Manchester United struggled to break down Zorya Luhansk before a Zlatan Ibrahimovic header from point-blank range sealed a 1-0 win for the hosts in the 69th minute. United looked nonchalant throughout, slow in moving the ball and lacking the final ball. However, comfortably better than their opponents, it is fair to say United merited the win and deserved reward for the countless chances they earned.
The match was a bit underwhelming for those who were tasked with covering Tactical Analysis because there wasn’t anything outside quintessential football. United tried to use attacking fullbacks to create space in between the members of Zorya’s back four, while the Ukrainian opposition rarely ventured outside their half. United tried many methods of creating space, but with an axis of Marouane Fellaini, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly, the passing movements weren’t quick or incisive enough to put Zorya on the back foot. Therefore, for much of the game, nothing happened, as United tried to switch the play incisively, failed, and kept on trying with no success. Then, Zorya won the ball, broke with pace and spurned any quarter-chance that wasn’t snuffed out by Bailly and Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
As displayed above, United appeared to be in a 4-1-4-1 formation against Zorya Luhansk, with Paul Pogba joining attacking midfield from deep and Juan Mata drifting to the right to create space for him. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard provided the pace superbly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s main job, as usual, was to create space and goal-scoring opportunities for himself.
Manchester United had 72% of the ball, which should say enough about the tactical game. Quite often, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly would move backwards into United’s half with the ball, in an attempt to create space through Zorya’s pressing. It worked in a sense, but without Daley Blind’s distribution of the ball, United’s efforts often had no creative impact.
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic dropping into deep areas was another theme because it allowed Juan Mata to run beyond him and create space for the Swede to strike from range. It almost paid off when Ibrahimovic had a chance from long-range that deflected out for a corner, from which Marcus Rashford smashed the bar.
United was often hindered by the lack of space and use of a player as immobile as Fellaini in the middle because there was a distinct lack of speed in the build-up play. The intensity of the likes of Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin was sorely missed. Pogba, though, controlled the game completely, with 106 passes and continuous attempts to break Zorya down.
— Squawka Dave (@StatmanDave) September 29, 2016
United seemed to have most joy creating triangles on the wing, freeing the likes of Pogba and Mata in dangerous areas. United’s two main creative outlets realized that there was more joy out wide and moved into the midfield channels whenever possible, trying to get on the ball and slide the likes of Lingard, Ibrahimovic and Rashford through. However, there was no impact as Zorya remained compact and completely sacrificed attacking threat for defensive nous.
In the second half, there was still no answer, and Mourinho’s supposed solution to the problem was Wayne Rooney, and he was the creator in emphatic fashion. Trying to shoot from a Fosu-Mensah ball, Rooney accidentally caught the ball with his knee, and it flew onto Ibrahimovic’s head and into the goal. Rooney’s running in towards goal caused enough of a shift to break the defence, but the contribution from the Englishman was diabolical- and the moment was as laughable as it was good. Nothing else changed, and after that, United was able to see out the match in normal fashion.
Mourinho was reluctant to change the match before he brought Rooney on, and after the goal, the game quietened significantly. Overall, United should be doing better, but no one likes the Europa League and Mourinho would have learned a lot from the game. Also, there was a win- United’s mission for the day was well achieved.