Solskjaer's big guns required to bail out Man United as fringe players highlight glaring issues
Manchester United got there in the end. After a largely forgettable 120 minutes at Carrow Road, they will contest a record 30th FA Cup semi-final thanks to a 2-1 win over Norwich City, but victory failed to mask some of the problems facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
United were particularly poor in what was a dire first half in the Norfolk sun. Neither side managed a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes, with the match's creative players struggling to live up to expectations.
Those in red looked especially out of sorts.
Solskjaer had rung the changes, eight in total, from the side that cruised to a 3-0 win over Sheffield United in midweek.
While it was by no means a surprise to see Solskjaer make so many alterations – indeed, he highlighted pre-match there was only one difference to the team that took them into the quarter-finals – it brought to light some of the numerous issues with United's squad.
Odion Ighalo looked sharp up top, but in behind him there was precious little craft coming from Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, the latter of whom produced no key passes in his 63 minutes on the pitch.
Both constantly wanted to come inside and abandon their wide berths, but neither could do so to any real impact.
Bruno Fernandes' presence in the starting XI will have raised some eyebrows from supporters. Why not take the opportunity to rest him for the Premier League run-in? But without him their lack of craft would have been startling, with his central partners Scott McTominay and Fred not necessarily renowned for their creativity.
At times it even seemed like Fernandes' team-mates became complacent, sitting back under the impression the talented Portuguese midfielder would do the business on his own. He couldn't.
As it happened, the opening goal came about through sheer fortune on United's part – Luke Shaw's cross taking a kind ricochet off a defender and falling for Ighalo, whose improvised finish continued his strong impact as a back-up striker.
But generally, United never looked a dominant force, or even particularly threatening, until deep into the second half when Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba were among those to come off the bench.
The latter's introduction came shortly after Todd Cantwell's well-taken 75th-minute equaliser, and Pogba and Anthony Martial looked the most effective of those to come off the bench.
In a week where United's distance from Premier League champions Liverpool was largely unspoken but still glaring, the performance of Solskjaer's initial chosen XI was apt.
The fact United needed to turn to so many of the manager's strongest XI against a Norwich side that is bottom of the Premier League and played all of extra-time a man down due to Timm Klose's sending off says everything of their depth in attack.
While they have made good strides with the additions of Fernandes and Ighalo, Martial and Rashford continue to improve and Greenwood boasts undoubted potential, beyond them and Pogba there is a lack of quality in depth.
Lingard, Mata and Andreas Pereira, who was an unused substitute on the day, have had little impact this season, while Daniel James – not in the squad this time – has often struggled to be influential when using his pace on the break is less of an option.
In the end, United's victory at Carrow Road had an air of inevitability about it – it was surely only a matter of time until their hopeful pumping of deliveries into the box would pay off against the 10 men, and eventually captain Harry Maguire was the one to turn home.
But the difficulty Solskjaer's fringe players had should serve as a warning and a reminder of where improvements are needed ahead of next season.
They aren't far off having an excellent starting XI, but there's little doubt their supporting cast needs improving significantly if they are to begin bridging the gap to Liverpool.