Man United lack of control underlined by nervy win at Luton

LUTON, England — Manchester United found a way to beat Luton Town 2-1 in the Premier League on Sunday, but their resurgent bid for UEFA Champions League qualification will surely be successful only if they can bring control to the chaos.

Kenilworth Road might be a small, antiquated stadium by modern standards, but it has proved a difficult trip for all of the top sides this season: Arsenal needed a stoppage-time goal to win 4-3 here, Liverpool salvaged a point at the death on their visit, Manchester City came from behind to win 2-1 and Newcastle United were beaten 1-0. Yet United seemed determined to experience another fraught afternoon despite racing to a 2-0 lead after just seven minutes.

Rasmus Hojlund scored United’s fastest-ever Premier League away goal, clocked at just 37 seconds. And in a sign of just how much the Denmark striker’s luck has changed of late, he added the second when somewhat fortuitously diverting Alejandro Garnacho‘s volley past Luton goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski.

It should have been a comfortable afternoon from that position, yet mayhem ensued. Carlton Morris halved the deficit on 14 minutes with a close-range header, and for the rest of the first half Luton were by any measure the better side.

United hung on for a victory that ensures they capitalised on Tottenham Hotspur‘s home defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers a day earlier to close within five points of the top four, but manager Erik ten Hag recognised the need to find a smoother passage through games.

“We make progress but also you see we have to stay focused during the whole game,” he said after the match. “I will not say ‘switch off,’ but when you do a little bit less, then you get punished. We can’t afford this. We have to be all-time 100 percent focused. Do your job together, in and out of possession, and then you can control your games. What could have been an easy win was now a difficult win.”

This is a fifth consecutive victory in all competitions for United but another that felt fragile for long periods, as was the case against Newport County, Wolves, Aston Villa and, to a lesser extent, West Ham United.

Ten Hag would typically look to the experienced spine of his team to provide the requisite composure to hold off spirited-but-limited opponents like Luton. Yet Morris bullied Harry Maguire to an almost embarrassing extent while Casemiro was off the pace and fortunate not to be sent off, picking up a yellow card for fouling Amari’i Bell before catching Ross Barkley late, only to escape censure from referee David Coote. Casemiro has been booked in four of his five matches since returning from injury. Bruno Fernandes was wasteful in possession and Marcus Rashford looked trapped in the anguish that is threatening to consume his season.

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It was left to Kobbie Mainoo at the tender of age of 18 to bring some sort of sensibility to United’s midfield, showing quick feet and intelligence in tight areas to stand out from his more senior contemporaries.

Ten Hag saw enough to haul off Maguire and Casemiro at the break, both on yellow cards and both put out of their misery. The United boss suggested afterward that “the game was going in a direction, there was a lot of pressure on the referee, both were a risk for another booking.” Jonny Evans and Scott McTominay perhaps settled things down a little but the chaos took a different form in the second half: missed chances.

There is undeniable promise in the forward line of Garnacho, Hojlund and Rashford. They have started together only seven times in the league this season and United have averaged 2.4 goals in those games, remaining undefeated, contrasted with the one-goal-per game pace and nine defeats from 18 matches without them. Hojlund chalked up another moment of history, becoming the youngest-ever player to score in six consecutive Premier League games, surpassing Joe Willock‘s record.

The dynamic trio are still too inefficient, though. Rashford had a 57th-minute shot saved, Fernandes was denied by a brilliant last-ditch block from Albert Sambi Lokonga, and Garnacho raced clear but made a hash of trying to round Kaminski before Hojlund had a close-range effort saved after Rashford and Garnacho combined well to create the opening.

Luton knowingly left themselves exposed to the sort of counterattacking opportunities United crave, but almost saw reward for their risk in stoppage time as Barkley’s header clipped the top of the crossbar.

There were 43 shots in total from both teams, Luton edging the tallies with 22. That figure of 43 is the second highest in a Premier League game this season (Fulham vs. Everton had 46) and it is another measure of the lack of control United have had that they feature in three of the top six games for shots.

Liverpool, City and Arsenal play with an authority that United simply do not replicate. Reaching parity in that aspect of their play is a longer-term aim, and the lack of control might not prevent United from successfully scrambling into the top four.

But they currently remain hostages to fortune to a greater extent than anyone at United would surely like.