances arrive in cup competitions.
Any mistakes from the academy graduate will release the pressure on De Gea so it was important the 23-year-old’s debut went smoothly and it was just that against the Championship side. While Luton had plenty of territory they only tested Henderson in the final 10 minutes when he made a fine save to deny Tom Lockyer.
That’s been one of the big questions over Henderson, how his concentration would be in a team where he has nothing to do for 80 minutes but is then called on to make a big save. He showed that shouldn’t be an issue in clawing that header off the line.
Solskjaer’s selection gamble
On the eve of the trip to Kenilworth Road Solskjaer had spoken about the balance he had to strike in picking this team, between rotating his side and giving valuable minutes to first-team regulars who were evidently well short of match fitness on Saturday.
In the end he leaned heavily on the former, keeping only Maguire in the side. Maybe Aaron Wan-Bissaka and one of Fred, Nemanja Matic and Van de Beek will come into the team to face Brighton at the weekend, but Solskjaer has gambled that a week of training will be better for players such as Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba, who didn’t make the squad against Luton, and Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood will benefit from the dozen or so minutes they got in this fixture.
Whether that was the right call will only become clear at the Amex Stadium on Saturday lunchtime, when United will be desperate for a result to get their Premier League season up and running. If they look undercooked again then perhaps Solskjaer will regret this selection.
Lingard’s shop window
With Van de Beek and Fernandes both playing in the advanced midfield role there would seem to be little point in Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira remaining at United this season, so if this was a shop window the former he did his best to catch a few eyes.
A move to Tottenham is not on the table but this was Lingard’s best performance for a long time in a United shirt and he might have reminded a few potential suitors that he does have the talent to perform on a regular basis in the Premier League.
He’ll need many more performances like that to get close to becoming a regular in this side again and the feeling remains that the time has come for a parting of the ways between club and player.