This game marked the first-ever competitive meeting between an English side and a Kazakh side and it was more competitive than first expected. Manchester United won the Europa League the last time (2016-17) they competed in the UEFA Europa League. Their victory over fellow finalists Ajax stretched their unbeaten run in the tournament to 11 games.
Contrastingly, this year marks just the 4th time in which FC Astana have qualified for the group-stages: progressing beyond them only once in their history. That Astana were the under-dogs is a gross understatement and yet United were worked hard for their three points: edging out a resolute Astana 1-0. This tactical analysis will seek to identify the key aspects of the contest, the tactics of both teams as well as influential individual performances.
Narrow width and determination:
An analysis of United’s season so far would reveal a difficulty with breaking down defensively well-organised teams and such was the case in this game. Astana defended in two narrow blocks (evident in the graphic below). This restricted space inside for penetrative runs and corresponding passes.
As a result, United were forced wide with much of their play channelled by full-backs Marcos Rojo and Diogo Dalot. Both Rojo and Dalot effectively played as wingers maintaining United’s width and occupying the opposition half. Accordingly, either Fred or Nemanja Matic dropped back to form a back three.
Expectedly, United dominated possession and sporadically created chances in the first half as a consequence. The best of them fell to Marcus Rashford, however, he was unable to convert them: much to the encouragement of Astana. This inability to open the scoring in the first half changed the dynamic of the game. The Astana defence increasingly invested and thus determined to keep United out with every passing minute.
Fans of United would have been questioning the clubs decision to axe Alexis Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku at half time with the team seemingly lacking a cutting edge. And for these fans, the struggle was all too familiar. The game was reminiscent of United’s home defeat to Crystal Palace in which they also struggled to score: paying the ultimate price on that occasion as they lost 2-1.
In both games, at home to Palace in the Premier League and Astana in the Europa League, United have been frustrated by teams resolute in defence and non-committal in attack. Recording over 20 shots in each outing, a lack of quality within the final-third rather than a lack of effort would seem to be the issue. Evidently, United lined up against Astana without a number of key personnel, not least Paul Pogba and Player of the Month Dan James.
However, United once again had little to show for all their possession (75%). This sheds lights on a bigger issue facing Ole Gunnar Solskjær so far this season. The chances of United’s possession-based sequences culminating in a shot this season are just 13.9%. For context, this averaged out at over 20% in each of José Mourinho’s seasons at the club. The lack of creativity against Astana reinforced fears of a wider lack of creativity at United and underlined the importance of Pogba.
Absence of Pogba telling:
Tasked with filling the creative void left by Pogba’s absence was 19 year old Angel Gomes who spear-headed a midfield three alongside Nemanja Matic and Fred. Gomes had a positive effect on the game, taking up threatening positions between Astana lines. Another positive was the evident chemistry within the final third between himself and fellow academy graduates Greenwood and Rashford.
While this will no doubt excite United fans, the inability of the team as a collective to penetrate the Astana defence should be a cause for concern. United’s approach was fairly one-dimensional. Play was concentrated out wide due to Astana’s compact defensive approach and narrow width. Resultingly, Dalot and Rojo frequently found themselves in good crossing positions.
However, this approach centred down the flanks proved ineffective. A combination of poor deliveries and the lack of aerial threats inside the Astana box were to blame. United attempted 31 crosses throughout the 90 minutes. Of those 31 just two were successful in finding a team-mate.
This dismal success rate (6.45%) further emphasises United’s need for greater creativity. Pogba is all too often the provider of reliable final-balls for United. However, it was not only his vision and ball-playing abilities within the final third which United missed. His goal-threat, aerial presence and perhaps most importantly his tempo-setting were bitterly missed by his team-mates.
Gomes succeeded in finding pockets of space between the Astana defence and midfield. However, the inability of United as a whole to stretch Astana ensured that there was little he could do within them. He efficiently linked United’s midfield and attack but was unable to play effective through balls due to the lack of space Astana afforded centrally.
It was the introduction of more senior, proven players which initiated the United breakthrough. Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard were subbed on in the 70th minute in place of Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes. They fostered an increase in tempo and urgency which was vital to engineering the space for Greenwood’s opening goal.
Taking less touches on the ball and switching play at a faster pace, United were eventually able to stretch Astana’s defence and create space inside their box. The clinical nature of Greenwood’s subsequent finish will have restored some confidence in the transitional period which United find themselves in.
However, the overall performance against Astana exemplified that the squad is still a work in progress.
United still in transition:
This was not the United of last season during the latter stages of the Mourinho regime, charged with lacking tenacity, desire and fight. Far from lacking motivation, the United side which featured against Astana was made up of players determined to prove their worth. The likes of Fred, Matic, Dalot and Rojo all showcased hunger after having seemingly fallen out of favour with their manager.
The more experienced players like Matic and Jones perhaps had a more important role than first expected. Astana made things difficult for United and these experienced players were assets. Here, Solskjær achieved an effective blend of youth and experience. First starts of the season were handed to Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood.
With United’s spending on attackers in the summer limited to Dan James, these youngsters are undoubtedly expected to contribute this season. Youth seems to be at the core of Solskjær’s plans for the future of Machester United and this game outlined his faith in it.
This faith was re-payed most handsomely by Mason Greenwood: ironically the most youthful of United’s youngsters at just 17 years old. While it was as late as the 73rd minute when Greenwood broke the determined Astana resistance, his performance through the entirety was impressive.
Greenwood demonstrated a diversity to his game when inside the final third. As is clear from the graphic above, Greenwood’s comfortability on either foot can create uncertainty within the opposition defence. However, Greenwood also evidenced a capability to link play and a willingness to receive the ball to feet as well as in behind.
Thus, Mason Greenwood could prove a useful player to sparking a different approach for United. Particularly in games like this against teams who are happy to sit back and defend compactly. However, United’s defensive vulnerabilities were still apparent. Increasingly frustrated with the stalemate, full-backs Rojo and Dalot stayed further forward.
Resultingly, United were vulnerable to counters and may have been punished against stronger opposition. Astana’s best chance of the game came as a result of the space left in behind United’s Marcos Rojo. Astana’s winger was able to exploit this space and deliver a cross which should have been converted by a team-mate at the far-post.
A number of key United players (Pogba, Martial, James) were ruled out via injury. However, the youngsters who took their place demonstrated that they have an important role to play this season. The performances of Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood in particular against Astana suggested that they were capable of performing in the Premier League.
Solskjær’s decision to play five academy graduates in a Europa League game epitomises the transition in process at Manchester United. Increasing trust and with it increasing responsibility is being placed upon youth. Should United go all the way in this long and weary tournament, youth will have to deliver.
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