Manchester United suffered something of a reality check when they took on Newcastle at the weekend. But United’s problems stemmed more of their own doing and their own lack of cutting edge and attacking prowess for which we have grown accustomed to over recent decades.
Louis van Gaal’s men have the chance to put their first blemish on the record this season firmly behind them in Bruges and tie up qualification to the Champions League group stages in the process.
The Reds hold a 3-1 advantage as they travel to Belgium, with two fine Memphis Depay efforts, followed by a late Marouane Fellaini header giving us a healthy lead following an early Michael Carrick own goal.
Here are five keys to another United victory against Club Brugge:
Our own Belgians
With the Reds travelling to Belgium to secure their right of passage back to European football’s top table, United’s own Belgian contingent could have a big say in proceedings.
Whilst serving a three-game Premier League suspension for his dismissal against Hull on the final day of last season, Marouane Fellaini made his first appearance of the campaign in the first leg of the tie, entering as a substitute striker to score a vital, last-ditch header.
With his ban now served, the former Everton man once again forms part of the United matchday squad, replacing Antonio Valencia as the only change to van Gaal’s 18-strong travelling party. With a distinct lack of firepower upfront for United, Fellaini’s impact this season will most likely be felt in a more advanced position, particularly with the added muscle to the midfield in the form of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger. Like in the first tie, we can expect to see a lot of Fellaini off the bench this year, more often than not with the side chasing a late goal.
Fellaini’s last-ditch header gave United a valuable cushion after the first-leg, as the visitors would have been the much happier of the two sides had they escaped with just a 2-1 deficit to overturn.
While his impact might not always be the most aesthetically pleasing, he’s proved many of his critics wrong in the last year, proving he can be a valuable asset to the club under van Gaal.
United’s other Belgian Adnan Januzaj has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent weeks, starting the last three matches in his favoured number 10 role. Despite netting the only goal of the game at Villa Park, he has come in for criticism from his manager for his tendency to forfeit possession rather cheaply.
Of course Januzaj isn’t solely to blame for such a crime, with both Wayne Rooney and Memphis Depay similarly guilty in recent weeks.
Januzaj’s inclusion so frequently behind Rooney has come as something of a shock this season, given that Juan Mata is still forced to play from a wide position, while Herrera has had to make do with a place on the bench.
Perhaps confidence is a slight issue, but the 20-year-old is yet to hit anywhere close to the heights he did during his debut campaign under David Moyes. The return leg offers a huge opportunity to showcase his talent and that he can be the man to provide a much needed spark to the United attack.
Don’t surrender the defensive record now
Another clean sheet against Newcastle at the weekend ensured United are still yet to concede in the Premier League, with Michael Carrick’s unfortunate own-goal in the first-leg, the sole time Sergio Romero’s goal has been breached in 360 minutes of football.
While Smalling and Blind have both earned high praise during United’s opening fixtures, they’re still yet to be tested by any real high quality opposition which will follow in fixtures with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City – or dare I say it, other Champions League opponents.
Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian can also be credited hugely for a fine start to the season from our defensive unit. The presence of two natural full-back adds a huge layer of stability to a defence which appeared all too often shaky last year, with Antonio Valencia – for all his best efforts – rather adept when it came to defensive responsibility.
The one goal conceded so far came from an unfortunate error, an uncharacteristic error from United’s own Mr Dependable, Michael Carrick. A late goal from Marouane Fellaini in the first-leg allowed United a little extra breathing space, with the home side needing to score a minimum of two to stand a chance of knocking us out.
It’s simple, keep tight at the back and we’re back in the big time.
Time for Herrera?
Having been United’s main success story last season – with the exception of David de Gea – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Louis van Gaal would be building his team around Ander Herrera this term.
Surprisingly though, the Spaniard has had to watch all four of United’s games from the bench, without featuring during our most recent games with Club Brugge and Newcastle.
Herrera’s absence makes less sense given his ability to link midfield and attack and pitch in himself with goals, particularly in a time where United are seemingly struggling to create clear-cut goalscoring opportunities.
