Manchester United host their first European match of the season by welcoming Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk in the second round of the Europa League. Coming off their first real result since the international break, a 4-1 win against champions Leicester City, United were looking to make a run of victories by making the most of a huge on-paper advantage. With a relatively strong starting lineup, United were expecting a result, especially at home.
What happened in the first half was not a rare occurrence for United this season, as the home side took the lion’s share of possession against a much weaker opposition, but failed to make any real chances, with the vast majority of attempted final balls ending up in the feet of an opposition player. The second half wasn’t many differences, as up until the stat was shown on TV around the hour mark, United had failed to register a shot on target. Things changed following the substitution of Wayne Rooney. Not long after coming on, Rooney got on the end of a Timothy Fosu-Mensah cross and set up Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his match-winning header.
While his substitution effectively changed the game, Rooney was not by any means United’s best performer. His assist for Ibrahimovic happened because he failed to take his shot anywhere cleanly enough. Or maybe he tried to control it, I’m not sure. He also squandered a great counter attacking opportunity by overhitting a pass out wide to Marcus Rashford later in the game.
The attack showed quality but was subdued for a lot of the game. Rashford faced tough marking, but still managed to cause an issue, while both Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata showed good link-up play, with Ibrahimovic adding his goal into the argument. But while they showed flashes of greatness, they were ineffective for most of the game, as they failed to break down the Zorya defence.
No, to find the best performer of the game, you’d have to look at the other side of the pitch. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero made a great save to deny Paulinho but was largely left unbothered, while Fosu-Mensah was fairly effective on both sides of the pitch.
But they were both outshined by the defensive display of Eric Bailly in the centre of defence. With United playing most of the game on the front foot, they needed to be wary of counter-attacks, and this is where Bailly and his pace came in. Time and again, he’d steal the ball away to stop counter attacking moves by outrunning the attacker chasing down through balls.
Bailly’s signature tough tackling was also on full display, which did earn him a yellow card. But other than that, he was very effective in curtailing opposition attacks. Not only was his tackling mostly on point, the timing of his interceptions was also impressive, again using his pace to his advantage, appearing out of nowhere to pick up passes. In games like this, the defence of the dominant team doesn’t normally receive much attention but look at the right places and you might just find a well-deserving Man of the Match.