Ahead of the game against Reading, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made as many as 9 changes to the team that won over Newcastle United, as he tried to rotate the squad at the end of a busy festive period. The changes were evident as Manchester United were far from their usual best and struggled to see off a Reading side that made life difficult for the Red Devils.
Most of the Norwegian's top performers had played 4 games without a break, and the team did look a little tired against Newcastle. As such, Solskjaer decided to give Martial, Rashford, Lingard, Pogba, Matic, Herrera, Shaw, Lindelof and De Gea a much deserved rest. Only Young and Jones continued as United called upon a lot of squad players to get the job done against the Championship side.
As was expected with such changes, United looked off the pace and the new boys struggled to work with their manager's tactics. They could register only 8 shots, the lowest in a game under Solskjaer, with only 5 of them on target. United had just 40% possession and were inferior to Reading in the number of passes as well as passing accuracy.
However, the Red Devils did go on to win the game and progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup thanks to these 5 men, who were efficient and effective for Solskjaer on the night.
#5 Matteo Darmian
Called upon to replace the magnificent Victor Lindelof, Darmian started at an unfamiliar centerback position. The fact that he partnered Phil Jones would have given United fans a nightmare as soon as the team was announced. However, Darmian was the pick of the defenders on the night.
The Italian was strong at his position and covered well. Even though United were caught out a few times and were spared only by some poor finishing from Reading, Darmian looked comfortable in his new position. He was also effective in his tackles and ensured that United did not miss a centerback on the night.
Darmian did not just do well at the back, he regularly took the ball out from the back, looking sharp and tried to play around and set people up. While he had not been eye catching, the Italian was efficient and effective and combined well with his compatriots to earn United a clean sheet.
#4 Juan Mata
The Spaniard was selected to start on the right in a new look front three that also contained Lukaku and Sanchez. Mata had started for Solskjaer before and had been brilliant for his manager against Huddersfield. Solskjaer would have liked his nifty Spaniard to create more magic on the night, and while Mata was not at his fluid best, he still was effective enough to inspire United to a win.
He started from the right but drifted inside throughout the game. The United team were missing some creative spark in the middle and Mata tried to spice things up, taking the ball from Pereira, trying to switch the flanks and also bringing the fullbacks into the game. However, it was in the 22nd minute that Mata sealed the deal for United.
He was fouled in the box and awarded a penalty by VAR. Mata first gently brushed away Lukaku to lay claim to the penalty kick and then calmly sent the goalkeeper the wrong side to give United the lead. It was the perfect start that this untested team required and Mata helped his team settle their early nerves and go on to win the game.
#3 Andreas Pereira
Andreas Pereira started as the deep lying play maker, alongside Fred and McTominary, and was the pick of the midfielders.
The Brazilian has fantastic quick feet and a great turn within him that is very effective. As such, Pereira was good in tight spaces, worked the ball well from the deep and even attempted to set up his forward players on quite a few occasions.
He does need a little more game time, as he still lacks a little bit of maturity while near his own box, but the Brazilian put in a good shift as the deep lying playmaker on the night.
As the game grew older, he got a little more adventurous at times and even had a great crack at goal, only to be denied by the stretched fingertips of Jaakkola.
In his first start since August, the Brazilian looked a little rusty. However, at the end of the night, Pereira was the one that kept United ticking and quietly ensured his team's progress into the fourth round.
#2 Romelu Lukaku
After two substitute appearances which yielded two goals, Romelu Lukaku was ready for his first start under Solskjaer. He had sizzled in his two cameos from the bench, and had looked sharper and fitter than ever.
On the field against Reading though, Lukaku did look a little off colour and while that could have been due to the players around him, the Belgium was guilty of missing a few chances. His touch and passing were bad on quite a few occasions and there were groans of desperation from the stands at his regular miscontrol.
However, Lukaku redeemed himself 4 minutes into the first half injury time. As Sanchez received a ball deep in the opposition half, Lukaku readied himself and ran through the channels beautifully, managing to stay onside as the Chilean played in a peach of a ball.
The Belgium held on to the line of the pass, took a brilliant touch to see off the onrushing Jaakkola in the Reading goal and calmly slotted in United's second of the night. His speed, precision and finishing were a sign of a true marksman and the Belgian has now scored 3 goals in 3 appearances under Solskjaer. Against Reading, he was effective as United won the game.
#1 Sergio Romero
There is no denying the Argentinean's abilities,but De Gea's brilliance has kept Romero on the bench so far during his career at United. The Argentinean did have his moments though and Solskjaer elected to start with him to give De Gea a much deserved rest. Against Reading, Romero put in a man of the match shift and gave his everything every time he was called upon to react.
Starting behind a makeshift defense and a young and inexperienced midfield, Romero had to be alert and careful all night. His ball distribution was effective and he had the answer to everything that by thrown at him by the opposition. His positioning was immaculate and his anticipation was spot on.
With the score at 1-0, Reading were through on goal once in the 30th minute, with only Romero to beat, but the Argentinean was quickly out of his line to close down Loader to send the ball out for a corner. Romero made two more saves in the first half to ensure United had a 2-0 lead going into the break.
In the second half, Reading came close to scoring twice, but Romero was splendid on both occasions. The Argentinean was crucial to United securing the win and progressing to the fourth round.