Manchester United lack the focus to be sure of success this season
Manchester United used to be able to take a 1-0 lead anywhere and grind it out, using the triangle of Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to repel anything that came near them. Indeed, it was a trick of the mind conjured up by Alex Ferguson that Manchester United were an attacking side from 2009 onwards. More than anything, he was a manager who demanded focus and ruthlessness.
United are still good enough to take 1-0 leads. They are also good enough to keep them for a fair amount of time, but they haven’t convinced themselves yet, let alone their opponents, that they are going to close out any match as soon as they go ahead. Eric Bailly, Sergio Romero and Marcos Rojo are not the back three that any manager can build resilience upon. It has cost them throughout the season, and while they are still favourites for this tie, and for the overall competition, they need above all else a return to the days of focus if they can win a game before most of it has been played.
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Matteo Darmian holds back United’s left wing
When Matteo Darmian arrived at United, there were rumours that Bayern Munich had wanted him. Had Pep Guardiola been interested, we can assume that there is more to him than just being meat in the room as he often is for Mourinho. While Antonio Valencia attacks and stretches play down the right, Darmian simply occupies a berth on the left, almost sarcastically. Neither his teammates nor his opponents worry about him when he doens’t have the ball. There is almost never a run behind the defence, and there is no incisive passing to watch when he is in control. Whether he does this by instruction or not – and Mourinho’s desire for players who obey his orders suggest it is – it is a waste of a position in a team that needs goals. A cross for Henrikh Mkhitaryan that was volleyed just wide shows what can come of his rare contributions.
Paul Pogba is hamstrung playing deep in midfield
Watching Paul Pogba’s highlights for Juventus, there is player full of brio and initiative. His passing and shooting from distance takes aparts defences and goalkeepers. At United, it’s not the same, for a few reasons. One, United are nowhere near the quality of Juventus, and he doesn’t have the supporting cast to cover for his errors and exploit his best talents.
Secondly, he plays deep, in front of a static attack that only rarely gives him the chance to hit a pass over the defnece. And three, he is vulnerable to being pressed because he rarely releases the ball quickly. None of these problems are terminal, but together they work to stymie a talent that would surely do better than Jesse Lingard higher up the pitch, as he showed when teaming up with Ibrahimovic towards the end of the match.
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic skillfully rations his efforts
Whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic stays at Manchester United for another season, it is clear that he is capable of maintaining his current form – he is not struggling for goals. The constrast between Wayne Rooney, suffering with the niggling injuries of an old man, and Ibrahimovic’s strength and spring, is alarming for those of an English disposition.
But, professionalism aside, there is a clear difference in approach to the game between Rooney and Ibrahimovic. Rooney, regardless of ability and fitness, will tear around the pitch and try to make up for any deficiencies in himself and his team through sheer yards. Ibrahimovic does the opposite. When he loses the ball, he chases for a few moments but is content to let midfielders and defenders pick up his man after a few seconds of chasing. It makes clear sense. In a Jose Mourinho United, there are enough players ready to close down, and the team keeps it shape. In turn, Ibrahimovic keeps his powder dry when it necessary, able to throw a defender to the ground or to make play for those around him near the goal.
Marcus Rashford is not yet strong enough to exploit his positional sense
Marcus Rashford might not have scored for United, but it was his shot which created the chance for Mkhitaryan to score. It was a move that came from Rashford’s runs, something which gave United an outlet for the first hour. A ball over the top or down the channels allowed United to get in behind the defence, and he also provided a cross from which Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Jesse Lingard almost scored.
But there was a recurring problem for Rashford. Either on the wing or through the middle, he could not consistently break free of his markers, and would lose the ball. He was a threat against Anderlecht, and he is back in the goals, but if he is to keep his place in the United squad then he needs to improve his close control and more importantly his strength. He can be callow for only so much longer before better options are presented to Mourinho. Worryingly for United, it is unlikely that option will be Anthony Martial, who gave a quiet and unfocused display in attack