With a number of players returning from injury and with Fellaini not subject to his domestic suspension for this match Jose Mourinho had greater options when selecting his strategy for this game. Celta de Vigo had lost their previous three league games in Spain but that did not necessarily reflect their weakness but rather the fact that they had been resting players to prioritise this completion. To a degree United were also now prioritising the Europa League as their best route back to the Champions League.

Mourinho set his side up as a 4-3-3 with Herrera at the base of the midfield and Pogba and Fellaini further forward. He chose the pace of Rashford to lead the line and Lingard and Mkhitaryan as the wider attackers on right and left respectively.

United starting shape

United starting shape

Celta set up as a 4-2-3-1 and followed their usual strategy of trying to press the opposition high and win the ball deep in their opponents half from where they would normally try to strike quickly. In this game this didn’t work for them. Why?

It didn’t work because United worked incredibly hard in the opening stages to retain the ball. They didn’t create a great deal in the opening quarter of the game but they drew the sting out of the home team’s enthusiasm. A number of features of this play are worth highlighting.

  • The midfield three of Herrera, Fellaini and Pogba worked hard on and off the ball to ensure that when United had the ball there was always a passing option available.
  • Those passing options worked in triangles not in straight lines. In other words the team did not just pass the ball in an arc along the back line with the midfield dropping into that line. That is a common pattern and invites the press on. By retaining a triangle in midfield players were able to take up blind side passing options which often made the Celta players turnaround towards their own goal. The United midfield were supplemented in this by Lingard and Mkhitaryan also dropping deeper and narrower to create additional options.
  • Pogba with his laconic strength was brave enough to receive a pass in tight areas, draw players in and hold off their physicality, often waiting for a teammate to move into position to receive his pass. He also changed the direction of the play, shielding the ball as he turned to switch play across the pitch or forward towards Rashford after players had been drawn towards him.

This all worked to the extent that before very long the Celta press became half-hearted and United began to create chances. Most of these chances came from United finding space in the hole behind the Celta press in the middle of the pitch by the aforementioned method of players moving into a blind side passing space. Unfortunately United wasted all these chances. Lingard was the most frequent culprit; his movement was excellent, but his end product was not. It should also be pointed out that United combination play and option selection in the final third was also at its usual level, poor.

Pogba - controlling influence in midfield

Pogba – controlling influence in midfield

In the second half perhaps chastened by how easily United had resisted and beaten their pressing Celta did not press as assiduously. As a consequence United did not have as many clear cut chances. They did have moments, most notably as the game wore on and Celta began to play higher, (without really pressing), looking for a breakthrough. Now Pogba looked quite clearly and deliberately to release Rashford with an early ball forward at every opportunity. Celta struggled to contain Rashford as he tried to use his pace to exploit one on one’s on the United left hand side.

Perhaps it was fitting then that United’s goal on 67 minutes came via Rashford. It came in another way though, from a free-kick. This was well executed but perhaps the keeper who momentarily took a step the wrong way should have saved it.

United at the end of the game

United at the end of the game

Thereafter both teams made substitutions and in the last ten minutes United adjusted dropping their wide attacking players deeper so that they were more of a 4-5-1. By that time those wide players were Young and Martial. Young himself had to be replaced at the death due to injury with Smalling slotting in on the left side of midfield. Celta remained a 4-2-3-1 throughout with their only changes being in personnel, notably with Sanchez Ruis replacing Wass as their number 10. That made minimal difference.