It’s Champions League football, but not as we know it. Europe’s premier competition returns to Old Trafford this evening after a brief hiatus, but the unfamiliar situation of a two-legged qualifier with Club Brugge means that celebration of a return to Europe’s top table should hold on just a little longer.
Friday’s 1-0 victory over Aston Villa maintained United’s 100% start to the new campaign and are still really yet to find second gear, despite a much improved performance at Villa Park.
Given the teams United could have been pitted against, the draw may have been fairly kind to Louis van Gaal’s men, but performance levels will need to be raised once again in order to put us in a commanding position ahead of what could be a tricky away leg.
Here are five keys to a United victory against Club Brugge:
Time for Schweinsteiger to start
Friday night’s encounter at Villa Park marked Bastian Schweinsteiger’s second appearance in a Manchester United shirt. The German – for the second game in succession – entered the field on the hour mark, with Michael Carrick preferred, while the former Bayern man builds on a reported lack of match fitness.
Having won all there is to win in the game, Schweinsteiger’s arrival at the club was met with both surprise and elation for United fans, with his leadership credentials signifying a key area addressed in the first team following the departures of Vidic, Ferdinand & Evra.
The German’s qualities have been clear to see during his two appearances so far, marshalling the midfield and leading by example while demonstrating constant communication to his team-mates. While Wayne Rooney might well wear the captain’s armband, it’ll be Schweinsteiger who’s aura which is the most prominent at the club.
Despite a brief 30 minute outing at Villa Park, Schweinsteiger displayed a phenomenal reading of the action, completing 91% of his 35 attempted passes, just one few than Michael Carrick – who he replaced on the hour mark – or Wayne Rooney who – somehow – managed to last the full ninety. N.B the latter’s pass completion made for much more dismal reading with 77.8%, the worst of any United player.
At 31, Schweinsteiger’s inclusion in the first team set up might be interchangeable with fellow veteran Michael Carrick alongside fellow new-signing Morgan Schneiderlin. With Carrick getting the nod in United’s league openers, he may well be given a slight rest ahead of Saturday’s visit of Newcastle. Friday’s performance indicated he’d be more than capable of filling Carrick’s shoes, and with his big reputation in tact, may be given the chance to do so from the start as United make their return to European competition.
With just Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and James Wilson as the club’s only recognised strikers this season, Louis van Gaal finds himself slightly short in the forward department. His decision to deploy just a single frontman this term causes less selection headaches, but indicates that the manager is confident of putting his faith in the other two were Rooney to find himself out of the side.
Notoriously a slow starter to the season, Rooney’s performance at Villa Park on Friday night was nothing short of an embarrassment. Not usually one to hold his tongue or worry about upsetting his players, van Gaal left many wondering how the United skipper managed to see out the full 90 minutes against Villa, with Chicharito, Depay and Januzaj all very capable options to put Rooney out of his misery.
Having found success in his two previous seasons used as a number nine, Rooney found himself coming deep all too often – as he does when things aren’t always going his way – but proved more detrimental in doing so, with a horror show in the passing department.
Rooney will undoubtedly be the team’s central attacking focus throughout the season, but the notion that he should a) start or b) stay on during each game irrespective of performance purely as he is wearing the captain’s armband is wrong and van Gaal was wrong to leave him on for the duration on Friday. Of course that performance doesn’t dictate how his future showings may be, but giving Chicharito an opportunity to prove his worth for the start might be an avenue worth exploring.
The Mexican will stay furthest forward and play on the shoulder, with his pace likely to cause more problems for the Brugge defence than Rooney, particular in a counter attacking situation. Rooney will no doubt line up against Newcastle on Saturday whatever happens tonight, but his poor showing on Friday should have some bearing on the manager’s line-up tonight.
Defence to hold firm
With Sergio Ramos putting pen to paper on a new five-year contract at Real Madrid and Nicolas Otamendi seemingly on the brink of a switch to the Etihad, panic stations have set in amongst many United fans. With the club failing to acquire perhaps their two main defensive targets, we have every reason to worry with just two weeks of the transfer window remaining, right? Well surprisingly, that mightn’t be the case.
