RSC ANDERLECHT vs MANCHESTER UNITED
United travelled to Belgium with the Europa League increasingly looking like their most likely route back into next season’s Europa League. Jose Mourinho had stated that the competition was now the priority given that in addition to the reward of a place in the senior competition it was also a chance to win another trophy. United fans could expect a strong and focused team to take the field in Brussels.
In: Valencia, Carrick and Pogba.
Out: Shaw, Fellaini and Herrera.
- United controlled this game for long periods, but again as in many games this season failed to make the most of that control. Ultimately they paid the price for this in conceding a late equaliser.
- Pogba had a good game here, effective in controlling possession, but he was deployed too deep. He spent most of the game as a pivot alongside Carrick and this prevented Anderlecht from taking control of midfield but prevented him from using his attacking talents to good effect.
- Rashford running and pace on the left hand side caused Anderlecht real problems on the left hand side and he played well, particularly in the first half. On the right United relied more on Valencia to provide that width which meant that were often lopsided especially the early stages as United were even more cautious than later in the game.
- United changed shape late in the game transforming from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. Was this as a consequence of the increasing influence of Youri Tielemans? His performance certainly improved in the second half. He was fairly anonymous in the first.
- United’s performance here was essentially cautious. That’s okay in the first leg of a two legged tie but one can’t be quite sure if this was deliberate or not. United’s attacking play was often sloppy and un-coordinated, but then it often has been this season.
Jose Mourinho chose to start this game with a 4-2-3-1 team shape. That meant Carrick and Pogba as the pivots, Pogba to the left and Carrick to the right. Further firwaard Lingard started on the wide left with Rashford wide right and Mkhitryan as the number 10 being Ibrahimovic. Anderlecht started with the same shape. Their pivots were Tielemans to the right and Dendoncker to the left.
United’s first half shape and Rashford whose running caused problems for Anderlecht
The opening ten minutes or so of this game were fairly scrappy with both teams misplacing passes and giving the ball away. Then as it settled down United took control. They did this because they started to keep the ball well. They didn’t create many clear cut chances but the circulated the ball around the midfield and mostly around the half way line. Carrick and Pogba as the pivots were prominent in this but none of it seemed likely to hurt the opposition. It was almost as if United were trying to take the sting out of the game.
There most dangerous creative moments were when they moved the ball forward quickly. This feature usually involved Pogba hitting an early pass towards Rashford who would then look to take on his fullback Appaih. Rashford gave him a torrid time and was probably United’s best player in the first half. This was all happening on the left; over on the right Lingard was tending to come in side towards the central Mkhitaryan. This congested that area behind Ibrahimovic and was a part of the reason United’s attacking play was often un-coordinated. Initially Valencia tended to stay deep at right back; perhaps further evidence of United’s cautiousness, but after the opening ten or fifteen minutes he began to move forward more frequently into the space vacated by Lingard.
United’s best chances in the half illustrated these features of their play, but the second of these resulting in a goal also illustrated a facet of their play which was absent. The first chance in the 16th minute came after an early forward pass to Rashford by Pogba. This resulted in a shot by Ibrahimovic. Lingard, who had come central scrambled the ball against the post.
The second chance came after 36 minutes when the ball was funnelled out to Valencia advancing on the right. He crossed first time, Rashford shot first time and whilst his shot was scuffed it drew a sae from Ruben. He parried that shot wide to his left. Mkhitaryan was the first to react and shot home first time from close range and a narrow angle. First time, first time, first time; Boom!
The point here is that these two chances stood out despite the fact that United were on top and in control throughout the half. Perhaps they were a little too focused on control. Much of their passing was slow and deliberate. Movement was similarly slow and cautious. Their first touch was often poor or the pass was inaccurate being behind rather than in front of the ball receiver or to feet when it should have been into space. Pogba was too deep to hurt the opposition and whilst he contributed lots in midfield he wasn’t often enough doing the things you would like to see him doing. He is at his best when he is linking with the front men. This only seemed to happen if they came short or via a longer ball towards Rashford.
United were in control and had a halftime lead but you felt that if they could step it up and go for the throat they could kill the tie now. Anderlecht had offered very little apart from an occasional breakaway.
Unfortunately for United it was Anderlecht who seemed to take the initiative after the break; it was their approach which seemed less cautious now. Perhaps having seen how conservative United had been in the first half they decided to take the game too United. This didn’t happen instantly but Anderlecht grew gradually as the half wore on.
Certainly one player who seemed to have decided to take the initiative was Youri Tielemans. In the first half, playing as the right sided pivot he had stayed in position deep on the Anderlecht right for most of the game. To a degree this could be read as an attempt to help out his fullback who was struggling with Rashford. Now he was far more mobile and was usually further forward or central, he was as likely to pop up on the left as on the right in the second half. His running with the ball particularly disturbed United and enabled Anderlecht to get at United’s defence quickly.
United were still quite deep. Tielemans had effectively transformed himself from being one of Anderlechts two defensive pivots to being more of a box-to-box player. This put pressure on Carrick. In the first half with Anderlecht sitting deep Carrick had had time and space to pick his passes. In the second half Anderlecht being higher exposed his lack of mobility these days with players often going past him. In that scenario Carrick couldn’t recover and the defence was therefore required to come out to engage the runners. Mobility has always been one of Carrick’s weaknesses but he is even less mobile these days and struggled here. The defence having to step forward created several problems for United and Anderlecht had several reasonable chances to equalise because of this issue.
Tieleman’s action areas in the first and then second half. Note in the first half he tended to stay more on the right and deeper around the half way line, whilst in the second half he pushed forward more often and often on the left
In the 63rd minute Jose Mourinho made his first change introducing Martial in place of Lingard. This change saw Rashford switch to the right and Martial take up his position on the right. United were now restricting themselves to looking to hit Anderlecht on the break and Anderlecht were becoming increasingly assertive. Perhaps because of this United made a second change introducing Fellaini for Rashford on 75 minutes. This saw a change of shape with United morphing into a 4-3-3. That adjustment saw Pogba move to the left side of midfield with Fellaini on the right. Perhaps the plan here was for Fellaini to restrict Tielemans or for United with three midfield players to try to control the centre of the pitch.
United’s shape late in the game after the introduction of Fellaini
Removing Rashford and his pace however seemed to embolden Anderlecht who of course were chasing the game anyway. Did this play into Anderlechts hands? Perhaps it was inevitable that Anderlecht would equalise. Post-match Jose Mourinho made the point that United had squandered chances and shouod have won this game comfortably. This is true but doesn’t tell the full story. United had missed chances but many of these half chances and United whilst they had been in control for much of the game had been less in control as the game had worn on.
The equaliser came from an early cross from Obradovic on the Anderlecht left. Dendoncker met this with a firm header to score. Fellaini had seemingly allowed him to run off him from midfield and Darmian with a player behind him had been unable to unable to get across in enough time to make a meaningful challenge. 1-1, and so it stayed.
United should be disappointed with this result having controlled most of this game, taken an early lead and had opportunities to extend that lead. At times their play was sloppy lacking that decisive precision and determination in the final third. That of course has been an issue in many games this year. This game was then another draw snatched from the jaws of victory. Despite that in the context of a two legged tie this is a reasonable result. With an away goal and given Anderlecht’s modest display United can expect to progress if they approach the second leg with greater focus.
Whilst this was a controlled display but it was essentially a cautious one; again in context that might be understandable but the wider questions remain. Aside from the lack of a clinical cutting edge the most obvious question surrounds the deployment of Pogba. Is this really a strategy that will get the best out of him?