For their first game back in the Champions League United faced FC Basel at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho was forced to make changes for this game, at least at centre back due to European suspensions to Bailly and Jones.


In: Young, Lindelof, Smalling, Blind, Mata and Martial.
Out: Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Darmian, Herrera and Rashford.


For this game United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 starting shape with Pogba and Matic as the double pivots. That meant Mkhitaryan reverting to the number 10 role with Martial starting on the left and Mata on the right. The biggest changes though were at the back with three of the four defenders changing. The reliable Ashley Young came in at right back with Victor Lindelof taking his Old Trafford bow alongside Chris Smalling. Daley Blind returned at left back.

abN29TValb  Champions League - Manchester United vs FC Basel

United’s shape after Pogba, who only lasted 19 minutes before succumbing to injury was replaced by Fellaini

FC Basel approach

FC Basel set up with a three-man defence supplemented by two wingbacks. You could be generous and describe this as a 3-4-3 but as the wingbacks were usually so deep that it was more like a 5-2-3 and when their wide attackers dropped deeper that became a 5-4-1. More often than not that is exactly what we saw with Basel sitting deep for much of the game.

Their approach was incredibly cautious something which was illustrated by their defensive shape as they attacked. Then even though the rest of their team moved up into United’s attacking third at least three of their defenders stayed in their own half. Presumably this was because they were concerned not to leave space in behind which might leave them vulnerable to the pace of Lukaku, Martial or Mkhitaryan. To exploit this United could perhaps have positioned Mkhitaryan in the gap between these three and the rest of the game with Lukaku staying high which would have ased an interesting question of the Basel midfield. They didn’t do this though preferring to drop back themselves into a more defensive shape. This often left Lukaku isolated in transitions.

Between the lines

With Basel sitting deep United had to find a way of breaking through. Their goals in this game came in three different ways but in the first half whilst the game was tight United attempted to play through the lines with both Mata and Martial cutting side from a wider starting position and attacking the space just outside the penalty are D. They had more success with this strategy than in recent games and whilst all goals came from different sources early in the game whilst space was at a premium United looked at their most threatening when Martial ran laterally at the opposition. He started this game really well, but faded later.

Martial take-ons. 4 successful from 7. All started from roughly the same area of the pitch and all involved a run towards the D

Martial take-ons. 4 successful from 7. All started from roughly the same area of the pitch and all involved a run towards the D

What was clear from this is that in this match situation a player running at or across the opposition is vital to breaking down and disturbing their organisation. Defensive players can cover passes but when the pass, pass, pass of United’s play is broken up by explosive moments of a player or players running with the ball it is far more potent; particularly when we run at the space between the lines. If players simply drift into this space to make another passing option this doesn’t tend to work, but when they run into this space with the ball it does. We saw that with Martial in this game and with Rashford when introduced against Leicester in the previous home game.

Martial and Rashford

It is a curiosity this season that when they have started games Martial and Rashford have not had quite the impact that they have had when they have been introduced from the bench. In those game both players have often started well and then faded later in the game. When introduced later in the game from the bench they have often caused problems against tiring legs with their direct running and more often than not as Rashford did in this game they have scored.

In view of this perhaps the question isn’t Rashford or Martial but instead we should think of them as a double act for now. One to start and soften the opposition up the other to come on later and pick them off. At the moment this may be as simple as a stamina issue; both players are youngsters lets not forget and perhaps not ready yet to play at a high level of intensity for a full game.

Rashford, Boom!

Rashford, Boom!


It was a disappointment to lose Pogba to injury after 19 minutes and will be a disappointment if he has an extended absence through that injury but Fellaini, his replacement had a very good game here.

Fellaini, Boom!

Fellaini, Boom!

He doesn’t have Pogba’s skills set but he is always a handful and what he usually brings is energy, aggression and directness through the middle, something which is appropriate against teams who come with a organised and determined defensive approach. This approach disturbs them which often is exactly what is needed.

Fellaini action areas. Fellaini was dynamic and had an excellent game

Fellaini action areas. Fellaini was dynamic and had an excellent game

Match pattern and tactical trends

In several games this year Mourinho has approached the game with a disciplined approach to which he has stuck whilst the game has been at 0-0. When United have made the initial breakthrough he has then stuck with the same approach until either a second goal comes or the opponent has adopted a more expansive game plan to try to get back into the game. Then United have picked them off with quick breakaways often changing formation and personnel to set themselves up to do this.

This match broadly followed that approach with the difference being that in this game they became a little sloppy and careless in their play after the second goal. Mourinho called them out for this in the post-match press conference and he is right. If they had have maintained a more focused approach they could and so should have scored more. As it was Basel might have scored themselves given the sloppiness have several reasonably good opportunities. The midfield and forwards didn’t help the defence in this but fortunately all the defenders, though they had little to do for periods played well.

The trend to pick out is the three-man becoming five-man defence. Three of United’s six competitive opponents have adopted this type of approach against them so far and after Chelsea use of a three-man approach last year it is clearly becoming the vogue. Generally United are doing okay against this approach but they are labouring to break it down early in games. As they are likely to face it quie a lot this season they will no doubt be working on polishing their counter-strategy to take this game plan on more effectively.


This was a comfortable victory in the end even if the score line flattered United. Jose Mourinho has commented that he was unhappy that United began to show boat when two goals to the good. He is right and United didn’t just play “FIFA style football”, they also became sloppy. If United are to progress any distance later in the competition they will need to tighten up here. Basel were a reasonably benign threat, they sat deep and offered little in attack. A more assertive side would punish United if they play like this.

Whilst there is a concern that we may be losing Pogba for a few weeks Fellaini his replacement played well. He brought energy and determination, he was assertive and drove the midfield.