Erik ten Hag can breathe his latest sigh of relief as Manchester United head for the international break in good cheer. For this Victor Lindelöf should be thanked after a match-winner that ended a three-year wait since his last goal in club colours and lifts United up to 21 points, three behind fourth-placed Liverpool, who have played a game fewer.
The goal came from a corner on the left. Bruno Fernandes took this, the move broke up, and the ball was worked by Mason Mount to Marcus Rashford on the opposite flank. He drilled a cross in and there was the Sweden defender to blaze beyond Thomas Kaminski.
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It came on 59 minutes and changed the mood from flat to joyful for the home congregation, who had been given scant cause for hope up to then. It sealed United’s fifth 1-0 victory in all competitions this season and was deserved.
Luton arrived with the same plan that nearly undid Liverpool last Sunday as Rob Edwards instructed his players to keep compact and look to knock United over on the counter. There is always a puncher’s chance of this working but the prevailing narrative was of the numerous opportunities spurned by United.
Chief culprits were Rasmus Højlund and Rashford, who wasted copious openings in the latest illustration of what is costing United this season: a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal.
There is, too, a glaring need for flair, quicker speed of thought and passing, plus a lack of cohesion: all of which Ten Hag will argue can be better remedied when he has more players off the unavailable list – Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s illness making him the latest to join it.
Twelve points and 20 league titles (in United’s favour) separated these sides but a straw poll ahead of kickoff failed to return any vote that said United would definitely win. This despite having to rewind to September 1991 for the last league meeting between the sides here when Sir Alex Ferguson’s XI won 5-0 and David Pleat’s team ended the season relegated.
Erik ten Hag appeals to his Manchester United team as they try to break down Luton. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA
Harry Maguire, who now has a claim on being the first-choice centre-back, was, initially, a prime prompter of attacks, teasing the ball forward to Diogo Dalot, Alejandro Garnacho or, in what became a gilt-edge opening, Rashford.
Maguire chipped along the right to Rashford, whose cross deflected off Gabe Osho perfectly for Højlund at close range. The Dane failed to break his league drought by aiming too close to Kaminski, whose reflexes saved Luton.
Rashford has become the new target of those fans who have switched their ire from Maguire to berate a player who has scored one goal all season. A Fernandes diagonal that swept over the area could have been finished by a razor-sharp player rather than the Rashford suffering a confidence deficit.
As the interval approached Christian Eriksen was forced off, Mount coming on. Now came the clearest chance yet: Højlund, dropping short, put Garnacho in behind with only Kaminski to beat but a heavy touch followed and Luton recovered.
“You are embarrassing” was the travelling support’s send-off to United at the half-time whistle – harsh, but they had certainly been unconvincing. Mount attempted to alter this with a surge along the right that claimed a free-kick. Fernandes stood this up where Højlund would want but his header skidded wide of the right post.
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Runs from Sergio Reguilón and Garnacho were bright but there was no finish to get the scoreboard moving. Højlund joined Eriksen as the latest injury concerns with the manager unsure of the prognosis for either.
Of the finishing issue, he said: “I don’t think it is particularly a confidence thing because Rasmus Højlund scored five goals in the Champions League and he came full of confidence into this game – it will come.
“Rashford scored 30 goals last season. He’s not scoring now but there will come a day when he starts again.”
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Lindelöf’s intervention, then, was precious. And so, at the final whistle – after eight minutes of added time – United had two consecutive Premier League wins for the second time this season and Ten Hag wore a smile that not even a late booking for dissent, which made it a third for the season and a one-game ban, could remove.
It could be translated, too, as relief that this stop-start season had got moving again. For how long, though, who knows.