Manchester United ran out comfortable winners over Hull City at Old Trafford in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final.
Jose Mourinho’s side will take a two-nil lead to the second-leg at the KCOM stadium, thanks to goals from Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini.
Mourinho was forced into changes to his starting line-up this evening. Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out through illness and Marcos Rojo was still suffering from a muscular injury. Anthony Martial and Michael Carrick were both dropped to the bench in preparation for United’s fixture against Liverpool on Sunday.
Despite the comfortable scoreline, Manchester United made heavy weather of this tie in the first half. The tempo was too slow, too ponderous and a little bit too complicated against a side that were happy to defend in numbers and frustrate the home side. At 0-0, Hull City were unduly troubled and more than holding their own. In fact, they had the best chance of the first half when Diomande hit the post when well placed to score.
Manchester United suffered stylistically in their approach to the game. With Michael Carrick missing, Mourinho reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system that was much narrower in its shape than the 4-3-3 formation that United have used in recent weeks. The three behind Marcus Rashford were all quick to move inside to central areas, making the game more congesting and narrowing the pitch. Mkhitaryan, Mata, and Rooney are all players that want the freedom to roam and interchange and get on the ball, without penetration in wide areas United were too predictable and played in front of Hull too often, unable to disturb and threaten their low block defence.
In the second half, United increased the tempo and returned to a more natural rhythm in the attacking third. They didn’t change too much in terms of the selection or the shape of the team, but the intent was different. What made the difference was the ambition shown from both full-backs. Matteo Darmian almost gets a free pass. As a right-footed defender playing at left-back, he will rarely threaten in advanced areas. At most, he will support the endeavours of the winger as they attempt to beat the opposition right-back. As for Antonio Valencia, he has been one of United’s best players this season, so the absence of his rampaging running in the first-half hit United hard. That changed in the second half.
Both Darmian and Valencia got forward with convincing regularity and United relied on their width, particularly on the right-hand side, to supplement their attacking shape. Not only was the first goal borne out of the attacking intentions of Valencia on the right, but directly influenced by the United goal threats that were so keen to play in central areas, rather than out wide. Valencia’s cross from the right was headed down by Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the penalty area and tapped in by Juan Mata at the far post. The two players who appeared as wide attackers on the team-sheet combined in the penalty to give Manchester United the lead.
As the game wore on, Manchester United’s dominance grew and their control of the game was never in doubt. They had most of the ball, completed more passes, created more chances, had more shots and scored more goals. The important statistic this evening was the number of crosses by Manchester United players. Particularly in the second half, United had great joy with possession in wide areas. Whether it was Anthony Martial on the left, Antonio Valencia on the right or Marcus Rashford running into either channel, they got plenty of balls into the box, creating a number of good chances to extend their lead. Had Zlatan Ibrahimovic been available, United may have scored four or five against Hull, as it became obvious that the only thing missing from this United performance was the physical presence and aerial threat of a big centre-forward who could have put the finishing touch to a few of the 28 crosses attempted by Manchester United players this evening.
Which is why, with fifteen minutes to go, Jose Mourinho introduced Marouane Fellaini. In the dying moments of this first-leg, Anthony Martial and Matteo Darmian combined on the left-hand side, the Italian produced a deep cross to the far post and the Belgian connected with a looping header that was helped in by Tom Huddlestone’s desperate defensive lunge. Capitalising on United’s obvious strength in wide positions, Jose Mourinho’s substitution may have successfully ended this tie before it has even reached half-time. There was nothing clever or special about the goal, but efficiency is key in such a testing and busy time in the football calendar.
This was far from a vintage Manchester United performance. The crowd was flat, the performance was flat, the scoreline was, given United’s recent form, rather underwhelming. Watching the players in the second half, it did seem as if they were saving themselves for the bigger test on Sunday. Despite that, Manchester United have won the first leg of a semi-final comfortably without being at their best, rested a few players and kept a winning run alive that stretches to nine matches. When you throw in questions of offside surrounding Juan Mata’s opening goal, it’s all beginning to feel a lot more like the Manchester United of old.