MANCHESTER UNITED vs MIDDLESBOROUGH
Another home game to finish the year and a chance to extend the number of consecutive league wins to five. Frustrating perhaps that Spurs, immediately above United are on a similar winning run, but who would blink first?
In: Bailly, Smalling, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan and Martial.
Out: Jones, Rojo, Carrick, Lingard and Mata.
- This was an excellent performance by United, but actually an excellent all round game. Middlesborough played a really disciplined defensive and counter-attacking game looking dangerous throughout on the break.
- United earned this win because of their persistence. They attacked with pace and verve and put Boro under long sustained periods of pressure, but it was Mourinho’s courage in gambling with three at the back late in the game which made the difference.
- The only thing lacking from United in this display was a greater level of understanding and composure in the final third; the final pass often let United down.
- Martial, Mkhitaryan and Pogba were excellent, inventive, playing with pace and energy they all played well. Herrera behind kept the side focused but Martial was the player who really stood out. Running at Boro with adventure this was by far his best game of the season.
- Blind was the only United player who struggled. He lacks pace and found it difficult to cope with Traore. His crossing was also a significant disappointment.
Michael Carrick was ill for this game so Jose Mourinho selected Fellaini as his replacement. Looking at the team sheet it was possible that this could have seen a reversion to a 4-2-3-1 shape but Jose chose to stay with the 4-3-3 shape which has worked so well in recent weeks. This mean’t Herrera moving back to the holding midfield role and Fellaini partnering Pogba in the more advanced midfield positions. With Martial wide left and Mkhitaryan notionally wide right United had pace either side of Ibrahimovic. Middlesborough set up as a 4-1-4-1.
United’s first half shape and Fellaini returning to the starting eleven
It was United who started on the front foot passing and moving at a good tempo. It was noticeable right from the start that Mkhitaryan was working across the front line and looking to press Boro to win the ball back early whenever United lost the ball. The space behind was skilfully covered by Herrera whose role was more circumspect. On the left Martial stayed wide for longer and from this failry rigid starting position he looked to attack Chambers, the Boro right back at every opportunity.
The pattern of the game was established right from the start. United dominated possession and passed well pushing Boro back but they did not create many clear cut chances because their final ball was not at the standard of their approach play. Middlesborough defended with discipline and dealt well with any high balls delivered into the box. In truth United’s crossing was poor. When Boro won the ball they either lost it to the United press or having beaten the press counter-attacked with pace via Traore. This put Blind under significant pressure and he struggled against this pace. In fact Middlesborough had the better early chances with the first coming as early as the third minute when Traore found himself three on one baring down on Smalling after Herrera had lost the ball high up the pitch. Smalling did well to marshal the Boro man but Traore chose the wrong option in shooting himself. This was one of several early Boro chances. These came against the run of play with United dominating general play but the visitors always looked dangerous on the break.
There are a number of features of the half and in fact the game worth picking out at this point.
Firstly United’s press was highly effective. Mkhitaryan especially won the ball back by interception several times, but the whole front line were alert and quickly closed the ball down whenever United lost possession. Herrera was also usually very effective in controlling the space behind the press making it harder for Middlesborough to beat the press. This all worked because all were both aggressive and alert, often anticipating well. Having won the ball they continued to be alert and often created chances quickly after the transition.
Martial – 9 take-ons, 7 successful, but of 10 crosses only 3 were successful
Secondly Martial and Mkhitaryan were excellent. Martial was aggressive and appeared to have a renewed sense of confidence. He ran at defenders, often diagonally from the left and at pace asking some very difficult questions. He was also not shy to shoot and was unlucky with one that screamed across goal and another that hit the post prior to Ibrahimovic’s disallowed goal. Mkhitaryan often lead the press, but in possession he was composed, alert and imaginative operating across the pitch between the lines. He is adept and doing thing with the ball in incredibly tight spaces
Pogba moved up and down the pitch rather than across the width of the pitch. He showed great strength and a willingness to hold the ball whilst others ran into positions to make the passing options. He also played a number of deadly accurate long cross field passes to switch play when the space was on the other side. A couple of these were breath-taking. Pogba also hit the post but the important impressive thing was his invention, always focused on trying to play the ball forward.
The downside was Blind’s performance. He struggled against the pace of Traore, but he also lost out in terms of physicality. His crossing was a disappointment, although in fairness he was not alone in this; Martial’s crosses were also a concern.