With Michael Carrick already starting three times, and Schweinsteiger looking as though he picked up a slight knock against Newcastle in his first start, the addition of Herrera alongside Schneiderlin in the middle of the park would add a completely different dynamic to United’s play, allowing the Spaniard ro break forward, with Schneiderlin able to tidy up in behind.
Whether he is actually handed a deserved opportunity in Bruges remains to be seen, but Herrera’s inclusion in the starting line-up would certainly be met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the United faithful.
Mata and Januzaj must switch
As mentioned earlier, Adnan Januzaj has, to everyone’s surprise, been given the nod in the number 10 position since our second game of the season at Villa Park. While this may be his natural position, one which he has excelled in while playing for the reserves, the Belgian seems bereft of confidence and has struggled to retain possession and thread through defence-splitting through balls. Balls like the one Juan Mata played to Januzaj at Villa, which saw the 20-year-old slot him the game’s only goal.
Mata excelled at Chelsea in the same role currently occupied by Januzaj, and was sold to United when he was used more sparingly and to less effect by Mourinho on the right-wing. The “false-winger” role as Louis van Gaal calls it has seen some fantastic performances from Mata, notably in wins against Tottenham at Old Trafford and Liverpool at Anfield last season.
Whilst performing well in this role however, it seems more than apparent that Mata would have a far greater impact in a more central role. Naturally, he tends to drift inside rather often, which offered the killer ball for Januzaj’s aforementioned winner. With Mata not quite so blessed with pace like some of his other attacking midfield counterparts, the Spaniard does have a superior game intelligence to the Belgian and find the pockets of space and clinical assists which perhaps Januzaj cannot at this early stage of his career.
His only opportunity of doing so last season, often came deployed as the top point of a midfield diamond, behind two strikers who would all occupy similar territory to Mata.
With Januzaj seemingly a little short on confidence and struggling to retain possession, he could greatly benefit from a move back to the wing. Last season, he looked at his most dangerous when running at defenders and attempting to take them on, a more realistic prospect than Mata given Januzaj’s superior pace.
As a winger, he’ll be able to take many more risks, much like Depay on the other side and find himself much less susceptible for criticism in doing so, unlike a central player, largely responsible for keeping the attacks accurate and fluid.
If all else fails, win ugly
Victories over Spurs and Aston Villa in the Premier League certainly weren’t pretty by any means, but the important thing was getting points on the board at an early stage in the season, no matter what. A drastic change from the same stage last season.
Following a 0-0 draw with Newcastle and another clean sheet, United now have seven points from three matches, bettered only by Manchester City who have had a tremendous start to the campaign.
While the first-leg with Brugge offered positives in the form of goals and a sublime display from Memphis Depay, that too offered some nervy stages late on as United went in chase of a vital third goal to offer that added cushion.
There has been plenty of criticism levelled at the manager for United’s possession based style of play this season, with supporters citing a lack of dynamism and clear cut chances, a stark contrast to the free-flowing attacking football we have come to expect over the years.
We all want to see a United side blowing away opposition once again, just as we know they are capable of doing so, but on this occasion, while a draw, or narrow victory would book a return to the group stages of the Champions League, I’m happy for that issue to be addressed after they return from Brugge if needs be.
The important thing is qualification above all else.
While the manager will be very much aware that United will need to improve on the performance which saw them draw 0-0 with Newcastle, some positives can be taken from an increase in chances created. His side must be more clinical however, but even the Dutchman will be aware that qualification will be the most important thing for United as they travel to Belgium.
Despite yet really getting out of first gear this season, United will be aware that a Club Brugge side, currently sixth in their division, will offer significantly less threat than many other Premier League outfits they have already faced this season.
Depay will have another opportunity to add to his two Champions League strikes last week, and for a lad of his confidence and ego – not to mention ability – will be looking to improve drastically on his Old Trafford showing on Saturday.
The tie will be won in the defence for United though, and while they may not be troubled too much by the quality of the Brugge attack, given that they do the simple things well, just as they have done all season so far, will secure United’s right of passage. It’s that simple. United to win 2-0.