The morning after the night before. For those who haven’t had it sink in yet, Cristiano Ronaldo is here and he rolled back the years, something that United fans will happily have to get used to. Before we even get to that though, the gravity of this game became even weightier than the revenge match it was seen as once the draw was made. The loss against Young Boys meant that anything but a win would have United’s backs against a wall in a group that it should comfortably qualify from.
The night was anything but comfortable though. An early 10 minute flurry from Ole’s men, as has been customary this season, had everyone somewhat excited but once Villarreal had their first chance, a long ball finding a way in Arnaut Danjuma’s path, which he shot straight at De Gea, the narrative for the first half was set. Villarreal controlled proceedings, even if they had just 37% of possession in the opening 45 minutes. Paco Alcacer, Danjuma, Yeremi Pino all had good chances to put Villarreal ahead. United, however, exited the field of play for their halftime refreshments with Pogba’s tame long range shot being the only shot on target. The second half started in much the same fashion but this time, Villarreal were rewarded. While Dalot’s mistake was the most costly, Varane, McTominay and Pogba covered themselves with no glory in the sequence that led to Danjuma finding Paco Alcacer in the middle of the box to turn home. It only took 7 minutes to level proceedings however, a well worked set piece from Bruno and Telles saw the latter volley home a floated chip from the former. For the next 15 minutes, United found an extra step. They pressed higher and greater joy. The passes were crisper but apart from a Cavani header he should have turned home once he arrived, not many chances were made. Lingard came close with a toe poke that Rulli saved but Ronaldo would come up with the goods as he would side foot home from a narrow angle to give United the well needed points, relief and nostalgia to boot.
Midfield Question Deepens
“Is there any real need for two defensive midfielders when United are facing worse opposition?” It is a question the United faithful ask regularly and a question that seemed to be finally asked by the media after the 1-0 Aston Villa loss. As Solskjaer said in the pre match presser for this game, “I think they are very instrumental together. The energy and desire. I really like to have the two of them.” It was of course about McTominay and Fred’s partnership. But it is essentially a band aid for a midfield problem that he cannot seem to get the balance right of. Whatever combination he comes up with, there is a problem that rears its ugly head, which ultimately makes him stick with the most regressive combination. Such is United’s attacking ability, having two players who give a basis for those to worry less about what is behind them is something at least.
United’s former super sub changed it all up however. The cries for a systemic change have been vociferous since the 4-2-3-1’s implementation. It’s ironic because the change came as a way to get the best out of Pogba. By moving him deeper. Yes, I know. Teams had cottoned onto United having no one else to create for them in the final third so essentially man marked him out of the game. Having someone come deeper to do that would leave space up the pitch and for other players to attack. Of course, this was in the time before Bruno. The formation has stuck since really.
Until last night. Pogba and Bruno were clearly taking up pocketed midfield positions, leaving McTominay to hold the fort centrally. In the first half, the French and Portuguese midfielder were clearly the most likely routes to United finding in roads, be it through their runs or passes in behind. However, the composition of the midfield play into the hands of the Yellow Submarines mightily. In build up, Pogba and Bruno hardly ever staggered their positions so that if the ball got to McTominay, there would be a closer and further option for him to pass to. They were sometimes standing in a line with the front three of Sancho Ronaldo and Greenwood. The Scotsman is an extraordinary athlete but it would take a superhero to cover that sort of ground. What’s more, the two CMs pressing was off the cuff and unintelligible. There was a lack of support or compactness from the defence and wide players respectively for Pogba and Bruno to go charging past their men as they did. It eventually saw United sit off when Villarreal built from the back, which is criminal in itself.
McTominay, whilst given an impossible task, was quite poor. His positioning when Lindelof and Varane had possession screamed “Please don’t pass to me” and even if they forced it to him, he managed to give it back within a blink of an eye. Only twice, a chipped ball to Ronaldo that just got turned away for a corner in the first and swift line breaking pass into the right half space in the second, would McTominay actually do his on the ball job. His short passing wasn’t rhythmic, one because it isn’t his game and two because no one was close enough to bounce passes off. Watching Parejo and Capoue constantly do it shone an even brighter light on how lacking it was.
Matic’s introduction in the last 15 showed once again how transformative a great DM would be. For all of his faults, even before Father Time decided to embellish them all into cartoonish fashion, Matic is an archetypal defensive midfielder. He regularly drops between the CBs to make them spread and widen the pitch for the whole team. He is able to play through the lines to a relatively good standard. He is resists pressure, even if it seems to be through just a sheer want to not be hurried into anything. He is even able to carry the ball past players. But the rigours of a full season are past him now. Right now, the only way out of this problem is through it. Until an acquisition is made, tactical honing and persistence with the 4-3-3 wheeled out last night or the McFred band getting back together are the two most viable options to Ole seemingly.
