OLD TRAFFORD, Manchester — Memphis Depay's arrival into Manchester United's third-round FA Cup win over Sheffield United changed the game.
Louis van Gaal may be able to take some credit for bringing his compatriot on to make an impact, but United's manager oversaw yet another drab, unconvincing performance which left fans scratching their heads over how he is still in a job.
When Sheffield United's supporters sang "you're getting sacked in the morning," it is easy to imagine many Manchester United fans thinking "if wishing made it so," and yet having seen out a four-game losing streak over Christmas, it seems that Van Gaal is entrenched in his position.
Which is, frankly, bad news for any fans of the beautiful game. Van Gaal has stripped United bare of invention and joie de vivre. He has made attending Old Trafford, something which people around the world dream of being able to do, into a chore.
For 94 minutes on Saturday evening, under the wintry rain, the Theatre of Dreams was not a happy place.
There was a moment in the second half unique in the memory of those in attendance. Shortly after Memphis had been brought on, he cut inside and unleashed a decent shot.
Almost to a person, Old Trafford stood to applaud, followed by an ironic cheer that rang out as loud as almost any noise the home fans made at any point at the game.
It was an audible outpouring of frustration. United had been so toothless, so lacking in ambition that seeing a player shoot seemed worthy of applause. The ironic cheer seemed to grow out of the collective realisation of just how poor the Red Devils had been.
At the moment, though, this seems a long shot. United came within a couple of minutes of their seventh 0-0 draw at home of the season, and they will count themselves lucky they avoided that fate.
Assuming Van Gaal keeps his job—and given he was not sacked after four defeats it seems unlikely he will go out after a win—it is hard to see significant enough changes coming to make the difference.
Van Gaal cited United's inability to move the ball quickly in the first half as being a big part of the side's problem. When asked by Bleacher Report why his side were not moving the ball quicker he replied:
"Because there are 10 men behind the ball, in the square 20 metres, then the goal is behind that square, 20 metres. It is for every team very difficult. When you see the results today you see that every lower team is making a good result. Because defending is more easy than attacking, and everybody knows that."
It is not exactly an answer as to why, after a season-and-a-half in charge, he has been unable to crack the code. Sheffield United played reasonably well, but theirs was not a backs-to-the-wall defensive performance for the ages.
Rather, with a bit of rudimentary defensive organisation they were able to completely negate United's attack for most of the game.
There are countless small changes that could be made to potentially impact United's attacking football. However, many of them have been tried. Combinations of Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Memphis and Ander Herrera have been used in a varying array of positions.
Thing is I don't think Sheffield United had to actually defend that well to contain us. They just had to be organised like all teams now.— Ste (@Bricki) January 9, 2016
And for the most part, none of it has worked. The key to unlocking the deep and narrow-lying defences that United have come up against time and again has simply not been found.
The best football United have played under Van Gaal came following a fundamental shift in formation. Perhaps something along those lines will manifest itself in the weeks ahead.
If it does not, United fans will be forced to endure more long, relatively joyless afternoons and evenings at Old Trafford, as the attritional football on show under Van Gaal continues to grind the romance around the club into the dust.
Quotations obtained firsthand.