After a convincing win against Basel on game-week one of the Champions League, Manchester United will be looking to show the rest of Europe that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Right from the get go, United set out to dominate their Swiss opponents, with the ball frequently appearing down the right hand side with Ashley Young, who surprised almost everyone with his inclusion and his performance during the 90 minutes. With Basel setting up in a 3-4-3 formation, they looked to play from the back, hoping to outnumber United in each phase of play. This plan rarely worked and United forced them long on almost every occasion in the first half.
Ashley Young was arguably the best performer, particularly when you remember he was making his first competitive start of the season. His inch perfect cross for Fellaini gave the Red Devils a deserved lead to go into the second half. Fellaini didn’t start the match, but came on for Pogba, who had slipped and injured himself early on. United fans will be hoping he can be back in time for the Liverpool fixture on the 14th of October.
Despite the exclusion of their most talented player, the team in red continued to apply pressure and went into the tunnel at half time one goal to the good, but it should have been many more.
In the second half, Basel stepped their game up and passed the ball about more. With a poor atmosphere at Old Trafford, you could sense a goal could come at any moment from the Swiss champions. Midway into the second half and United had a corner. After taking it short, the ball had been set back to Blind who played a perfect cross towards the big Belgian. The forward didn’t need to make much of a run, he simply used his strength to keep his marker at bay, before powering the ball into the Stretford End net.
After this moment, Basel didn’t dominate, but United definitely didn’t have the ascendancy over their opponents. Mourinho was critical of this spell in the game, saying it was “PlayStation football” with too many “flicks and tricks”. Surely when you spend the the GDP of a small country on players, you want to see them exude their confidence and skill? Anyway, Mourinho brought on Lingard and Rashford and the latter manged to bag his team’s third, which was probably a fair result given their dominance in the first half. The 19 year old striker bagged a goal on another debut, yet again enhancing his potential.
The squad is good but not frightening enough to be considered one of Europe’s best. They have individuals such as Pogba, Lukaku and Rashford who gel very well with the rest of the squad, but their true ability hasn’t been reached due to the lower caliber of the players they’re surrounded by. Don’t get me wrong, United will be one of the favourites for the domestic competitions, but if Pogba doesn’t play, you’re left with a midfield of Matic, Herrera, Fellaini and Carrick. This lack of quality depth is worrying and although sides like Barcelona don’t have great depth, they generally win games before making any changes.
Not only do United not have the necessary depth, they don’t have enough quality in their strongest lineup to score two or three in the first half. Most of their goals this season have come in the second half. The depth in all areas of the pitch is something that will show when results aren’t going their way. At the moment, goals are easy to come by but it’s papering over cracks, albeit fairly small ones. Lingard isn’t good enough to step up when Mkhitaryan and Mata aren’t in the equation and the defence will be found out by teams with talented attackers at their disposal. They were suspect against Stoke and although Rojo will provide more options, I’m not convinced the back four is good enough for any kind of Champions League title challenge.
Despite these weaknesses, there is one reason why this side can make it to the latter stages of the knockout rounds and that’s Mourinho. His pragmatism and his track record of individual defensive displays of greatness will always give the side a chance. Whether it be man marking, a back five or a zonal orientation, the Portuguese manager will identify an opponents weakness and play to that, rather than trying to impose themselves on a team that might be superior. The Super Cup display will give the team a whole heap of confidence going into big games with Europe’s heavyweights. Although they were dominated by Real Madrid, they did manage to score and they weren’t humiliated like Barcelona were in the Spanish Super Cup.
To simplify, I think Manchester United will coast through the group stages and maybe we’ll see players being rested on the last game against CSKA Moscow in December. But in terms of the bigger picture, there are at least ten teams that can beat United over two legs. With the current crop of players, challenging on all fronts is naive, ambitious, but naive. Although it’s the United way to go all out for every game, we saw last season how players suffered with the lack of rotation from the boss. An ignorance of the domestic cup games is what’s needed if there is to be a Premier League title and a semi final place in Europe’s biggest competition.
Next year, if more players are added in the necessary positions, then maybe the team can go for a treble. But this year it depends on the planning from the Special One.