Manchester United are through to the semi-finals of the Europa League after a dramatic late win against Anderlecht at Old Trafford.
The tie went to extra-time after United missed several excellent chances to finish the game in 90 minutes, but Marcus Rashford turned and fired home in the penalty area to the delight of the Stretford End, taking United into the last four of another European competition.
Manchester United made an excellent start to this European quarter-final. The first twenty minutes was electric. United dominated possession, moved the ball quickly, created chances and scored a fantastic goal on the counter attack, created by a simply ludicrous pass by Paul Pogba. The tone was set on Sunday, picked up again on Thursday. Fast start, no time for the opponent to settle. United could have been 3-0 up with barely a quarter of the match played.
This impressive performance was not just limited to United’s work in possession of the ball. In that opening 20 minutes Anderlecht barely had a kick, rarely able to progress beyond the halfway line or stem the tide of United pressure. The energy and relentless nature of Manchester United’s high pressing game was visible right from the first whistle.
The turning point in the first half was, bizarrely, an injury to Marcos Rojo. The Argentine was stretchered off midway through the half and was replaced by Daley Blind, a substitution which broke up the rhythm of the game and loosened United’s grip on the game. With a certain amount of uncertainty at the back, Anderlecht took advantage and grew into the match, becoming a greater attacking threat as the half wore on.
In contrast to the opening of this match, the second half of the first 45 minutes became rather frantic. United remained potent in an offensive sense, creating chances and threatening on the counter attack, but they lost stability in defensive positions. The graphic above shows how the game shifted towards the Belgian side in that first half. Daley Blind gave Manchester United greater assurance in possession and greater quality in their build up play, but his lack of physicality and defensive dominance allowed Anderlecht to hold more significant periods of possession in the United half and they equalised from a situation borne out of defensive disorganisation in the United ranks.
In terms of Manchester United’s performance throughout, it was yet another occasion in which the result did not match the performance. Mourinho’s side could have been home and dry after 20 minutes, but instead had to settle for an extra-time winner to seal a semi-final place.
One of the driving forces behind United’s performance was Paul Pogba. As the season has gone on, he’s grown into his role at Manchester United and continues to produce moments of magic that underlie his immense talent. In the build up to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal, Pogba produced a simply stunning through pass to find Marcus Rashford, who had a simple task to cut the ball back for the Armenian.
Watching Pogba, it is evident that his quality lies in the technical aspects of his game rather than in tactical discipline. A tactical understanding of the game should naturally come as he matures and develops into the finished article, but right now his technical skill must be appreciated. Every time he gets on the ball he wants to go forward. He finds little angles here, short passes there, is able to open the game up with long, raking cross-field passes or precision through passes that splits a defence. There are elements to his game that need refining and he’s certainly not perfect. How one man can miss from inside the six-yard box but almost score a perfectly executed bicycle kick within minutes is almost beyond explanation. Paul Pogba is a maverick and he has the quality to define matches on his own.
With Pogba pulling the strings in midfield, United needed penetration and pace in forward areas. On many occasions this season there has been an over-reliance on Antonio Valencia on the right-hand side to get forward and supply width and attacking tempo in the final third. Tonight, it was the turn of Luke Shaw on the left-hand side. The results were impressive.
Shaw’s running was a little more nuanced than Valencia. It wasn’t constant and it wasn’t relentless, but it was well-timed. He made several excellent contributions, particularly in the second half, that may well have led to the winning goal had it not been for profligate finishing or superb defending. We started to see glimpses of the Luke Shaw Manchester United signed. The player who made such a great start to the season in 2015. Recognisable by that trademark underlapping run, the speed and timing of his running was difficult to track and harder to stop. With a run of matches under his belt, Manchester United have a player who can provide balance, attacking intent and much-needed quality on the left side of the pitch.
Manchester United are through to another European semi-final, so some of the harsher criticism may fall away, but they were wasteful again tonight. Squawka’s match stats only provide data for the original 90 minutes, but United had 16 shots in that time, scoring just once. Had it not been for a moment of magic from Marcus Rashford deep into extra time, United may have been looking at another disappointment entirely of their own making.