Manchester United made a disastrous start to their Europa League campaign after they were beaten 1-0 by Feyenoord in an underwhelming performance in Holland this evening.
Jose Mourinho made several changes to his Manchester United side as they embarked on their European adventure for the first time this season. Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Morgan Schneiderlin and Marcus Rashford all came into the team, while captain Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard were among the high profile names who were left at home.
The biggest tactical shift was in midfield. With Rooney and Mkhitaryan missing, Mourinho opted for a midfield three as he implemented a 4-3-3 system instead of the usual 4-2-3-1. With Morgan Schneiderlin as the pivot in midfield, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera had licence to get forward and influence the game in attacking areas, more so than in previous matches.
Unfortunately, in practice, United were unable to get the most out of their star man. Despite reverting to a midfield three that allowed Pogba to move forward more freely, released him from his defensive responsibilities and gave him free reign over the areas of the pitch he prefers to play in, Pogba was ineffectual throughout and oftentimes reduced to little more than a bystander.
Pogba completed just two passes into the opposition penalty area and the Frenchman had just one shot on target from three attempts. Manchester United lacked creativity throughout and Pogba’s inability to control the game in the offensive areas was a significant factor in their attacking failings.
Football is rarely just the fault of either the players or the system, more often than not it is both. While Mourinho’s experiment with 4-3-3 failed to get the best out of his record signing, his work with United’s fullbacks has yielded better performances than we saw tonight.
In most of their matches so far this season, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw have been integral to the way United have performed at both ends of the pitch. Tonight, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian fell way below that expected level of performance.
Neither fullback was as dominant in attacking areas as either Shaw or Valencia and the lack of width in attack really hurt United. On the right-hand side Darmian was involved on occasion, but the biggest difference was on the left. Marcos Rojo was appalling and at times the Argentine genuinely did more harm than good. Out of position when defending counter-attacks, wasteful in possession of the football and physically ineffective throughout – it is hard to imagine what level of football would suit Marcos Rojo but it certainly isn’t a major European competition.
— Squawka Dave (@SquawkaDave) September 15, 2016
Analysis of tonight’s match has been trending towards a direct comparison between the players who underperformed tonight and those that were rested for this ‘secondary’ competition. With that in mind, Chris Smalling’s first start of the season left a lot to be desired as well.
Defensively he performed adequately. Offensively he failed to replace the irreplaceable Daley Blind. According to Squawka, the Dutchman has completed an average of 87% of his passes this season. Against Feyenoord Smalling managed just 80% and failed to build possession from the back in quite the same way.
While Blind specialises in forward passes that break the lines of the opposition and create time and space for midfielders in advanced areas, Smalling seems content with just keeping possession. The majority of the passes you see from Smalling on the graphic above are not wrong per se, but they certainly aren’t right. Blind opens the game up with his ability on the ball and without it, Manchester United are a poorer side when faced with the kind of defensive structure placed in front of them by Feyenoord this evening. What this graphic also shows you is how often Chris Smalling actually gave the ball away when attempted a more ambitious forward pass.
As a result of all of this, the biggest disappointment of the night was Marcus Rashford. The 18-year-old did very little wrong, but after such a promising start to the season, it was tough to see him so isolated and unable to affect the match positively due to the lack of support offered by his teammates.
Before being substituted just after the hour, Rashford was always on the periphery. Always chasing, always pressing, Rashford was doing the right things with little to no help from the players around him. Does anyone think an 18-year-old kid, leading the line by himself away from home in Europe is going to have any success when he is feeding off scraps in this manner? Three occasions he had the ball in the penalty area. Three. United were toothless in attack and timid trying to win the ball back and it was Marcus Rashford who suffered for it.
After a night like tonight, it is hard to think of any positives that come with playing in the Europa League. Fortunately, there is one that springs to mind right about now – it is just three days until United get the chance to go again. After back-to-back defeats, Sunday’s match against Watford takes on even greater significance.