Be Careful What You Wish For
One wonders what made Solskjaer go with that 4-3-3 when you consider the fact that he had to change 3 of his back four due to injuries and suspension. A defensive unit that had a new signing in the midst of all those changes too. Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles and Victor Lindelof all came in. The Swede was less of a concern as he had started the season and just more in tune with the team in general having been a starter for three seasons now. The Portuguese and Brazilian have lacked regularity in their minutes in their collective tenure at Old Trafford. It showed in their performance.
In what was ultimately the costly goal last mid week, Telles’s defending is far from his strongest suit. His lack of athleticism is exemplified by his lack of any defensive nous. The way in which Pino was able to work a shot by cutting inside him characterised this trait last night. He was lacking in the duels that he did face as Villarreal focused the majority of their attack down their left. Going forward, the lack of athleticism also works against him as he doesn’t arrive quickly enough to take players away from our left winger. See Danjuma’s shot that De Gea expertly turned away. Alberto Moreno’s hard run to make Dalot shift and open up the gap to allow for the shot was something we seldom saw down our own left hand side. It ends up with him having to cross from deep positions, something that he is technically able to do but is much harder than if he were to cross from closer to the byline and the box.
His technical proficiency is out of question though. The difficulty of the strike that got us back into the game shouldn’t be undermined. It is actually quite a ridiculous strike and one you see players mess up all the time. You saw his confidence grow. Those aforementioned runs became more pronounced and shows what simple confidence can do. Also, as important as his goal was, his block with Varane to deny Dia was equally as important. If Shaw is to be out for the weekend as well, the competition people envisaged last season might finally be on.
Dalot suffered a hard night however. Before getting into it, having to come in without much rhythm and momentum with the added pressure of knowing you have to perform to get more starts can be startling. Lindelof, Fred, Shaw, Martial, Bailly and Rashford have all suffered from this in the past 5 or so years so the criticism has to be tempered in regards to Dalot.
Even with the tempering, it was still an abysmal performance. The fact that he added next to nothing in attack, even with the added technical prowess he has over Wan Bissaka, was more concerning than anything. Dalot’s lack of games under Solskjaer and his loan to Milan came from the fact that he and the coaching staff feel he lacks the intensity and personality. Some have even said that he has perhaps gone into a bit of a sulk due to his lack of chances on occasion. So to get his chance and turn out like that, it will just push him further away from the reckoning. Danjuma had him on toast for the whole game. Dalot is more athletic than Telles but still not enough where he can make the forward and recovery runs without one being lacking. Invariably, it was the recovery runs. Danjuma’s toe poke at De Gea came from the vacant space Dalot left. Paco’s header came after more good work from Danjuma at the expense of Dalot. The goal came from Dalot’s weak attempt at an interception that Danjuma put across the box. Even when Estupnian and Moi Gomez came on, they didn’t let up on attacking down the right hand side. That was even when Fred came on for Telles. His crossing was even worse. The best cross of his night was one that wasn’t even his. The commentator had mistaken Dalot for Greenwood, who planted one on Cavani’s forehead. If Dalot was aiming for the left touchline, his crossing was exemplary. Luckily for his sake, he will get another chance as UEFA have extended Wan Bissaka’s ban by a game so the home game against Atalanta presents an opportunity to make up for what we saw last night.
Solskjaer has to find the right attacking composition and fast. The best it has looked was when Greenwood was through the middle and Daniel James was still at the club. Rashford’s impending return just adds to the headache. Sancho’s timid start has the case of a man who knows there is pressure coming from all angles if he wants to establish him as a starter. Greenwood seems to be forcing shots in order to keep his place in the team by keeping his early season contributions up. Youthful exuberance will mean people will give him slack but only for so long. Ronaldo, despite the winner, was essentially a passenger. A run at 81 minutes from Edinson Cavani shows why any fan base he has played for loves him with their utmost. He chased a ball that ne’er a player would, seen by Ronaldo’s giving up alongside him. It was infectious and shows how simple things can make the difference.
De Gea rolled back the years. Without him, or a him from the last three seasons, it could have been 3-0 at half time. The save from Dia, one he caused with his poorest moment of the night by parrying a shit back into the danger area, was the most crucial. It was pure instinct. Hopefully his good form can coincide with United being good defensively.