With United drawing a succession of league games the Europa League is beginning to look like their best route back to next seasons Champions League. In the quarter-final round they have been drawn to play RSC Anderlecht with the first leg in Brussels and the return in Manchester next week.
Belgian football has been on something of a high in recent years of course with the national side currently ranked at seventh but unfortunately for Belgian clubs most of the countries better players play abroad, notably in the Premier League. Last year Anderlecht finished third nine points behind Club Brugge who United of course overcame in the qualifying rounds of last year’s Champions League. This year however Anderlecht currently lead the Belgian League and will be no push overs.
It is an interesting aspect of this tie that Anderlecht have played the two sides that United overcame in the last two rounds of the Europa League in European competition already this season. They were knocked out of the Champions League qualifying rounds last summer by FC Rostov and shared a Europa League group before Christmas with St Etienne. Those games against St Etienne seem the more interesting from our perspective and we will look at them later.
United have met Anderlecht before in European competition most notably back in our first season in the European Cup in 1956 when they were our very first opponent in a UEFA tournament. Famously United won that tie 13-0 on aggregate recording our record victory, 10-0 in the home leg played at Maine Road. We next met them as defending Cup winners in 1968-69 season knocking them out of the second round with a 3-0 home win and a 1-3 reverse in Belgium in the second leg.
More recently we have played the record Belgian Championship winners, (they have won their domestic title 33 times), in Group G of the 2000-2001 Champions League when we recorded a 5-1 win at home but lost 1-2 in the reverse match later in the group.
Having had a couple of disappointing domestic seasons Anderlecht changed manager last summer appointing the Swiss coach Rene Weiler. He was a modest defender as a player who won one international cap and moved in to management in2001 in his homeland. Immediately prior to taking the reins at Anderlecht he managed FC Nurnberg in Germany and steered them to a very creditable 3rd place in the Bundesliga last year. In Germany his sides alternated between a 4-2-2-2 or on occasions a 4-2-3-1 approach. He likes to keep two holding pivots in position but despite this essentially defensive strategy his Nurnberg side managed to score an impressive 68 goals in 34 matches.
The interesting thing in this is that Anderlecht have favoured a relatively flexible 4-3-3 in recent seasons with a single holding midfield player. The question then was would Weiler change Anderlecht or would Anderlecht change for him. The answer has actually been a bit of both and with Anderlecht currently leading the Belgian league it appears to have been a bit of a success story so far. The story of this season is that Anderlecht have alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 approach. They have retained their fluidity which has meant that whilst the 4-3-3 often starts with two holding players and a number 10 the triangle can reverse with a single holding player and two more advanced midfield players. That means that even when they start as a 4-3-3 with two pivots this can appear as a 4-2-3-1 when the wide players sit back but morph into a 4-3-3 if those same wide players push on and one of the pivots more up into a more advanced position.
This adjustment either between phases of play, periods of the game or from match to match has been possible largely because Anderlecht have traditionally played a fairly flexible game but also because of the excellence of one of their talented youngsters. Anderlecht are known for having an excellent youth development programme and have produced many of the big name Belgian players currently plying their trade overseas, (our own Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj started at Anderlecht of course). Their current star graduate from that youth system and the fulcrum of their flexibility is Youri Tielemans.
Tielemans is 19 years of age, (20 next month), and is considered by many to be one of Europe’s hottest young midfield prospects with rumoured interest in him from many of the continents top clubs. He has won the Belgian Young player of the Year award in each of the last two seasons and made his international debut last November as a late substitute in a drawn friendly game against Holland. Tielemans is two footed and possesses a good range of passing with either foot. He is mobile, reads the game well and has a strong shot. He appears as comfortable screening the defence as a pivot as he does as a more creative player further forward. He has all the attributes to become the complete box-to-box midfield player but of course the big question is can he step up and deliver if or when he moves on to a bigger and stronger league. There appears no reason why not and he is a player United might consider looking at themselves.
Anderlecht currently appear at their best when Tieleman pushes on in the midfield alongside Dennis Praet with Leander Dendoncker sitting behind as the holding midfield player. When they do this the wide attacking players tend to cut inside making diagonal runs which requires either Tieleman or Praet to sit in a deeper half space to cover, but can also allow Anderlecht’s attacking fullbacks to push on. Anderlecht’s fullbacks used to play almost as wingbacks but these days under Weiler they are more disciplined in their movement and whereas they would both push on simultaneously now only one will advance at a time.
Anderlecht vs St Etienne – the group stage games.
In the first game between these teams on the 29th September last year Anderlecht earned a creditable 1-1 draw in France. They would perhaps consider themselves unlucky to have not won the game however as they conceded the equaliser in the 94th minute have led the game via a Tielemans goal since the 62nd minute. Anderlecht used a 4-2-3-1 strategy throughout with Tielemans as the right sided pivot initially. He moved to the number 10 position later in the game after Anderlecht made late substitutions from the 70th minute.
St Etienne of course adapted their approach as they chased the game. Initially they had started as a 3-5-2 although they switched to a 4-3-3. The point here is that Anderlecht maintained the same approach throughout whilst St Etienne adjusted to cope with Anderlecht’s dominance of the central areas and attempts to push the wider players in the St Etienne midfield back. Switching to a flat back four and the three in central midfield allowed St Etienne to hold their own and retain the ball.
The second game between the pair was the last group game on the 8th December 2016. Anderlecht had already qualified and whilst it looked likely that St Etienne would qualify this was by no means certain given that Mainz were playing group whipping boys Gabala and a big win for the Germans matched by a big loss for the French could have seen Mainz sneak through on goal difference. As it transpired Anderlecht utilizing a 4-3-3 shape took a two goal halftime lead but conceded 3 goals in 12 minutes between the 62nd and 74th minute to collapse to a 2-3 defeat. Why?
Part of this has to be put down to the fact that St Etienne had to throw caution to the wind, but they didn’t not make any substitutions or adjust strategy until after they had scored the first goal. In fact St Etienne stayed in a 4-3-3 matching Anderlecht’s shape throughout. What made the difference was that St Etienne kept the ball far better in the last half hour of the game. Up to the 62nd minute for example they averaged a 79% pass completion rate. Thereafter in the last half hour they averaged 87% pass completion rate.
This is the lesson for United; keep the ball. If you allow Anderlecht to get on top and they enjoy a majority of the possession in the midfield, controlling the middle of the park, they can hurt you with their fluidity and the movement of their wide attackers and full backs supported by Tieleman and Praet. If you deny them the ball and push that pair back you can hurt them. United need to go to Belgian with a determination to value possession almost as a Van Gaal side might do.