MANCHESTER UNITED vs MIDJTYLLAND
After defeat in the first leg of this tie in Denmark United had worked to do in the return at Old Trafford. They could take encouragement however from an away goal in that game and a win securing progress to the quarter finals of the FA Cup three days earlier at Shrewsbury. With a home game against Arsenal scheduled just three days after this tie fixture congestion and an extended injury list were also factors to consider however.
In: Riley, Carrick and Rashford.
Out: Borthwick-Jackson, Smalling and Martial.
- This was a good performance; after an initial set back United showed good character and with three youngsters in the side improved as the game wore on.
- United passed the ball at a good tempo and pressed Midjtylland high up the pitch. This made a difference but early in the game they lacked a threat in the final third.
- Rashford on debut moved away from the goal and too may crosses were lofted, lacking the killer whip required to trouble the visitors. In the second half Rashford’s movement and positioning was better and he gained his just reward with two goals on debut.
- In the first half Midjtylland retained the ball well on the rare occasions they got into United’s half. They were neat and tidy and United’s failure to challenge for the ball helped the visitors keep the ball alive in the United half. This resulted in the goal.
- In the second half United offered a more urgent and competitive game, challenging for the ball in their half and taking more initiative. The consequence was four second half goals and a comfortable win.
Given United had played three days earlier and had another game in three days’ time, followed by another game three days later perhaps we could have expected Van Gaal to make wholesale changes. He could do so because of his current injury list but then his pre-match plans were disrupted by a hamstring injury to Martial in the warm-up. He was replaced in the starting eleven by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford making his debut. United’s shape was unchanged as a 4-2-3-1, but their defence, largely due to that injury list had a markedly inexperienced or makeshift look to it. Romero continued to deputise for De Gea, with the inexperienced Varela at right back and Joe Riley (who made his debut only as a substitute in the previous game) at left back. As centre-back the manager selected Carrick and Blind, and whilst we often forget know that the versatile Blind is not really a centre back the truth is that both these players are naturally defensive midfield players.
United’s first half shape and movement and debutante Marcus Rashford
Midtjylland continued in a 4-1-4-1 and started much as they had in the first leg with Sisto on the field as a lively front man and the giant Onuachu, who had caused United all sorts of second half problems on the bench.
United started the game at a good tempo. They passed the ball with a good sense of urgeny. Perhaps there was a little too much square passing and they didn’t really create many clear cut chances in the first part of the game. There was a couple of interesting features too their play. Firstly Memphis on the left hand side seemed a lot livelier than in recent performances. He regularly got on the ball after a switch of play. In this circumstance with a little more space he looked dangerous cutting inside and often looking to shoot. This movement was very predictable but Midjytlland didn’t seem to be set up to do anything about it. United also switch the ball in the other direction from left to right, but on the other side Lingard was far less effective.
The second interesting feature of the game was the support given to these wide players from the young fullbacks. Both did really well; perhaps nothing spectacular but they looked confident. They certainly didn’t look like players who had only recently experienced life in the first team. Carrick and Herrera regularly looked to switch play and whilst there was a little too much square passing, early diagonal balls frequently opened up space leading to United’s better moments.
They didn’t score though and there were perhaps too main reasons for this. Firstly the quality of the crossing was poor. Most crosses seemed to be deep lofted balls to or beyond the far post. Midjytlland coped with these fairly well. What United needed to do was whip in lower crosses with more pace.
The other factor was the positioning of Rashford. He tended to drift wide, particularly to United’s right. These left the centre of Midjytlland defence relatively untroubled.
Unfortunately the visitors then scored through Sisto on 22 minutes. Midjytlland had already shown they were comfortable retaining possession once in the United half. This time they managed to keep the ball alive and switch the angle and direction of attack. It was too easy. What was very noticeable both for the goal but also on countless other occasions was that United pressed the ball well in the oppositions half but once the opposition moved the ball into the United half the Reds seemed to sit off their opponents and allow them to play it around. This certainly seemed to contribute to the goal. Was this a deliberate tactic where United avoided tackling close to their own goal in an attempt to avoid conceding free kicks, especially in view of Midjytllands known expertise at set pieces?
