Manchester United are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup after a 2-0 win over Reading.
After a close opening 20 minutes, United took the lead as Juan Mata scored from the penalty spot with Romelu Lukaku adding the second just before half-time.
United would hold on to the win despite a good Reading performance, confirming their spot in the draw for the next round.
But what did we learn?
1. Man Utd show the difference between the Premier League and Championship
With 37 places between the two sides in English football, Manchester United may have expected to cruise to victory against a Reading side struggling near the bottom of the Championship. But their 2-0 win was anything but a walkover.
— Reading FC (@ReadingFC) January 5, 2019
In the first half, Reading enjoyed a lot of time on the ball with 63% of possession at Old Trafford and looked to be causing United some problems. The Royals even matched United’s five efforts before the break.
But the difference was that of clinical finishing. United hit the target with three of their five officially recorded shots on goal, in addition to Fred’s effort ruled out for offside, scoring two. On the other side of things, Reading hit the target with two of their five efforts but really only tested Sergio Romero once in the first half.
Reading had their opportunities to hurt United’s defence but on each occasion their young forwards failed to make the most of it, either hitting a tame shot or not managing to take a strike at all.
When Danny Loader broke in on goal and rounded Romero, the 18-year-old’s nerves appeared to get the better of him and the United goalkeeper was able to tackle. In a similar chance just before half-time, Lukaku rounded Anssi Jaakkola and coolly finished to double United’s lead put the game past Reading.
After half-time Reading continued to dominate possession and chances but could not find a way back into the match, finishing with just five shots on target from 13 in total.
United probably played as bad as they have under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer so far, but are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup thanks to their clinical nature in front of goal – and Reading’s lack of.
2. Romelu Lukaku takes another step in the right direction
Romelu Lukaku has had to start life under Solskjaer on the bench, but did score in each of his past two substitute appearances.
Against Reading, the Belgian was giving his first start and capped it without another goal just before half time, a blow to a Reading side who would have fancied their chances at 1-0 down.
But it wasn’t plain sailing for Lukaku, and the Belgian did struggle for most of the first half. Like his United team-mates, the forward did not have much meaningful time on the ball and looked like his confidence was beginning to slip with frustration sneaking.
There was a chance after 30 minutes when Lukaku may have fancied himself to score, but the Belgian could not get the ball out from his feet and the opportunity eventually went was Reading clearing.
This may have hit another player’s confidence, but Lukaku continued to push on and made no mistake when one-on-one with the goalkeeper, rounding Jaakkola and finishing with the coolness of a striker scoring in his third consecutive game.
The second half was slightly more quiet for Lukaku as United were happy to slowly poke at Reading as not to open themselves up defensively, but it was certainly another step in the right direction.
3. Reading hint at Man Utd’s weaknesses
Solksjaer made nine changes from their win over Newcastle United on Wednesday, with only Phil Jones and Juan Mata keeping their places. Understandably, then, United were playing with the full extent of their abilities – but there were still some reasons to worry.
Though personnel was slightly different compared to United’s full strength defence, the back four allowed Reading too many opportunities to attack with gaps left across the pitch.
These gaps have come from United’s overly attacking philosophy so far under Solskjaer, as Ashley Young and Diogo Dalor marauded up and down the pitch with very little help from their wingers.
Fortunately for United, there were up against a Reading side who did not bring their goalscoring eye, as a better side would have punished the Red Devils and left Old Trafford with victory.
Solksjaer will have work to do in the coming week to ensure the same problems do not occur in United’s next game, and biggest test so far under the Norwegian, against Tottenham Hotspur.
4. Tahith Chong makes his debut
While the FA Cup is said to be losing its magic, the third round still represents an opportunity for some younger players to make their professional debut.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 5, 2019
At Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon it was Tahith Chong’s chance to finally pull on the red of United’s first team in a competitive match, a young winger who has shown so much promising at youth level.
Chong had previously appeared on the bench during United’s Champions League group stage defeat against Juventus but did not make it onto the pitch – the only time he has made a first-team squad this season.
His introduction in the second half against Reading was greeted with cheers across Old Trafford and the 19-year-old showed signs of why. Looking to add something for United to break with, Chong completed 91% of his passes and had 13 touches of the ball while also helping his side push high to pressure Reading.
5. The good and the bad of VAR show again
Not only did the third round of the FA Cup bring the arrival of Premier League and Championship sides, but it also saw a return of VAR to the competition.
At Old Trafford the system was in use as it prepares for its introduction into the Premier League next season and VAR was called into question 20 minutes into the match.
After some good play, United had the ball in the net through Fred but it was ruled out for offside. As is the norm in those situations, VAR took a look and confirmed the Brazilian was past the last defender, but there was more to it than that. After some deliberation, it was decided Juan Mata had been fouled inside the area just as he released the ball to Fred.
As a result, United were awarded a penalty – correctly – with Mata dispatching, and VAR showing how vital it is once more.
The only problem, which was one of the early fears of VAR, was the time it took for the decision to be made. Two minutes and five seconds passed between the offence and penalty being awarded, something fans will want to be cut down with VAR makes its full debut later in the year.