Having lost at Chelsea on Monday night to go out of the FA Cup United now faced a second leg game in the Europa League three days later. With an away goal from the first leg United held a slight advantage, but there was still more work to do to secure a quarter final tie.


In: Romero, Blind, Bailly, Mata and Ibrahimovic.
Out: De Gea, Darmian, Jones, Young and Rashford.


  • For the third game running United set his side up with a back three and wing backs.
  • Rostov are known to play narrowly in defence; they certainly did this in the first leg. As a consequence United looked to stretch the play wide by constantly switching play laterally from one side to the others. Rostov were made to expend an awful lot of energy constantly shuffling across the pitch.
  • United’s approach was probably designed to tire Rostov so that they would collapse in the second half. Unfortunately United suffered a couple of injuries and perhaps didn’t have the chance to exploit Rostov’s tiring legs. They ended up with their four first team squad centre backs all on the pitch at the end.
  • United created a number of dangerous situations during the game, particularly when the ball was switched to Valencia on the overlap. United’s play in the final third however was not clever or sharp enough. The final ball and movement off the ball was not good enough; a common theme this season.
  • In the second half United lost their way. Much of their passing, slow in the first half became slower in the second. It also seemed to lack a sense of purpose. After a while Rostov who had been cautious in the first half became more purposeful and committed more men forward. United could have been caught out by this, fortunately they got through.


United again set up with 3 at the back for this game, notionally this was a 3-4-3 shape but with Mata frequently moving to the centre behind Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan it was often a 3-4-1-2. At the back the three defenders were Bailly to the right, Smalling in the centre and Rojo to the left. With Valencia as the right wing back and Blind on the opposite side United naturally had more forward thrust on the right. As in the first leg Rostov set up as a 3-5-2, but as they spent most of the first period pressed back into their own half this was actually more of a 5-3-2.

first half          mata

United’s first half shape and Mata who dovetailed behind the front two from a starting position on the right

Rostov are known to be a very disciplined side who maintain a compact shape and defend on a narrow front. Watching this game live at the stadium his was a very striking obvious feature from the outset. This is almost certainly why United were set up with the shape and plan they adopted with numbers in the middle, two attackers against three defenders, (for both sides) and wing backs stretching to provide width. United enjoyed 62% possession across the whole game and constantly moved the ball from side to side across the pitch in this first half, often at a good tempo. In response Rostov sat back and shuffled across from side to side as United moved the ball whilst always maintaining their shape and compactness.

Valencia action areas - as a wingback Valencia was freer to get forward.

Valencia action areas – as a wingback Valencia was freer to get forward.

United’s better moments came when they switched the ball more quickly from one flank to the other with a longer pass missing out the centrally positioned players. Then Rostov had to adjust more quickly which they could not do as effectively. In this scenario the really dangerous moments came when the switch was left to right, that is towards Valencia marauding forward with greater freedom as a wing back. Unfortunately his crosses came to nothing because United often didn’t get enough bodies into the box to support Zlatan. Instead the central midfield pair and Mata and Mkhitaryan. Positioned themselves around the edge and outside the box. That often helped United regain possession as Rostov cleared and pushed up that possession percentage. It also minimised the risk of a quick Rostov counter-attack but it meant that United didn’t make the breakthrough.

Zlatan shoots against the post when a simple pass to Mkhitaryan would have almost certainly resulted in an opening goal

Zlatan shoots against the post when a simple pass to Mkhitaryan would have almost certainly resulted in an opening goal

United did have good chances in the half; Zlatan hit the post when a better option was a pass to Mkhitaryan, Mkhitaryan missed a good chance when played through in a one-on-one with the keeper lifting his shot wide and United should have had a penalty when Rostov keeper Medvedev quite obviously pushed Mkhitaryan in the back. The referee missed this demonstrating that it isn’t only Premier League referees who make errors of judgement and so the score at half time was 0-0.


United’s first half strategy of constantly switching Hong the ball from side to side was almost certainly a deliberate plot to make Rostov run in the hope that eventually they would tire with United then reaping g the benefits later in the game. It didn’t work out like that for a voice of reasons.

second half                   Pogba hamstring

United’s second half shape and Pogba forced off with a hamstring injury in the 48th minute

Firstly United were forced to make personnel changes. As early as the 48th minute Pogba pulled up holding his hamstring. This forced the first substitution with Fellaini replacing the Frenchman. This was followed in the 64th minute by Jones replacing Blind after he had taken an elbow in the face.

Blind forced off with a facial injury in the 64th minute

Blind forced off with a facial injury in the 64th minute

These changes generally made United a less dynamic force. On the contrary Rostov came out for the second half with a much more dynamic positive mindset. From the outset they were set up a little bit higher up the pitch. In the first half they had been busy in trying g to break, moving the ball quickly when they had a chance but know the ball tended to stick a little longer when they came forward, they just retained possession for longer. Of course this relieved pressure but it also created a few gaps for United to try to exploit. A less dynamic United didn’t do this well, they were slower to switch play and their passing seemed to lack purpose. United were also slower to move the ball forward quickly something which seemed to be frustrating Zlatan Ibrahimovic in particular.

Mata - Boom!

Mata – Boom!

There were a couple of exceptions to this and fortunately one of these resulted in a goal. This came in the 70th minute after a quick transition and break forward. Mata picked up a loose pass in the centre of the pitch and immediately pushed the ball forward to Ibrahimovic. He passed the ball out wide to Mkhitaryan on the United right. He advanced and centred low. The ball passed behind Ibrahimovic who may have got the slightest of chances but the ball reached Mata at the far post. Boom! 1-0

Before this goal United’s second half performance had seemed to lose direction and Rostov had been proving a much improved display. After the goal however they seemed to lose their way. Perhaps they had lost some belief or perhaps they were now becoming more fatigued; the consequence of all that running to stay compact and adjust across the width of the pitch. Whatever the reason until the last few minutes of the game they produced very little. This was odd because Rostov only trailed by a single goal across the tie and an equalizer would have seen the game go into half hour of extra time.

Then in the last few minutes they drew two excellent saves from Romero, the second of which the final action of the game when the United keeper had to leap high to his left to push the final kick of the game; a free kick wide.


It will be interesting to see if Jose sticks to a three at the back strategy in the next game, a league game at Middlesborough. This formation seemed suited to the last three games, two against this opponent who play narrow and the other against a Chelsea side who also employ three centre backs and wingbacks with United therefore looking to match their shape.

Valencia, who had an excellent game throughout as a wingback

Valencia, who had an excellent game throughout as a wingback

This wasn’t a great performance, a satisfactory result and an appropriate game plan but United switched the ball from side to side too slowly to hurt Rostov in the first half and their play in the final third was not coordinated enough. In the second half they may have been undermined by injuries or the players may have been fatigued given the recent hectic schedule but they certainly lost their way. In the end though they did enough to progress and that is what matters in any cup competition.