United have conceded just 23 in the Premier League since last November, the fewest in the division with five less than Arsenal and Man City and four less than current champions, Chelsea. Undoubtedly the Reds require some extra muscle in the back four, and while an experienced leader in that position might be top of the wishlist, the stats show we’re not as inept defensively as it has been made out.
Daley Blind’s introduction this season to the back four in a centre-back role was met with some raised eyebrows at the beginning of the campaign, but the Dutchman has excelled in his new role alongside Chris Smalling, who has enjoyed a resurgence of his own during the last nine months. United are yet to concede in their opening two, with Blind and Smalling looking calm and composed at the back, with the versatile former-Ajax man organising the troops well and keeping smart in possession.
Blind attempted 68 passes against Villa, the most of any United player by some distance with an astonishing 95.6% completion rate, picking up the man of the match award in the process. A screen of both Carrick and Schneiderlin in front of the back four has added an extra layer of protection to the back four, with natural full-backs in Darmian and Shaw adept in both attacking and defensive situations unlike a makeshift defender in the form of Valencia.
A new defender would certainly be welcomed, but if United’s backline can turn in more confident showings like they did at Villa Park, a big problem area will be eased. A third consecutive clean sheet could prove pivotal in United’s progression to the group stages of the competition by denying the visitors a crucial away goal.
Mata in a central role
The win over Villa saw Memphis pushed out of the number 10 role he had been experimented in, back to a more familiar wide position, with Adnan Januzaj – typically deployed out wide by both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal – in his preferred position behind the frontman.
While the Belgian’s deflected strike proved the difference between United coming away with one point or three, the manager criticised the Belgian’s carelessness in possession.
“He had also a lot of ball losses and in my opinion [they were] unnecessary,” the manager said of Januzaj following the game. It wasn’t just the goalscorer singled out for criticism from the manager, with Depay and Rooney also cited for their part in relinquishing the ball.
Which begs the question, why hasn’t Juan Mata been given the opportunity to play in his favoured role behind the striker? The Spaniard was instrumental in United’s winner on Friday night, drifting far from his “false right-winger” position to command the ball before sliding through an inch perfect ball for Januzaj to control and finish. Another delicious through ball was arrowed through to Depay in the second half who should have wrapped things up.
Mata thrived in the number 10 position at Chelsea, where he was able to find space in the final third and contribute plenty of goals and assists from his favoured role. The manager still clearly hasn’t decided yet who he prefers to operate behind Rooney, but with Januzaj still a little raw and finding his feet in the first team, may benefit more from running at defenders out wide, giving Mata a free role and pulling the strings.
Remember we’re not there just yet
Whether United are equipped to compete with Europe’s top sides remains to be seen, but it’ll be a resounding no on that front if they struggle to deal with a far inferior Club Brugge side at Old Trafford.
Fourth place was the minimum requirement for van Gaal in his debut campaign in his quest to return Manchester United to the big time, but it all counts for nothing if disaster were to strike now.
Two wins from two represents a solid start to the new season, but United have been yet reach that next level of performance. Perhaps all it requires are the bright lights at Old Trafford on a Tuesday evening as the famous Champions League anthem rings out around the Theatre of Dreams.
With no fresh injury concerns, we can expect to see a similar line-up this evening as that which took the field against Villa. Phil Jones misses out yet again, while it’s unlikely Marcos Rojo will be thrown in given the performances of both Smalling and Blind.
It’s a big possibility that Schweinsteiger comes into replace Carrick and act as the general in the side, while Rooney – despite his failings on Friday – presumably gets the nod once again ahead of Hernandez.
Another tight affair like with Tottenham and Villa won’t suit United or van Gaal, who’d like to get things as good as tied before next Wednesday’s trip to Belgium so thoughts can be focussed fully on the visit of Newcastle and Steve McClaren at the weekend.
The return of European football is bound to add some extra zip to United’s play and with Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger patrolling the midfield should keep things ticking and provide plenty of ball for the likes of Depay, Rooney, Januzaj and Mata. 3-0 United.
Predicted Line Up