There were no such distractions at kick-off time, though, as the French midfielder was absent due to illness.
That didn’t stop United coming away with a victory, booking their place in the quarter-final thanks to a brace from Romelu Lukaku. But it was far from a vintage display from the Red Devils with Huddersfield impressing in possession.
The home side held their own for much of the game before being picked off on the break, and the relegation-threatened side will be heartened by their performance as they look to build momentum for the Premier League run-in.
Here are the five things we learned from United’s 2-0 win at John Smith’s Stadium.
United Played to Lukaku’s Strengths
The jury has been out on whether Lukaku possesses the quality to make him the ideal long-term solution for the No.9 role in United’s attack since his £75million arrival at Old Trafford from Everton last summer.
However, the former Chelsea man has often been forced into performing tasks that do not accentuate his strongest attributes, regularly asked to act as a target for long, lofted balls, required to control, hold up and link, with little support from deep.
At John Smith’s Stadium the Belgian, whose brace took his tally for the season to 22, showed what a force he is when United play to his strengths.
The Red Devils, in a 4-3-3 shape with Alexis Sánchez and Juan Mata either side of Lukaku, ensured the 24-year-old was not isolated, enabling him to come short to link, before spinning in behind to chase the return ball in open space.
This is exactly what Lukaku wants to be doing. Bursting through on goal with a defender on his shoulder, as was the case for the opener, the Belgian is almost impossible to live with.
In this kind of form, Lukaku looks every bit a £75million striker.
Huddersfield Pay for Ambition
The home side enjoyed a 54.2 per cent share of possession, took 19 shots to their visitors’ five, landing five on target to two, and outpaced United by 420 completed passes to 355.
For much of the game, the Terriers more than held their own. But their attacking efforts early in the second half led to the match being killed as a contest with 35 minutes to play.
Camped in United’s half as they pushed for an equaliser, the away side regained possession in the 55th minute and broke forward at speed, too easily slicing through the Huddersfield rearguard as Lukaku, played in by a Sánchez pass which took four men in blue and white out of the game, confidently finished.
While their ambitious approach was admirable, with hindsight, David Wagner’s men may have been better served by tightening up early in the second period and saving their attacking push for later in the game.
VAR Flawed But Worth Sticking With
The biggest talking point of the game was the decision, made via the VAR process, to disallow a Mata goal for a marginal offside.
Whether or not Mata was indeed offside is still debatable – it seems the Spaniard’s kneecap was perhaps a few millimetres beyond the last defender.
But the controversy revolved around the way the decision was reached, with TV pictures – supposedly mirroring what was being seen at VAR HQ – showing a horribly inaccurate yellow line across the pitch, aiming, but failing hopelessly, to illustrate whether Mata was onside or not.
Eventually, we were assured that the remote referee had been furnished with an accurate diagram upon which to base his decision, which he appears to have got right, but the mix-up only fuelled the anti-VAR fire.
Of course, such instances are frustrating. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The process of ironing out the kinks will, at times, be painful, but VAR is worth getting right.
Huddersfield’s Soft Centre Covers United’s Lack of Width
While Lukaku linked well with the supporting Mata and Sánchez, playing two inverted wingers so intent on coming inside onto their stronger foot comes with caveats.
Namely, United desperately lacked width against Huddersfield. Against a team more capable of thwarting their progress through the middle, this could have become a serious issue for Mourinho’s side.
However, Huddersfield were so at sea with their positioning and ability to track central runners that United’s lack of width proved inconsequential . . . this time.
After receiving strong criticism through the week for his recent performances – most notably in last weekend’s defeat to Newcastle United – Chris Smalling answered his detractors with a solid display against the Terriers.
Partnered by Victor Lindelöf in central defence, Smalling made an incredible 15 clearances – no other player on the pitch reached even half that figure – along with two tackles, two interceptions and eight successful aerial duels.
The England international’s distribution was still less than perfect, completing only 74.2 per cent of his 31 attempted passes, but pairing him with the more technically assured Lindelöf seemed to help United work out from the back.
Bad news for Phil Jones, perhaps.