United didn’t score in the first half for three reasons. The referee disallowing a perfectly good goal, Middlesbrough stuck to their task and defending well and the lack of a quality clinical final pass in the final third.
The halftime score was a frustrating 0-0.
The start of the second half continued in the same pattern as the first half with neither side making any substitutions. United continued to apply pressure and Boro maintained a good defensive shape whilst they also sporadically had promising attacking moments.
The first adjustment came in the 65th minute when United made a double change replacing Blind and Fellaini with Rojo and Mata. Rojo for Blind was a straight swap but Mata for Fellaini required some adjustment with Mata moving to the wide right attacking slot formerly occupied by Mkhitaryan and the Armenian dropping deeper into the rightsided attacking midfield berth formerly occupied by Fellaini.
Immediately after these changes though Middlesborough scored. The goal came from a cross sent over by Chambers the Boro right back which was nodded down by Negredo into the path of Leadbetter. It was a good well worked goal but if anyone was to blame it was Smalling who half covered Negredo and Leadbetter and so really didn’t cover either.
The Boro goal came in the 66th minute and whilst United continued to press they clearly needed to make a further change as a goal no seemed perhaps less likely to come. As a consequence Mourinho now made his last substitution and a significant tactical switch. The change in personnel saw Rashford introduced for Smalling. This meant that United now reverted to a 3 man defence and overall a 3-2-3-2 shape with Martial playing centrally off Ibrahimovic and Rashford in a wide left position. Earlier in the game the early forward pass had been towards Ibrahimovic often supplied by Pogba. As slower channelling of the ball up the pitch saw the ball usually worked through the left and either directed to Martial or switched via one of those long searching Pogba passes to Valencia or Mkhitaryan. Now the early pass was towards Rashford and he then ran aggressively at Chambers. Rashford produced a couple of dangerous attacking runs leading to dangerous centres and might have had a penalty.
United’s shape late in the game and Marcus Rashford, a late substitute
As the clock ticked down it didn’t look as if United were going to make the breakthrough even though they were sticking to their task and maintained a high level of attacking pressure on the Boro defence. Would they crack?
Yes. In the 85th minute Bailly played a long straight high pass towards Ibrahimovic. He lept to head it down into the path of Martial running off him to shoot past Valdes in the Boro goal. Boom! 1-1. The goal was a consequence of United now playing with two central attacking players.
After the goal Middlesborough then immediately broke down the left and had a penalty shout turned down; Valencia just stood his ground shoulder to shoulder as the Boro player collapsed in a heap. The United scored again. This was a more patient build up with the ball reaching Mata on the left. He almost lost the ball but won a 50-50 challenge to find himself in a narrow position on the right hand side of the penalty area. He chipped a cross onto the head of Pogba in a central position. Pogba didn’t even leave the ground but was able to direct his header into the top corner of the net. Pogba’s subtle movement in the box had left him unmarked. Boom! 2-1.
A win in Jose time!
United stretched their winning run to five with a deserved win; deserved based on their persistence but also because they consistently had the upper-hand, putting Boro under sustained periods of pressure. They were also unlucky to have a perfectly good goal ruled out inexplicably in the first half.
Nevertheless it was no surprise to see Middlesborough take the lead. They defended well throughout and were always dangerous on the break. This made this a great and fascinating contest and a real test for United. A few weeks ago they might not have prevailed but this victory spoke of a team which is now playing with confidence and belief. No-one demonstrated this more than Martial who had a great game; cutting in from the left at pace and taking people on and asking questions of the Boro defence. He combined well with Pogba who had another excellent game and is becoming the attacking fulcrum. Some of his long cross field passes to switch play in this game were simply sublime. Mkhitaryan on the other side provided pace whilst Ibrahimovic acted as the more static link. Behind Herrera worked tirelessly to screen the defence and direct the highly effective press.
Playing like this United will win most games. So why did it take so long for United to score. Discounting the disallowed goal United’s final ball is still not quite at the standard of their general play. As a consequence they aren’t creating enough genuinely clear cut chances. They are winning by forcing things and they are taking plenty of shots, but most of them are speculative half chances. At the moment this is enough. But in this game only just and relying on a late gamble by the manager in reverting to a three man defence. Now isn’t that sort of gamble something Mourinho isn’t supposed to favour?