Manchester United progressed to the last-16 of the Europa League with a professional 1-0 victory over Saint-Étienne, despite having Eric Bailly sent off in the second-half.
With a major cup final on the horizon, many would have forgiven Jose Mourinho for selecting a weakened team, particularly as United were able to boast a healthy aggregate lead going into this second leg. Still, as they prepare to face Southampton in the EFL Cup final on Sunday afternoon, Manchester United started with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in a strong starting XI.
Mourinho was keen to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups and determined to progress to the next round of the competition, and his team selection was validated when Manchester United put the tie to bed in the opening 25 minutes.
The fluidity of Manchester United’s attacking players caused Saint-Étienne real problems in the opening phase of the game. United started in a 4-3-3 system, with Paul Pogba the most advanced central midfield player. He often floated into the #10 position, with Juan Mata on the right and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the left. There was a freedom to United’s attacking players to move within the system, however. At times Fellaini was the player in that more advanced position as Pogba was playing deeper, on other occasions the three would become more compact and link up together in those central positions as United looked to control possession. Mata and Mkhitaryan were emblematic of that freedom as they took up positions right across the pitch, often interchanging and combining to good effect in advanced areas of the field.
The goal was an excellent example of the fluidity of United’s attacking shape. In the build up just prior to creating the chance, Manchester United were in comfortable possession in the Saint-Étienne half. Daley Blind, the left-back, contributed to this attacking phase in an advanced position by moving the ball to Juan Mata. Although initially deployed on the right-hand side, the Spaniard found himself on the left and provided a superb cross for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Moving in from that left-hand side, Mkhitaryan took up a strikers position to guide the ball past Ruffier and give Manchester United an important away goal, almost guaranteeing safe passage into the next round. It may seem simple, but United’s attacking variation was too much for Saint-Étienne to contain in the opening 25 minutes this evening.
After they took the lead, Manchester United slowed the tempo of the game and relied on defensive discipline and organisation to control the match and finish the job professionally. That mindset was confirmed when Mkhitaryan left the field with a slight injury and was replaced by Marcus Rashford, a player who is so well suited to counter-attacking football. The ball was firmly in Saint-Étienne’s court. One-nil down at home to Manchester United, how would they respond to the challenge? Their answer was pretty timid.
In the opening 45 minutes, Pajot and Veretout were Saint-Étienne’s midfield pivot. Two players at the base of the midfield on whom the attacking quartet depend. Saint-Étienne had more possession of the football in the opening half. These two players had more of the ball than perhaps anyone else on the field. They used it intelligently, kept the ball nicely, completed 87% of their passes too, but created zero chances and were lacklustre and, if we’re being completely honest, rather spineless in their use of the possession they had. There seemed to desire to get hold of the ball and make something happen. Everything they did was far too safe and far too reserved. As a result, Saint-Étienne had just 3 shots in that opening 45 minutes and rarely threatened Sergio Romero’s goal.
In the second half, Manchester United continued in the same vein. They kept possession, didn’t exert themselves too heavily and looked to capitalise on any counter-attacking opportunity that presented themselves. With a four-goal aggregate lead and a cup final to play on Sunday, no one could have been surprised to see Manchester United react this way to the situation. What was a surprise, was the absence of a reaction from Saint-Étienne. Particularly after Eric Bailly’s red card.
After Eric Bailly was sent off for two needless yellow cards, Manchester United faced the prospect of playing with 10 men for just under half an hour. Mourinho’s response was to remove Juan Mata and introduce Marcos Rojo, conceding even more ground to the French side and allowing them complete control of the game, tactically and territorially. Instead of seizing on an opportunity to go for the victory and achieve a famous win, Saint-Étienne were feeble and weak in their response. As a team, they completed 88% of their passes but created zero chances in 27 minutes of football with a numerical advantage. They crossed the ball into the Manchester United area nine times without finding a teammate and had just five shots at goal. It was a pathetic performance from Saint-Étienne, conveniently juxtaposed against the backdrop of their passionate and inspiring fans, who did not stop singing and jumping and waving flags throughout, despite the tepid and boring nature of the performance that was offered to them by their team.
Manchester United won’t mind of course. They are now through to the Europa League last-16 and remain on course to challenge for honours in three separate cup competitions this season. It was a professional and disciplined performance from a group of players that has only lost once since October and has continued to improve as the season has wore on. Next up, Wembley. The first opportunity to win a major trophy under Jose Mourinho.