On the evidence of this insipid, ineffective and at times utterly inadequate performance against a resurgent Derby County, any Championship club in need of a pick-me-up will be falling over themselves to face Paul Heckingbottom’s side.
Two superb second-half finishes from Wales international Tom Lawrence were enough to lift Wayne Rooney’s side off the foot of the table for the first time since September.
But United’s defending? Well, the less said the better. Watching the match unfold from home after testing positive for Covid-19, Heckingbottom could have been forgiven for wondering if the squad which had won four and drawn one of its previous six outings had got lost en route to the east Midlands.
“Disappointing,” was his assistant Stuart McCall’s verdict. “Two individual mistakes. The little details and not enough killer instinct.”
Derby’s finances might be on life-support, with HMRC’s hand resting dangerously on the plug socket. But on the pitch and in the stands, they appear in pretty rude health. Nearly as rude as some of the chants directed towards former owner Mel Morris and the EFL.
Bottom of the table following a series of points deductions, the hosts would have started this fixture level on points with United had those deductions not been imposed. Indeed, it shows how skewed the rankings have become following a spate of postponements, that Derby and the visitors both began the afternoon in the top eight of the form charts - despite actually being bottom and 13th respectively.
Making their first league appearance since December 20, United spent the first half trying to exploit some of the holes they were able to pick in the opposition’s defence. The fact they failed to do so, whilst surviving a few scary situations themselves, highlighted why the opening period of this game made for such frustrating viewing.
There was no shortage of industry. The odd flash of quality too, such as when Chris Basham and Jayden Bogle combined on the edge of Ryan Allsop’s area before Festy Ebosele intervened. Derby also provided a few glimpses of the talent which remains at Rooney’s disposal despite the administrator’s best efforts.
The only trouble was, for the most part, perspiration trumped panache. An entertaining game was bubbling just below the surface. But thanks to a combination of disappointing final balls or poor pass selection in the final third, it never quite managed to break through.
John Egan, returning to action following a coronavirus issue, went close with a header on one of United’s forays forward as McCall and Jack Lester waved them forward from the touchline. Then, after seeing his colleague Richard Stearman smother a goalbound attempt, United captain Billy Sharp suffered even greater frustration when Iliman Ndiaye failed to pick him out unmarked on the edge of the six yard box.
That was pretty much the end of United’s contribution, as they made little impression on the contest after the interval. The same could not be said for Lawrence who, having bamboozled Basham and Egan before firing home the opener, then punished yet more woeful marking by scooping the ball over Wes Foderingham’s head following a rapid counter-attack.