The choruses from a corner of Old Trafford amounted to a cascade of derision. “You are embarrassing,” sang the Luton Town supporters, even after their side trailed. It was, though, a day when Manchester United averted embarrassment. Perhaps that is as much as they can hope for at the moment, but Erik ten Hag’s side just about won what ought to have been the most winnable of games.
They were scarcely impressive and there was precious little evidence to suggest a corner has been turned or that a better run will follow in an altogether tougher sequence of fixtures after the international break.
But they won.
Perhaps they could thank their expanding injury list for that, or Ten Hag’s recent reluctance to pick Raphael Varane. Because, when Jonny Evans was ruled out until December, Victor Lindelof was recalled. The Swede delivered just a fourth goal in almost 250 United games and United, who had only previously led at Old Trafford for 28 minutes in the Premier League all season, had 31 minutes to savour and defend an advantage.
They did and a relatively uneventful victory formed a contrast with the extraordinary drama of Wednesday’s defeat in Copenhagen. United needed it: partly to stop them spiralling downhill again, partly for the points that mean that, for all their failings, they somehow finished the game sixth in the table, partly to avoid historic markers of decline. They had lost their previous two matches at Old Trafford, but still have not been beaten in three in a row on home soil since 1962. Meanwhile, Luton’s last point away at United came in 1897, at the old Bank Street ground. They have never left Old Trafford with as much as a draw. Rob Edwards’ side are entitled to think they could have ended that statistic. Agonisingly close to beating Liverpool last week, they could have imagined another famous scalp.
Certainly United had reasons to be indebted to Andre Onana. Culpable so often this season, the Cameroonian only had one save of note to make, but it was a vital and terrific stop, preserving parity by plunging to his left to turn Carlton Morris’s first-half header away.
It came during what felt like an extended impasse, with United lacking incision, ideas or urgency and when the ball was often at Harry Maguire’s feet. Then another stopper turned scorer: forward for a corner, Lindelof lifted a shot into the roof of the net after Marcus Rashford’s low cross was not cleared.
It was a second league goal this season for United’s centre-backs, twice as many as their various forwards have mustered.
That statistic should have changed but Rasmus Hojlund’s wait for a maiden Premier League strike now stands at nine games. The Dane reacted well when an early Rashford cross was deflected but, from four yards, he only managed to knee the ball towards Thomas Kaminski, who made a point-blank block. Later, Hojlund headed a Bruno Fernandes free kick wide before limping off: United, who lost Aaron Wan-Bissaka to illness before the game while Christian Eriksen hobbled off in the first half, may feel they have enough injury concerns already without worrying about their £72m striker.
Rashford, meanwhile, produced a bright display but ought to have ended his own drought, which now extends to 12 games. Instead, he fired a shot straight at the excellent Kaminski, who also made a fine save from Scott McTominay’s header.
Yet these were exceptions on a day when United fashioned too few chances. There was insufficient creativity, just a hope that Rashford’s pace or Fernandes’s delivery would yield something. Mason Mount came on when Eriksen went off, but to no great effect. Antony’s cameo was eminently forgettable and United actually played better for much of the defeat in Copenhagen. If the watching Sir Alex Ferguson, returned to Old Trafford for the first time since he lost his wife, Lady Cathy, could have enjoyed the result, there were few reminders of his best teams.
Given the two worlds these clubs occupy, there may be more to satisfy Luton. Barring an FA Cup tie against a lower-league outfit, there will not be a greater gulf in resources between United and their opposition this season. Yet there is no such thing as a simple match for Ten Hag’s team. And, in fairness, Luton are defying predictions they would prove cannon fodder.
There is an obduracy to the Hatters; they have not lost by more than two goals since August. Well coached, well organised and spirited, they are illustrating that limited teams can still acquit themselves well. Yet the reality is that they only have six points from 12 games. Their supporters enjoyed a day out at Old Trafford, but they probably will not have another next season.