MANCHESTER UNITED vs ST ETIENNE
The return of European football saw United take on French opposition in the form of St Etienne in the Europa League round of 32. United were looking to establish a commanding lead before the second leg just under a week later, a game which would come just 4 days the league Cup Final.
In: Romero and Fellaini.
Out: De Gea and Mkhitaryan.
- 3-0 was a flattering score line given that United didn’t really take control of the game until the second half. Even then all three goals involved a degree of good fortune.
- United again struggled to replicate the quality of their general play in the final third but in this game their often seemed to be a general sloppiness in much of their play. Ponderous at times they gave the ball away far too easily on far too many occasions.
- It seemed at times in this game as if United were concentrating on retaining their shape at all costs and so perhaps not being prepared to be proactive in exploiting spaces going forward. If this was part of an approach intend to ensure United avoided being caught in the break there is a logic to this but in doing so they made life harder than it needed to be. St Etienne worked hard but they are not a great side.
- A halftime substitution and change of shape gave United second half control, but even then they failed to create clear cut chances with what seemed like a huge number of over-hit crosses.
- The high point of this game was the direct running of Martial and later Rashford.
With Mkhitaryan ill Jose Mourinho brought Fellaini into the starting eleven. The team was set up in a 4-3-3 shape with Herrera deep behind Pogba to the left and Fellaini to the right. St Etienne started as a 4-2-3-1.
United’s starting shape and Fellaini returning to the side in place of Mkhitaryan
The story of the first half in brief is that United started slowly with some sloppy play before stabilising and taking a fortunate lead in the 15th minute. Thereafter St Etienne asserted themselves and in fact dominated the final fifteen minutes of the half. United were lucky to be in the lead at halftime. United’s goal was also fairly fortunate. Ibrahimovic “won” a free kick just outside the box. He took this himself and struck a low shot straight at the wall in anticipation of that wall jumping. It didn’t but the ball took a deflection wrong footing goalkeeper and defender to creep over the line. Boom! didn’t seem appropriate.
We would pick out a number of key features in this first half. Firstly United’s play was slow and ponderous, it was also sloppy and careless with the side giving the ball away unnecessarily on numerous occasions. This was typified right at the start of the half when Bailly played a short back pass which left a St Etienne player one-on-one with Romero who did smart work to foil him. United stabilised after this sloppy start as they increased the pace of their play. This enabled them to keep the ball and they were successful in circulating this in their own defensive line and midfield. They struggled to make a significant impact upon the visitors defence. They looked at their most dangerous when they switched play but having done so their play did not often have the urgency to exploit the extra space created. They did look dangerous however when Martial got early ball and an opportunity to run at the opposition. There was excitement in these surges forward but no end product.
The second key feature was St Etienne’s strategic approach. They defended on a narrow front which should have left space wide for United’s switching of play, but United didn’t exploit this enough. United were slow to stretch the play and this made it fairly easy for the visitors to defend in small areas. When they won the ball they were quick to break looking to stretch the play quickly and move the ball away from the area where they had won it and into the half channels where their wider players did not hesitate to run directly at United. After the United goal and with United regularly giving the ball away this strategy allowed St Etienne to take control of the game with Pogba notably dropping back to cover. This left Fellaini as a single advanced midfield player which in turn enabled St Etienne to take the ball off him easily and when they had the ball play around him. This dragged Mata towards the middle of the field which only made it easier for St Etienne to build moves down their left side.
For all this however St Etienne did not manage a shot on target during this period, or in fact throughout the whole game. At the 30 minute mark they had not had a single shot but in the last 15 minutes of the half they had 11 shots, fortunately all wide of the mark. This demonstrated how lucky United were to be leading at half time.
After United’s goal they had two other good chances; Mata’s volleyed shot was well saved by the keeper and Martial’s meandering run and shot was blocked and Ibrahimovic was unable to react quickly enough to control his shot on the loose ball. These chances though were against the run of play.
At half time United led 1-0.
At half time Jose Mourinho made a substitution and changed the team shape. He introduced Jesse Lingard in place of Fellaini and changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with Lingard occupying the number 10 position. This changed United’s fortunes and they now took control of the game.
United’s shape at the start of the second half and half time substitute Jesse Lingard
The difference was stark. United now had Lingard, notionally in the centre but from a central position drifting right across the front line and Martial on the left both as willing runners. On the right Mata tended to stay wide for longer but when he did tuck inside he left space for Valencia to move forward when United were in possession. In the deep Pogba looked to dictate play by releasing these runners. This worked well when Pogba had the ball, less well when the central defenders or Herrera had the ball. Nevertheless United took control of the game and United’s shape and movement made St Etienne take a step back. They still carried a threat on the break, but United were in control.
They didn’t score again however because their play in the final third remained poor in comparison to their play deeper. The movement was better but their combination play remained poor. They also tended to recycle possession and delay the delivery of the final pass. When it was delivered if it was a cross it tended to be over hit.
Then in the 70th minute United made a second substitution introducing Rashford for Mata. Rashford took Mata’s place on the right. This gave United balance with a direct running threat on the left and the right but United’s second goal came after Rashford had momentarily switched to the left. He ran at St Etienne aggressively before pulling the ball back to Ibrahimovic to score from close range. Boom! This was a rare piece of high quality combination play but was largely due to Rashford’s excellent individual play. 75 minutes played 2-0.
The pattern of play remained unchanged after this second goal. United were in control with Pogba directing play but United’s efforts weren’t quite good enough to make a further impact. Over hit crosses and poor coordination play in the final third remained the order of the day.
In the 85th minute Jose Mourinho made his final substitution replacing Martial with Young. Rashford switched to the left with Young playing on the right. Then in the 88th minute United scored again via a penalty. This was a soft award but was clinically dispatched by Ibrahimovic to seal a 3-0 victory. A good advantage to take to France.
This result probably kills the tie as a 3 goal advantage should be enough against a workmanlike modest French side. United did not play well here. They started slowly and despite an early goal it was St Etienne who looked the more menacing side as they took control of the last fifteen minutes of the half. They were able to do this because much of United’s play was slow. St Etienne on the other hand moved the ball quickly when they gained possession and attacked with pace in the half spaces.
In the second half United switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Mata tending to stay wider and Lingard in an almost free role in the number 10 position. United were better for this but their play in the final third remains uncoordinated and only looked truly dangerous when Martial, Valencia and Rashford ran at the opposition. The problem was that this often ended with an over-hit cross or misplaced pull back. Nevertheless United probably have enough to take to France next week.