After an opening win in their Champions’ League group United now travelled to Moscow to face CSKA. The Russians have won their opening group game at Benfica so nobody expected this to be an easy game.


In: Smalling, Lindelof, Blind, Herrera and Martial.
Out: Valencia, Jones, Fellaini, Mata and Rashford.

Strategic Approach

Against a side that usually utilises a 3 man defence with wingbacks Jose Mourinho chose to start this game with a three man defence and wingbacks. This should come as no surprise as this is a move employed by Jose Mourinho several times last year, notably against FC Rostov in the Europa League and against Chelsea in the FA Cup and the league game at Old Trafford. United also spent a good deal of time practicing this strategy.

starting shape  movement

United’s notional starting shape and how it changed as a consequence of player movement

There has been some debate in certain quarters whether United’s shape was a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2; CSKA’s was certainly a 3-5-2. United’s shape actually varied from phase of play to phase of play and this fluidity was a major success but in simple terms it was a 3-4-1-2 in attack and a 5-4-1 in defence. United dominated possession so it was usually the former rather than the later. They did start the game in a 3-4-3 however but instantly transformed with Mkhitaryan coming inside from the right into a deeper position and Martial coming inside from the left into a high position. Neither of these two players was static in these positions however. The other obvious feature of United’s play was the high position throughout the opening phase adopted by United’s wingbacks Blind and Young. This pair were often so high that they looked like wingers and pushed CSKA’s wingbacks back.

United’s Movement

United’s movement completely confused CSKA and resulted in a 3-0 half-time lead for the Reds. With Lukaku generally staying high, holding the ball and bringing Martial into play and Martial coming inside, but regularly moving wide, United regularly had 2 forwards against three central defenders. That should have been okay but behind the more advanced players Mkhitaryan’s movement between the lines of defence and midfield was exemplary. He consistently found space and picked up passes from Herrera and Matic and changed the angle of an attack feeding the advancing wingbacks or playing the ball into Martial and Lukaku.

Mkhitaryan movement, from the right but working right across the attacking front between the lines behind Lukaku

Mkhitaryan movement, from the right but working right across the attacking front between the lines behind Lukaku

On the left Martial consistently ran aggressively whether in the half space or starting wider and delivering crosses. His crosses resulted in two of United’s first half goals, both scored by Lukaku, the second with some luck when Vasili Berezutski missed a cross which ran through to the attacker. Lukaku often occupied all three central defenders and the CSKA wingbacks, preoccupied by the high position of Blind and Young which often left Martial and Mkhitaryan free.

martial action areas  martial take ons

Martial, starting on the left, often coming inside to form an attacking two with Lukaku. Nine take-ons, six were successful

United on top

Once they were three goals to the good the game was essentially over as long as United didn’t go to sleep. United scored in the 4th minute, 18th minute and 27th minute and had several other really good chances to score. At this point they simple pushed higher up the pitch confident that they had enough pace throughout the team to cope with the threat of CSKA getting in behind.

1st goal  1st goal

United’s first goal scored by Lukaku after a transition; CSKA lot the ball and United moved it forward quickly

CSKA improved immediately after the break; perhaps they had talked about team shape at halftime as they kept their shape better at the start of the half, they moved the ball well and pushed up the pitch. They had a couple of good chances in the first half and a couple of half chances early in the second half but then United scored again in the 57th minute when Mkhitaryan was quickest to the ball after Martial, running one-on-one with the keeper had seen his shot saved. This goal came after a quick transition when Herrera intercepted and played the ball forward quickly. In this the goal was similar to United’s first goal of the night when Herrera had intercepted the ball and Matic had taken over instantly playing the ball to Lukaku who played a diagonal defence splitting ball to Martial. He returned a centre to Lukaku who score. Both goals resulted from an interception and a quick pass forward catching the CSKA defence out of position. None of their players seemed to have the pace to recover on either occasion against United’s rapid counter and movement.

4th goal  854823534.0

United’s fourth goal scored by Mkhitaryan after a transition. CSKA lost the ball and United moved it forward quickly

The game ended 4-1 simply because United went to sleep late in the game and at a point when CSKA had nothing to lose. That was disappointing but overall this was a tactically astute display which exploited CSKA’S obvious lack of pace.


Anthony Martial has been outstanding this year and this was another excellent performance. He seems to have regained some of the verve he appeared to have lost last year. He was direct and positive on the ball, always looking to turn and run directly at his opponent whether down the line to deliver a cross or cutting inside; mixing these options up created an unpredictability that CSKA could not cope with. He attempted 9 take-ons, 6 of which were successful. He also delivered three crosses, two of which resulted in goals. He created an astonishing 5 chances in the game and of course took his penalty coolly.

Anthony Martial

Anthony Martial

What has made the difference so far this year? He has produced this improvement from preseason, (remember his goal in the States against Real Madrid). Is it as has been suggested new tranquillity in his off the pitch life after last year’s break-up with his partner or is it a realisation that he is on to a good thing at United in an improving side, a thing he won’t want to lose. The talk of the need to recruit a player who can “play through the wings” in the words of Mourinho over the summer could have sharpened his focus. He certainly fulfilled that function in the side here.