Manchester United scored a priceless away goal as they drew 1-1 with FC Rostov in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.
On what was a terrible playing surface at the Olymp-2 Stadium, United navigated a tricky European fixture playing in a 3-5-2 system for the first time under Jose Mourinho. Ashley Young and Daley Blind came in as wing backs, Marouane Fellaini played in a position closely resembling a #10 role and Henrikh Mkhitaryan partnered Zlatan Ibrahimovic in an unconventional forward line.
At this level of football it is rare for the playing conditions to directly affect proceedings, but the state of the pitch tonight meant it was impossible to play football to the standard befitting top level European competition. In selecting his team the way he did, Mourinho was clearly signalling his game plan. He did not want to be beaten. He was determined to keep it tight and take the tie back to Old Trafford without incident.
It was by far the poorest spectacle Manchester United have been involved in this season. In direct contrast to the beauty and the drama of Barcelona’s magnificent 6-1 victory last night in the Nou Camp, this was a masterclass in stalemates from Jose Mourinho. A 3-5-2 system that became 3-5-1-1 without the ball, United suffocated the game, offered no encouragement to Rostov and ensured that the pitch, which can be a great leveller in situations such as this, would not work against them and contribute to a shock defeat.
To demonstrate the scrappiness of the game and the way in which the pitch prevented us from discussing this match in proper footballing terms, it is important to evaluate some of the statistics from the evening. There were 38 fouls in the game which was played out on a dry, bobbly surface. There was no flow in the game, no rhythm, no quality. It may sound counterintuitive given the difference in quality between the two teams, but it was more beneficial to United that the game was so stop-start. They were able to come away from the hardest part of this tie without injury, a priceless away goal and a slight advantage ahead of a favourable home leg at Old Trafford.
Manchester United did not travel to Russia to play defensively or play for a draw against such inferior opponents. Even tonight, out on a pitch that made playing football impossible, they still tried. The problem was that the conditions simply did not allow it. United recorded their lowest pass accuracy of the season in this match, completing just 61.17% of their passes. While they attempted to use the ball, dominate possession and control the match, the quality of the playing surface hindered many of their most promising moments. Thus, the possession was an almost equal split, 51% to 49% in United’s favour. In the end, the game was a fairly even, back and forth battle with neither side really able to make the most of any opportunity.
When United’s goal finally arrived, it validated Mourinho’s team selection. With Marouane Fellaini playing closely behind Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic, the Belgian was charged with supporting the forward’s as often as possible. His inclusion may have shocked a few supporters, but it was no surprise given the physical nature of a match that had deteriorated so quickly due to the state of the pitch. One way to avoid the ill-effects of the bobbly surface was to play the ball in the air, cue the quality of Fellaini. In one moment he created the opportunity that put Manchester United in the driving seat in this tie. After a long ball forward from the back, Fellaini brought the ball down excellently on his chest, found Ibrahimovic in the penalty area and the Swedish forward pulled the ball back for Mkhitaryan to fire home. It was the one moment of quality in the game, orchestrated by Mourinho’s team selection and executed by his three most advanced attacking threats. European football can often be a game of fine margins. In scoring first tonight, Manchester United are in an excellent position to qualify for the quarter-final.
Tricky European ties in Eastern Europe are as difficult in the Europa League as they are in the Champions League. Manchester United navigated the away leg of this one with a mature, professional performance, keeping alive the possibility of a cup treble this season. Next up, it’s Chelsea. Should United win, they will return to Wembley for the fifth time in twelve months, with a real chance of securing more silverware.