MANCHESTER UNITED vs ZORYA LUHANSK
Having lost in Holland in their opening Europa League game this was a must win match for United and manager Jose Mourinho admitted this in the pre-match press conference. As much as the group situation demanded a win it seemed as important to win to maintain the momentum established in the last two games.
In: Romero, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah and Fellaini .
Out: De Gea, Blind, Valencia and Herrera.
- United needed to win here and win they did, but this was a drab affair. United were always in control dominating possession, but shades of a Van Gaal performance; too many safe passes and not enough to hurt the opposition.
- United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape which gave them this control, but all too often they lacked bodies in the box, (Zlatan often dropped deep). Two shots on target against a team set up to defend is not enough.
- The biggest contrast to the weekends display was in the tempo of United’s passing. This was just too slow. At the start of the second half this improved, probably as a consequence of a few well-chosen half time words but after ten minutes the tempo dropped again.
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic had another good game. Often the only presence in the box, he dropped deep to involve himself and his contributions were valuable when he did. Strong and brave enough to take the ball in tight situations and also a player who does not hesitate. He regularly increased the tempo of United’s play.
- Zorya were fairly unambitious. Playing a 4-5-1 they sat deep and waited for opportunities to hit United on the break. When they did so they hit United with pace, especially via fullbacks advancing in wide areas and often looked dangerous.
For This game United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape with Mata as the number 10 playing centrally behind Ibrahimovic. That meant Pogba moving back to form a double pivot with Fellaini who replaced Herrera. Pogba tended to be slightly higher than Fellaini and was always the player to push forward s United attacked.
United’s first half shape and Mata who operated in the number 10 position
The pattern of the whole game was set from the start. United enjoyed the majority of possession passing the ball about with ease. Zorya did not press but instead formed up in a low block in a 4-5-1 shape and waited for the loose pass which might give them the chance to break. This gave United the task of breaking their two defensive lines down and United struggled to do this for much of the game.
When they broke Zorya often looked dangerous; they broke with pace in wide areas with their fullbacks pushing forward quickly to support their quick wingers. With a little more luck they might have scored on a couple of occasions.
The reasons for this were two-fold. Firstly they simply passed the ball too slowly. For the first fifteen minutes or so this wasn’t the case they circulated the game reasonably well but gradually the pace of their passing slowed. It seemed that ever player was taking an extra touch; there was a lack of urgency in the play. The second issue was that much of the passing was safe; it simply did not ask enough questions of the opposition.
The exceptions to this was when Ibrahimovic dropped deep to involve himself in the build-up. When he did this he tended to speed the pace of the move. He did this because he never seemed to hesitate but always did something quickly, whether this was a pass or a run, he was one player who did not procrastinate. The problem was that the pace at which he did thing often caught his teammates out, they seemed surprised by his speed f though and deed.
Much of the problem for United was that with the exception of Ibrahimovic much of their movement was lateral; across the pitch rather than towards Zorya’s goal. Mata worked across the line often playing one-two’s with Pogba or Ibrahimovic whilst Rashford and Lingard often switched sides.
The sum total of all this was that whilst United hit the bar through Rashford despite dominating possession they failed to register a shot on target in the opening period. Halftime 0-0.
Jose Mourinho did not make any half-time changes but it was clear that he had spoken at half time about the pace of United’s play as they started the half passing at a higher tempo. Unfortunately this only lasted for about 10 minutes after which normal service was resumed.
United didn’t look any more likely to score at this point than in the first half so on 66 minutes Mourinho made a change removing Lingard and introducing Rooney. Mata now moved to Lingard’s position of the right with Rooney slotting in behind Ibrahimovic. Rooney was generally closer to Ibrahimovic than Mata had been and this gave United more of an attacking presence in central areas in the final third. Fortunately for United this extra presence resulted in a goal within a couple of minutes.
The goal came from a good move but required some good fortune. Mata who had drifted inside fed a ball wide to an overlapping Fosu-Mensah who pulled the ball back across goal to Rooney. Rooney “shinned” his shot into the ground but it bounced up to Ibrahimovic at the far post and he was able to head home inside his near post before the goal keeper could react. Boom! 68 minutes played 1-0.
United’s shape after their first substitution on 66 minutes and their second double change on 72 minutes
Within a few minutes of the goal Mourinho made a double substitution. Martial and Young replaced Mata and Young. Young slotted in at right back and Martial wide on the right. The only real change to the pattern of play now was that Martial tended to run diagonally towards goal rather than square as Mata did. The balance of United’s play was better now with Rashford’s pace on the left being balance by Martial on the right. The end of the game was fairly uneventful however allowing United to seal the win.
A welcome three points in the group but ultimately a disappointing performance especially coming as it did after the improved display against Leicester. Mourinho has stated on a few occasions recently that his approach is different to that of Louis van Gaal and that it would take United a period of time to adjust. Well in this match United’s performance was so “Van Gaal-esque” that it felt like there is a lot of adjustment still to do.
Nevertheless the win moves United off the bottom of the group and keeps the winning run going. Not much to see, not much to say, let’s move on.