Fortunately for United they soon got back into the game and they deserve credit for not being downcast after conceding. The goal illustrated a key point about the first half. This time Memphis varied his movement and went outside to the bye-line. From there he hit a low cross/shot which deflected in for an own goal off Bodurov after 32 minutes. The key point was that United hit a low hard cross and this caused problems that the lofted far post crosses did not. 32 minutes, Boom! 1-1.
The pattern of play continued and United might have grabbed the lead before half-time either from the penalty spot or open play. The penalty opportunity came after Herrera was upended in on the edge of the box as he nudged the ball to the advancing Blind. Mata stepped up but shot tamely to the keeper’s right. He saved a couple of yards inside his post. This was disappointing as the penalty was just a couple of minutes before the half-time break. A goal at that point might have been demoralising for Midjytlland. Would a missed penalty be dispiriting for United.
At half-time the visitors made a change, introducing Onuachu as they had done in the first leg. Would United cope any better than they did in that game. In fact they did as they seemed to have learnt to contest the second ball rather than attempting to compete with a 6ft 7inch player for the first ball. Crucially when the player dropped deep United’s central defence let him go and allowed the defensive midfield players to pick him up. This worked and United retained the upper hand in the game.
United’s second half shape and movement and Joe Riley making his full debut
United’s second goal after 63 minutes illustrated another change, this time from the pattern of the game in the first half. In the second half Rashford tended to stay far more central. This was important because it created a central threat and tied up the oppositions centre-backs. In the first half United had lacked any thrust down the centre of the pitch, whilst their wide attacks were undermined by the nature of the crosses. Now they had a central presence to both provide a target for crosses from out wide but also as presence to create space for others. This goal came after had typically cut inside and shot; the ball was recycled through a couple of phases on the right before an over hit cross beyond the far post was cut back hard and low from the bye-line by Mata into the path of Rashford, who had maintained a central position about 9 yards from goal. The ball watching defenders had left him in space. Boom! 2-1.
The pattern of the match continued unchanged and United might have stretched their lead via another penalty. The referee chose to penalise Lingard for a dive.
But then United did score again and again it was through Rashford. By now Midjytlland had retreated with everybody behind the ball and were showing very little ambition themselves, so it was good to see United break down a low block, something they have often failed to do this season. This time United worked the ball around on the right, eventually moving the ball into the inside right channel where Varela ran to the bye line before cutting back a low chipped cross which again found Rashford in space. Again he had virtually stood still in a central position whilst all around him people had moved and ball watched. Boom! 75 minutes 3-1 and United were beginning to look comfortable.
Van Gaal now made his first substitution replacing Joe Riley with Marcos Rojo returning from injury. This was a straight positional swap. Riley had played really well. Riley was solid at the back if not consistently tested and worked hard to get up and down the pitch behind the much improved Memphis.
United continued to push on against the visitors and the question was would they score again. On 86 minutes as the game appeared to be petering out Pereira was introduced in place of Lingard and then United did score again, twice in fact.
The first of these two goals came via a penalty when a Memphis shot hit a defenders outstretched arm. The shot was on target. Herrera stepped up to convert. Boom! 4-;. then to finish off the evening Memphis scored via his trademark move, a run inside across the face of the defence and a shot from range. Boom! 5-1.
In injury time Herrera was replaced by another debutante Regan Poole.
So after an early scare United progress to the next round. This was very comfortable in the end but it wasn’t like that for most of the game. If Midtjylland collapsed in the end however it is because United stuck t their task and improved as the game wore on. This is too their credit and it was pleasing to see three young inexperienced players contribute; they all looked comfortable, none of them looked out of place and Rashford played very well, especially in the second half.
This was also one of Memphis’s best performances to date in a United shirt. He worked hard and was enterprising. He didn’t always do the right thing but he was busy and proactive. He was well worth his late goal. A criticism would be that there are still too many square balls. For some United players the first instinct seems to be to look for a square safe pass, often when an easier forward ball is on. This is noticeable the case with the defenders, but even with the midfield players, notably Schneiderlin.
To be clear here the difference is that United passed the ball at a higher tempo than they often have done. It is no coincidence that this is a feature of all their better performances.