MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Manchester United's 13-game unbeaten run in the Premier League came to an end with a shock 2-1 home defeat to rock-bottom Sheffield United on Wednesday as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's back-up players failed to deliver.
In a season with an intense schedule, teams have been forced to shuffle their packs to keep players fresh.
Yet Solskjaer's squad rotation against Sheffield United resulted in a performance that would not have been out of place during some of the low points of his time at the club.
The pairing of Scott McTominay and Brazilian Fred at the base of the midfield has worked well throughout their recent run of good form but without them, United were back to the ponderous and hesitant, slow build-up play that rarely suits them.
Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba did not bring that same level of intensity and ability to keep the tempo up and the pressure on their opponents.
Sheffield United defended superbly, with the 38-year-old Phil Jagielka keeping them compact and focused, but United simply did not ask them enough difficult questions.
Anthony Martial struggled again, while Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood produced too little and it was only late in the game when Uruguayan Edinson Cavani was introduced.
At the back, Axel Tuanzebe, at centre-half alongside Harry Maguire, looked well short of the standards set by Victor Lindelof and the injured Eric Bailly, while left back Alex Telles was unable to match the contributions of Luke Shaw in that role.
Solskjaer avoided blaming individuals but was clearly unhappy with the performance.
"There will be no big inquest. There have been so many odd results this season but with the world as it is we have been the most consistent team, it hit us today," said Solskjaer.
"Disappointed, we couldn't get to the heights of the last few months' football we played. Very disappointing, we couldn't find a solution to their very compact block and good defence," he added.
"That little spark, that edge, we didn't have that extra creativity, imagination, the X factor we've had - it's happened, we look at it, agree it is not good enough and go again," he said.
United's trip to Arsenal on Saturday is a tricky one and Solskjaer will surely return to his strongest lineup.
Then come home games against Southampton and Everton, both tricky tests, and it was no doubt an awareness of those factors that led Solskjaer to rest some starters against the Yorkshire side.
Yet having paid the price for his back-up men failing to rise to the challenge, the Norwegian will have little choice but to stick with what has worked for the coming games.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)