ZORYA LUHANSK vs MANCHESTER UNITED
The equation here was simple; if United avoided defeat they would qualify from the group. Although Zorya have been the whipping boys of the group this had to be weighed against United recent record in European away games which was woeful.
In: Romero, Young, Bailly, Blind, Rooney and Mata.
Out: De Gea, Valencia, Darmian, Jones, Carrick and Martial.
- Needing only a draw to qualify United’s approach was very cautious until they scored their first goal just after the break. Then with the cushion of a lead they became slightly more adventurous.
- United controlled the game by retaining team shape. Zorya themselves were relatively cautious until late in the game. This lead to a dull game.
- In the first half Ibrahimovic was starved of service and it was only late in the game when he received an early pass that he had any opportunity. He took his chance however and United caught Zorya to get that second killer goal.
- Henrkh Mkhitaryan had another encouraging game and here he managed to get his first United goal. He provides good movement with and off the ball, looks comfortable and confident in possession and has more pace than you think.
- United did enough, no more.
United started this game set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Herrera and Pogba in the double pivot positions and Rooney in the number 10 space. Mata started on the right and Mkhitaryan on the left. Zorya set up in a similar shape.
The initial stand out feature of the game was just how deep Herrera and Pogba positioned themselves. United needed only a draw from this game so a safety first approach was perhaps inevitable, at least at the start of the game given the number of early goals United have conceded over the last couple of months. This though felt like over caution and it nearly backfired in the 8th minute when Zorya moved forward on the right. The ball was moved inside square but Pogba was so far from the man receiving the ball that he had ample time to get a shot away. This passage of play required a smart double save from Romero to keep the game level.
United’s starting formation and Ibrahimovic, starved of service for much of the game
That incident aside United looked fairly comfortable for most of the first half. Pogba and Herrera still stayed very deep as United concentrated on controlling space and maintaining team shape. They dominated possession but most of the play was in the middle of the pitch. United were so slow to move the ball forward that Ibrahimovic saw virtually nothing of the ball in the first 15 minutes. Things only marginally improved as the half wore on.
Pogba (left) and Herrera (right) action areas – mostly in the middle of the pitch concentrated around the half way line.
Zorya concentrated on getting eleven men behind the ball whenever United had possession. United kept the ball moving, but unprepared to take any risks their football was slow and cautious rather than dynamic and threatening. United didn’t really press Zorya aggressively when the home side had the ball; they didn’t have too as they regularly sloppily gave the ball away. Both teams seemed so accepting of the status quo that very little happened in a dull half.
Half time 0-0.
Initially it looked like we might get more of the same at the start of the second half, but then out of nowhere United scored. Zorya had the ball in the centre of the park. Rojo managed to nick in a nd steal the ball which ran free to Mkhitaryan in the centre circle. From there he ran directly through the centre of the pitch as the Zorya defence parted; perhaps they were taken by surprise by a player taking a chance. Mkhitareyan nut-megged one player but no-one else got near him. Boom! 1-0 after 47 minutes.
After this goal United suddenly started to play a bit higher and for the first time they began to press Zorya. Why? The most obvious explanation for this was that with a lead in a game that they only needed to draw to qualify from the group they now felt they had a margin for error. Whatever the reason United now looked a more accomplished side. United’s fullbacks pushed higher and Herrera dropped in between the centre backs when they did. This left Pogba to push further up the pitch and engage more closely with Ibrahimovic. Up to this point in the game Ibrahimovic had usually looked fairly isolated at the front and starved of the early service he needs to pose a significant threat on the opposition’s goal. This had resulted in him dropping deep. Now he too was higher and so more of a threat.
This is not to say that United’s display was dramatically transformed. Much of the game was sloppy with both sides continuing to give the ball away. United continued to look comfortable until Zorya made a number of substitutions. In the 54th minute Bonaventura replaced Bezborodko and in the 57th minute Grechyshkin replaced Kharatin. Positionally these were like for like changes but they injected more pace into Zorya’s attacking endeavours, especially through the lively Bonaventura.
In response Mourinho removed Mata after 65 minutes and introduced Lingard, briefly changing team shape to a 4-3-3. This meant Rooney moving to the left and Mkhitaryan going to the right. Lingard positioned himself centrally with Pogba dropping back to partner Herrera. Lingards pace gave United a quicker link through the spine of the side up to Ibrahimovic. The 4-3-3 transformed back into the 4-3-3 fairly quickly as Pogba dropped deeper.
Then on 70 minutes Fellaini replaced Rooney with Lingard moving to the right and Mkhitaryan moving to the left. Fellaini slotted in in midfield. This was all fairly cautious stuff as Jose Mourinho effectively looked to close out the game. Then on 85 minutes United made another cautious change removing Mkhitaryan and introducing Fosu-Mensah. United were now pretty much 4-4-2.
Zorya continued to push forward, they now had nothing to lose of course and perhaps because of their adventure United caught them again. This time the goal came from a turnover of possession in United’s own half as the home side looked to move the ball forward through their inside left channel, United’s right hand side. United won the ball and in an instant Pogba played a superb reverse pass, effectively a straight pass down the half space. For the first time this was good early ball for Ibrahimovic. He raced clear and coolly slotted home to put the game beyond doubt. Boom! 2-0, 88 minutes, game over.
So United qualify from the group after a dull disappointing game. United controlled most of this game but were unspectacular. The bright spots were the goals and the general performance of Mkhitaryan. Job done, let’s move on.