MANCHESTER UNITED vs CSKA MOSCOW
After four successive draws and three successive goalless draws United went into this game against a backdrop of angst amongst fans desperate for entertainment and goals. Despite this United sat comfortably in the group table and a win here would see United in the box seat to qualify from the group.
In: Young, Carrick and Lingard.
Out: Darmian, Schneiderlin and Herrera.
- This was a significantly better performance than in recent games. United started brightly playing at a faster tempo than has been usual. It wasn’t a great performance but it was a much more positive display.
- United created several chances throughout the game, perhaps not clear cut chances but the final ball and quality of play in the final third let the team down.
- Lingard did well in taking the defence on with his positive running but as a right footed player playing on the left his delivery was poor. On the left Mata cut inside and Young pushed on, but the late substitutions changed all this when Memphis came in on the left and Lingard switched to the right. The balance then felt better and yielded dividends.
- Schweinsteiger and Smalling were excellent. Schweinsteiger controlled the direction of the play and Smalling snuffed out any danger, which was minimal for most of the game but when it mattered, particularly towards the end of the game he was equal to any challenge.
- The goal came from positive play and a one touch first time delivery into the box. United need to do this more, take a few risks in and around the box and cede some control to then open the opposition up.
After a series of 0-0 stalemates there had been plenty of fans and commentators asking for Van Gaal to move Martial back to the middle in the week before this game. Van Gaal acceded to this wish and shuffled his pack to do so. United were set up in a 4-2-3-1 with Martial as the central striker and Rooney behind as the number 10. This then created a problem of who to play wide on the left; a problem because Memphis has not yet adequately adjusted to life at United. Van Gaal’s solution was to play Lingard on the left. Mata continued on the right.
United’s starting formation and Martial, moved back through the middle
CSKA also started with a 4-2-3-1 formation but for some reason with Musa rather than the impressive pacey first leg goal scorer Doumbia as their striker. Doumbia started on the bench.
United started well playing at a high tempo and taking the game to CSKA who were pushed back. United passed early and well with the majority of their attacking thrust being in the wide areas. As is often the case there was a contrast between United’s wide play on the right and left. On the right, Mata cut inside leaving space behind and beyond him for Young to exploit. Young pushed forward and delivered several good crosses but no one in the middle made connection with them. On the left Lingard was very lively and proactive in taking his fullback on. This dragged CSKA midfield to this side leaving more space on the right for Young. Schweinsteiger and Carrick regularly looked to switch play to this side but they were often too slow in doing so.
Back on the left Rojo pushed forward in support of Lingard with Schweinsteiger sitting behind this pair to provide cover. Despite the slowness in switching play the combination of Carrick and Schweinsteiger as the pivots showed a significant improvement upon their display at Arsenal as shown by Schweinsteiger’s covering work. Schweinsteiger was dictating the shape of the attacking.
So why didn’t United score in the first half? This was a much improved performance because United passed quickly and were generally more adventurous in their play, but a number of factors mitigated against its effectiveness. Firstly Lingard’s delivery from the left was poor, as was his combination play with Rojo. Rojo’s crosses were similarly poor. Lingard was lively but often looked uncomfortable as a right footed player on the left and always seemed to need to cut back to use his right foot. This was never more evident when a ball from Young reached him on the left had side of the box. The obvious thing to do was to return the ball into the six yard box first time with his left foot to the position where Rooney was lurking. Lingard was not confident to do so, cut the ball back onto his right and then blazed over the bar.
The second factor was the lack of a central threat. Martial was well marshalled by the CSKA central defence and made little impact. Rooney playing slightly deeper was largely bypassed in the final third as the ball moved to the wings via the pivots. When the ball was delivered into the box from wide areas Rooney attempted to attack the six yard box but frequently he didn’t get there in time. Is this a result of the player losing pace as he ages? It is perhaps too early to definitively make that assessment but he is certainly struggling for form at the moment.
In the second half the pattern of the game remained the same with United continuing to dominate possession, do all the attacking but without making a significant impression on a disciplined CSKA defensive block. United were creating chances, but they were half rather than full, clear cut chances.
Van Gaal needed to change things and on 66minutes removed Martial, who had made no impression on the game, and replaced him with Fellaini. This resulted in loud booing from the Old Trafford crowd. Why? Did they want Van Gaal to persist with a strategy that wasn’t working in the game?
