United travelled to Lisbon for this game with six points from six at the top of the group, Benfica sat bottom of the group with no points. After the stalemate at Anfield and much criticism of United’s lack of ambition would they be more expansive in this game playing from a position of strength?


In: Blind, Lindelof, Mata and Rashford.
Out: Darmian, Jones, Young and Martial.

Opening Twenty

Whilst Jose Mourinho made four changes from the side he selected for the game at Anfield the basic strategy was the same. Blind replaced Darmian and Lindelof replaced Jones; in the advanced midfield wide areas Mata replaced Young and Rashford replaced Martial. Benfica usual favour a 4-4-2 but here they switched to a 4-3-3. Why?

Perhaps this was because watching the Liverpool game they had seen United struggle to assert themselves when it is three against two in the centre of the pitch. Here they featured Fejsa, Fernandes and Souza against Herrera and Matic.

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United’s shape and Victor Lindelof returning to his former club in United colours

The opening twenty minutes were fairly even with both sides being cautious. This is understandable in the early stages of a European away game so United are excused this but why were Benfica so diffident, they after all given their first two group results needed a win?

Midfield Battle

Benfica achieved their change of shape as a consequence of the centre of their team sitting deep. That meant Souza playing as a second striker behind Raul Jimenez and both these players dropping deep such that Jimenez was about level with the wider players Salvio and Goncalves. The consequence of this was that Souza was able to cover Matic, the deeper of United’s two midfield pivots. Herrera was higher but early in the game he was up against Ferandesn and Souza and United initially struggled to make any impact until Mkhitaryan, Lukaku and Mata moved closer to him. That meant Lukaku and Mkhitaryan dropping deep and Mata moving narrow from his starting position on the right. This allowed United to get on top and they took control of the game from around the twenty minute mark.

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Benfica’s early shape, (left) and shape after 60 minutes when they reverted to a 4-2-3-1

Tactical fouls

With United tending to sit deep they were naturally relying on rapid breaks to make impact. With Mkhitaryan dropping deep he was often the out-ball in the early stages with an early vertical pass from Matic or Lindelof on to Herrera and then Mata or Mkhitaryan. Benfica were happy to counter the threat of these breaks by committing fouls in the centre of the pitch against the player receiving the ball. The referee tended to tolerate this but he did book Luis da Silva for an early foul on Mkhitaryan which had consequences late in the game when he was sent-off for a second bookable offence.

Higher fullback positions

Again after the twenty minute mark United seemed to recognise that Benfica’s clear strategic pattern was to defend the middle of the pitch and as a consequence United started to target attacks in wider areas with the fullbacks, Valencia to the right and Blind to the left pushed much higher. On the left Rashford tended to start wider and higher and so United’s attacks started to adopt a lopsided appearance.

This pushed Benfica back and United now took control of the game; a control they never relinquished.


It also became clear that Benfica’s young goalkeeper Mile Svilar’s positioning was suspect, especially on pieces. Several times United, and especially Rashford tested him with half crosses/half shots and eventually this paid dividends with the youngster being caught out of position and scrambling back only to catch the ball behind his own line.

Goalkeeping error - Rashford goal or own goal?

Goalkeeping error – Rashford goal or own goal?

General caution

United started this game cautiously and gradually took control. They did not overwhelm Benfica but of course they didn’t have to do so given that they started the game from a strong position in the group. Benfica needed to win so there was an element of United waiting to pick Benfica off. Benfica stopped United doing this in the early stages with tactical fouls but once United’s subtle adjustments had allowed them to take control this option of waiting was no longer available. United didn’t really push on though retaining a fairly cautious and comfortable approach. After they were gifted a goal via a goalkeeping error there was even less incentive to be more expansive.

This all resulted in a comfortable win by playing a cautious game achieved playing within oneself.