BLACKBURN ROVERS vs MANCHESTER UNITED
After third and fourth round victories at Old Trafford United continued their FA Cup adventure with a short trip up the road to Blackburn. Mourinho’s side continue to make good progress in all Cup competitions whilst also endeavouring to maintain a push for qualifications for the Champions League via a top four finish. This is increasingly requiring careful management of squad resources to keep everybody fit and fresh. Who would he select here?
In: Romero, Young, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick, Mata, Lingard and Rashford.
Out: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Fellaini and Ibrahimovic.
- In the first half United’s passing was too slow. And often too narrow, when they quickened the tempo or got it wide to Martial or Young this led to their better moments.
- United were often careless in possession again and in the final third their play was often dis-jointed. Mkhitaryan, Lingard and Martial were the main culprits.
- In the first half and early in the second half United struggled in the number 10 area. They seemed unable to hold the ball here with too much seemingly uncoordinated movement from those players being Rashford. The ball also seemed like a hot potato as United attacked.
- The game changed when Jose introduced Pogba and Ibrahimovic and changed shape to a 4-3-3. The united had greater composure and were able to hold possession in the final third. This led to periods of sustained pressure.
- Pogba provided a superb match winning cameo. He controlled the game after his introduction.
Jose Mourinho made eight changes from the side that faced St Etienne 3 days before, only Smalling, Herrera and Martial remained. HE set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Mkhitaryan behind Rashford in attack, Lingard to the left and Martial to the right. Carrick and Herrera anchored the midfield as the double pivots.
United’s starting shape and first half movement with Mkhitaryan in the number 10 role
United did not start the game well. They saw plenty of the ball but their passing was slow and predictable. They tended to move the ball across the back six and slowly move the ball into the half spaces half way into Blackburn’s half. Lingard, Mkhitaryan and Martial all took turns to drop deep into these areas from where they would turn and run at the Blackburn back line. Lingard usually came inside before he received the ball whilst martial tended to stay wider longer and then run inside with the ball. Rashford meanwhile tended to move wide running diagonally towards the left side.
Unfortunately whilst these runners looked lively their runs tended to come to nothing, they were either closed down or their pass did not reach the intended teammate with Blackburn successfully intercepting. Again this illustrated the constant problem of late which is that when United enter the final third their play becomes less coordinated.
The contrast here is clear. In the deep United pass the ball well, a bit too slowly at times and more sideways than one would like but when they do reach the final third they tend to quicken the pace either via a solo run or a quicker series of passes. The problem is that the movement patterns are not well coordinated and they do not deliver enough quick one-twos to penetrate the opposition defensive line. Consequently their play often reaches a player in a wide area who over hits the cross or the ball is intercepted.
The other issue here in this game was the lack of presence and control from the number 10 position. In this strategic shape this position is key as the attacking fulcrum. The problem was that all three players behind Rashford and Rashford himself moved too much and in that aforementioned uncoordinated way. The ball then was often like a hot potato in the final third with no fixed point of reference. Someone needed to move less.
In contrast Blackburn were well set up in a 4-4-1-1 and whenever they gained possession moved the ball forward quickly. They broke well and had a couple of good opportunities before they eventually scored in the 16th minute. This goal came after United had given away the ball carelessly, another feature of United’s first half play. The ball was moved quickly and fed by the lively Emnes to Graham in the inside left position. His early shot beat Romero.
Fortunately Blackburn were emboldened by this goal and perhaps overstretched themselves. This gave United the chance to get back into the game 10 minutes later. The equalizer was a breakaway goal. United picked up the ball in midfield and Mkhitaryan was able to look up a curl a forward pass to Rashford running off the shoulder of the last man. His pace took him away and he was able to waltz around the outrushing Steele in the Blackburn goal with a single touch to side foot home. Boom! 27 minutes played 1-1. The goal was made by Mkhitaryan’s pass.
For a while it looked like United might take control of the game. The other feature of United’s attacking play which happened throughout the half but was noticeable in this period was how lop sided it often was. Martial’s starting position was on the left. Rashford naturally moved left, Lingard and Mkhitaryan both moved left although now Mkhitaryan tended to drop deep. This meant that there was plenty of space on the right and United often switched play into this area for Young, advancing from right back. He was one of United’s biggest attacking threats in the half and clearly had the beating of the Blackburn full back Williams, who constantly fouled him. Unfortunately this yielded very little in terms of end product and the half ended all square.
The start of the second half was much like most of the first half with the exception that United did look to move the ball quicker and move the ball forward earlier. United’s play however didn’t significantly improve and they kept giving the ball away. This of course prevented from generating a period of sustained pressure and as the game reached the hour mark Blackburn continued to look dangerous on the break. At this point United didn’t look any more likely to make a breakthrough than the home side which meant that this was a game that could have gone either way.
Then on 62 minutes Jose Mourinho made a double substitution replacing Martial and Lingard with Pogba and Ibrahimovic. Martial and Lingard had been lively throughout but without any end product. As art of this change Mourinho also changed team shape from the 4-2-3-1 used to this point to a 4-3-3.
United’s shape after second half double substitution and Pogba who was introduced at that point
To do this Carrick operated as a single defensive midfield player with Pogba to the left and Herrera to the right ahead of him. Across the front Mkhitaryan moved to the wide right position, Ibrahimovic occupied the middle and Rashford moved out wide to the left hand side. These adjustments worked immediately with United now dominating the possession but also carrying a more menacing goal threat.
Several things changed. Firstly United moved the ball more quickly, secondly the side was more balanced across the width of the pitch and played with width on both sides. Thirdly United players seemed to move in a co-ordinated way and finally players looked more comfortable and composed on the ball around the final third. This final factor was critical; the ball was no longer a hot potato with players being prepared to hold the ball in tight areas. This made life harder for Blackburn who felt compelled to move towards the player in possession leaving space for others.
In terms of the coordinated movement Carrick sat deeper and Pogba and Herrera controlled the half space areas providing short precise passes and then receiving a return ball from Rashford and Mkhitaryan moving narrow or Ibrahimovic dropping deep. These tight one twos drew saw United retain the ball and constantly probe at Blackburn but also drew them out and also created spaces in wider areas for Young and Darmian advancing from the fullback areas. In truth Young was more effective stretching Blackburn on the left than Darmian on the right.
A United goal now looked increasingly likely and came in the 75th minute when a superb long pass over the top from Pogba left Ibrahimovic with time to run free, look up and pick his spot. Boom!
United were now fully in control and could have scored more. Blackburn occasionally looked dangerous on the break and had a goal ruled out for offside but for the most part United passed the ball around with ease in the last fifteen minutes and ran the clock down. In the 88th minute Mata replaced Rashford.
United started this game poorly, they were sloppy in possession and passed far too slowly. When they reached the final third their play was uncoordinated. At this point they tried to up the tempo, but without control they invariably lost the ball. At the start of the second half United increased the tempo of their play moving the ball more quickly and moving the ball forward more quickly. They still lacked composure in the final third however.
This only really changed in the last twenty minutes when United introduced Pogba and Ibrahimovic. It wasn’t just their contribution however although this was significant, but they seemed to bring out the best in others, each of whom seemed better suited to the job they now had. The team looked far better balanced in a 4-3-3 with Pogba and Herrera a presence around twenty yards from goal and Carrick deeper.
With Rashford and Mkhitaryan providing width United front three were freer to seek out pockets of space wherever they appeared across the full width of the attacking line, fullbacks overlapping when necessary. At this point United took control and exerted sustained pressure. Pogba was imperious. The winning goal seemed inevitable.