We need to write a word or two about the crowd’s reaction here. United fans want to see attacking football and goals and are clearly frustrated by Van Gaal’s approach, but it is ironic that in this game where United had done nothing but attack for the whole game that the crowd’s reaction was to sing “attack attack, attack attack attack!” and “were Man United, we want to attack”. In they had sung this at any number of earlier games then fair enough but singing these songs here shows how easily the crowd is led by the media and ex-players and commentators and their opinions.
The change actually worked with Rooney suddenly providing a more difficult problem for the CSKA central defenders to deal with. He was now higher. Fellaini, playing as the number 10 behind him also provided a problem. He dropped deep to drag players away from Rooney but then came high into the space so created to support Rooney at key moments. The CSKA back line which had begun to look very increasingly comfortable as the game had worn on now looked uncomfortable and the pace of United’s play, which had begun to drop off increased.
Then Van Gaal made a second change on 74 minutes replacing Mata with Memphis. This was as significant a change for United as the first change with Lingard now switching across to the right and Memphis taking up position on the left.
United after the mid-second half substitutions and Lingard, left or right?
This Champions’ League group is proving to be particularly tight and as much as United needed a win here so did CSKA. After 55 minutes they had made their own change introducing Doumbia. Their play had now became more expansive as they went to a 4-4-2 with Doumbia playing very close to Musa. CSKA started to look to feed the ball to this pair in central areas and they tried to hold the ball between them to allow time for runners to then join in from the deep. This looked as if it might work well for them and inevitably they got a good chance to score.
This chance came when the ball was hooked forward down the centre of the pitch and Doumbia chested the ball on to Musa who returned the ball round the corner for Doumbia to run onto. Blind had got sucked in and was done for pace. De Gea made a half save and then a combination of Smalling and Young slid in on the line to block the shot when it seemed certain that CSKA would score. The almost immediately United did score.
The goal came after a Young cross had been picked upon by CSKA who tried to run the ball up the field. Rojo won the ball back and immediately fed Memphis. He lost the ball but it ran free to Carrick who switched play with a diagonal long pass to the right hand side. The ball dropped to Lingard who volleyed the ball first time dack into the goalmouth where Rooney headed home. Boom! 79 minutes 1-0.
Two factors were critical in the goal. An early pass by Carrick and a first touch volley back across goal by Lingard. First time made the difference, upped the tempo and opened CSKA up. The second factor was that playing on the right Lingard had the confidence to volley first time with his right foot. Would he have had the confidence as a right footer to volley back first time with his left foot from the left?
Thereafter in the last ten minutes United had other chances to score as they seemed to grow in confidence and to play with an inceased sense of freedom. The tension and anxiety and desperation for a goal had gone from their game. Critically the team now looked better balanced across the width of the pitch.
In the 89th minute Herrera came on for Schweinsteiger as United closed out the game to secure a crucial win.
United go top of the group after this win. This wasn’t a great performance but it was much improved. United attacked for most of this match and CSKA Moscow only really made an attacking impression after the introduction of Doumbia after 55 minutes. Despite this concerns about the quality of United’s play in the final third persist. In his programme notes Louis van Gaal wrote:
“Defensively we are a well-organised team. However, we clearly need to work on our positional game in the final third to create more chances and to be more clinical in finishing those chances”.
We couldn’t put it any better than that. United had 69% of the possession here, 15 shots on goal but only 5 on target. Van Gaal has done a lot of work on team shape and defensive solidity; they have now gone 7 hours and 45 minutes without conceding a goal, and in the Premier League they have conceded the joint lowest number of goals, (8; and 3 of those in one half of a game at Arsenal). But the balance between attack and defence is not right.
United currently have a problem laterally across their attacking line. Van Gaal played Lingard on the left here and Martial in the centre with Rooney behind. Mata featured on the right, cutting inside with Young overlapping from fullback. This worked to a point but delivery from wide areas was poor. Over the last few weeks Van Gaal has tried a variety of players in wide positions and this of course impacts upon who is then played through the middle and the service they receive. At the moment it isn’t working but it did work when Lingard was switched to the right with Memphis coming in on the left. Memphis didn’t pull up any trees but the side then look more balanced. Lingard delivered a first time assist from the right and Rooney, pushed further forward after the removal of Marital, delivering the finishing touch to seal the win.