After a year in the wilderness, Manchester United returned to European action by hosting Club Brugge of Belgium for the first-leg of the play-off match to reach the group stage.
United came into the game after winning their first two games of the season 1-0, which are a valuable 6 points but they still haven’t looked all that convincing. The Belgians are further into their season than the Mancunians, beating Panathinaikos 4-2 in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, in addition to 4 league games. A game that started slowly for United eventually turned into one of their best performances under Louis Van Gaal.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1)-
An important game for the club, Louis Van Gaal made no changes from the Villa victory. While he has struggled so far this season, Wayne Rooney continued as the lone striker.
Club Brugge (4-1-4-1)-
Michel Preud’homme coaches a team expecting much in Belgium this year. Sebastien Bruzzese started in goal, with Dion Cools at right-back and Laurens De Bock at left-back. Costa Rican international Oscar Duarte started at center-back alongside Brandon Mechele, with 38-year old captain Timmy Simons shielding the defense. On the right side was Tuur Dierckx, with a defensive winger in Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo on the left side. Ruud Vormer played as a box to box midfielder alongside the more offensively minded Victor Vazquez. Abdoulay Diaby played as the lone striker.
- Brugge worked hard to ensure that Romero couldn’t play out of the back, trying to force him to play the ball long.
- Adnan Januzaj played as more of an advanced midfielder than a second striker, helping to link-up the attack and defense better, and provide better attacking balance.
- Memphis left his mark in his second Old Trafford appearance.
- Bastian Schweinsteiger’s arrival in the second half allowed Manchester United to dominate the midfield and control the game.
Brugge causes early problems
Club Brugge came into this game with a clear strategy to press high up the pitch when Sergio Romero was on the ball. They worked hard to close down the easy passing options, forcing the Argentinian to play the ball long, leaving the Belgian able to easily deal with United’s lack of height.
In the first two games of the season, United struggled in the build-up as the central attacking player (Memphis against Tottenham and Adnan Januzaj against Aston Villa) played high up the pitch alongside Wayne Rooney.
This made the attack very disjointed, as both Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick would drop deep to receive the ball from the centre-backs. In the game against Aston Villa, Schneiderlin worked harder getting up the pitch to try and link the attack and defense, but they still struggled. In this match, United were much more connected as Januzaj played deeper. Additionally, Juan Mata frequently came deep to receive the ball and this caused overloads in the central spaces.
As United moved into the final third, anuzaj provided much needed balance to United’s attack. In the first two games of the season, an average of 47% of Manchester’s attacks came down the left side with only 30% coming down the right side. This is mostly attributable to Mata’s tendency to drift inside from the right wing.
Against Brugge, however, Januzaj did an excellent job of drifting out to either wing, allowing United to enjoy the width their had missed, while also dragging Brugge’s lone holding midfielder, Timmy Simons, out of position.
Once Simons was forced off the pitch in the first half, his replacement, Claudmir, sat too deep and allowed United too much space between the lines.
Several times during the match Januzaj appeared on both the left and right side of the pitch to cover for Memphis or Mata’s drifts inward. This allowed United to have more horizontal balance to their attack.
While Memphis’ first goal was an outstanding piece of individual talent, it was helped by Januzaj operating out on the right side to stretch the defence.
Brugge didn’t sit back and play negative football either and had some dangerous moments on the attack, although their striker, Abdoulay Diaby was constantly forced wide, leaving his side with no presence in the box. That meant that while they got the ball into some decent positions, they never had personnel in the middle who could threaten the goal, as Chris Smalling and Daley Blind defended well, especially against a forward whose pace could have caused problems.
United’s midfield pairing
Louis Van Gaal started the game with a central pairing of Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin. The new signing from Southampton has had a good start to his Manchester United career, but the pairing of him and Carrick caused some issues in both the build-up and final third.
In the build-up, both Schneiderlin and Carrick tend to drop deep to receive the ball from the back line. In the Tottenham game, this led a broken team with little connection between the defense and attackers. Against Aston Villa, Schneiderlin did better at getting forward to try and connect the team. In this game, he was helped by Januzaj and Mata’s willingness to drop deep. However, there were still times when Schneiderlin and Carrick were too deep. Additionally, Carrick’s limited mobility meant that he struggled to have influence in the final third. He’s also had problems so far this season pressing opponents high up the pitch, something that Schneiderlin has excelled at.
Van Gaal made a switch at half-time and brought in Bastian Schweinsteiger for Carrick. This switch improved United offensively. Schweinsteiger has a better ability to get up the pitch, and he was able to drift into wider areas. This allowed United to create overloads, without having to commit the full-backs so far up the pitch. Schweinsteiger’s willingness to get higher up the pitch also made Daley Blind more effective offensively. He now had space to move into and was better able to play passes forward, as did with the through-ball to Memphis for his second goal.
Manchester United’s attack looked more incisive with Schweinsteiger on the pitch, as they were able to apply more pressure on the Belgians with better control in the midfield. This became even more evident after Brugge were reduced to 10-men. Both Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin were able to move up to the edge of the box in possession, tightening the noose. It seemed like all this would be for naught until Memphis delivered an excellent in-swinging cross from the left touchline to Marouane Fellaini at the back post.
Manchester United’s attack has looked better with every game, and Adnan Januzaj is growing into the playmaker role. He looked better operating as an attacking midfielder than as a second striker. He was effective in moving laterally across the pitch, helping to preserve United’s balance and width when Memphis and Mata drifted inside. He also made United look more dangerous on the counter-attack, playing the ball forward to Memphis and Rooney and joining the attack with pace. For all the analysis of this game, the deciding factor was a standout performance from Memphis. 2 goals and 1 assist aren’t a bad European debut for the red side of Manchester.
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