Having qualified from the group United now face French side St Etienne in the first knockout round of the Europe League.
We have met before back in 1977 in the old Cup Winners’ Cup when United won over two legs. This was some achievement given that St Etienne had reached the previous season European Cup final losing to Bayern Munich, who by beating the French team won their third consecutive European Cup. The final was a tight affair with the Germans winning 1-0 after St Etienne had missed some good chances. The first leg of our previous meeting with St Etienne was played in France; a 1-1 draw was marred by crowd trouble which meant that United were forced to play the second leg 200 Kilometres from Old Trafford as a punishment. The match was relocated to Plymouth’s Home Park and beamed back to Old Trafford on CCTV, a screening I attended. United won through with a 2-0 victory on the south coast but were eliminated by FC Porto in the next round. All this means that this will be St Etienne’s first visit to Old Trafford.
St Etienne are the most successful club In France historically having won the French Championship a record 10 times and the French Cup 6 times. Their last Cup win however was the win in 1976 which saw them qualify for that tie against United whilst their last league win was back in 1980-81 when they could boast Michel Platini in their ranks.
The current St Etienne are unbeaten in this season Europa League having won three and drawn three games to win Group C. They qualified by finishing sixth in last year’s French League on 58 points. That’s 38 points behind Champions Paris Saint-Germain. PSG won the French League by 31 points meaning that St Etienne were 7 points behind the second placed team Lyon.
Pogba versus Pogba
Much of the talk in the build up to the game has inevitably focused upon Paul Pogba going head to head with his older brother Florentin Pogba. As they are both left sided players however this isn’t likely to be a direct match up. Florentin has featured in midfield but more usually he has featured as a left sided central defender or a left back/wing back. We won’t say any more about this as you can read more about this elsewhere.
Currently managed by Christophe Galtier, at the time of writing they sit 9th in the French League. Galtier is considered by many to be a fairly defensive coach and maybe this is why he has regularly changed team shape this season; as a response to opponents. He started in St Etienne’s opening fixture as a 4-1-4-1 against Bordeaux and has since used a 3-5-1-1, (against PSG) and on occasions a 4-3-3.
St Etienne’s starting shape against PSG in September, a 3-5-1-1 shape, left, and towards the end of the game a 4-4-3 with a 3-4-1-2. The game ended 1-1.
More recently he has favoured a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2. He often reverts to 3 at the back against strong teams. Perhaps though this constant changing of strategy is also a reflection of mixed results this year; they currently have a league record of played 24, won 9, drawn 9, lost 6 so like United they have drawn too many matches. Galtier is also a manager who regularly changes shape during a game dependent upon the match situation.
St Etienne’s shape in the recent defeat to Nice on the 8th of February. Their starting shape on the left is a 4-2-3-1, but as they chased the game late in the match they switched to a 4-4-2. They lost this game 0-1 but is a common tactic of thGaltier to switch to the use of a second striker late in the match if the result is not going his way. Usually he favours a single striker.
Given the above it is hard to second guess St Etienne’s team shape although given the first leg is at Old Trafford we would imagine Galtier will seek to keep it tight, pack his midfield and look to use wide players, wingers or wing-backs to break. A key midfield player is Norwegian Ole Selnaes, but their best performer this year has often been right winger and top scorer Romain Hamouma who is quick and will be a likely outlet when they break.
This should be an interesting and potentially tricky tie, but if United apply themselves they should have enough to go through to the next round.