The Red Devils were comfortably second best against a Madrid side that did not start with Cristiano Ronaldo in the UEFA Super Cup…
A lot has been said about what Manchester United want to be under Jose Mourinho and steps have been taken in the right direction to bolster a team that still remains in transition. The UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid exposed the gorge that United have to cross to become what they aspire to be and although the journey has begun, the road seems longer than previously thought to be.
Although the Champions league winners fielded a mighty side, they still wouldn’t qualify to be called their A-team in the absence of their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. In spite of this, United were facing an opposition that was revered throughout the world for its attacking prowess and defensive stability with the reputation of tearing down defences and blocking out even the most prolific strikers like Gonzalo Higuain and Antoine Griezmann. United did have a strong defensive lineup and a prolific striker in Romelu Lukaku but this was their first competitive fixture in a Red shirt and however awesome your pre-season maybe, competitive fixtures against European powerhouses is another ball game altogether.
Mourinho himself noted the lack of control that his United team had on the match while speaking to journalists after the game saying, “I think we started with very good control of the game but we lost that control after 20 minutes when they were better than us. Later we had a period of dominance in the middle of the second half.” Even Mourinho knows that such scattered and scanty periods of dominance will never help against a team who will rip you apart when they are on song.
Another talking point in the game was that of strikers Lukaku and Marcus Rashford missing out on clear chances. Playing an opposition like Real is often like sitting at the table with a fat sibling, if you don’t eat when it’s given to you then you go to bed hungry. Although many would argue that Lukaku did score a predator’s goal, yet perhaps, more important was the chance he missed earlier at 2-0. The Belgian’s detractors still believe he is yet to show the quality to impact games against the best in Europe and this display is likely to give them more fodder for criticism.
Despite the narrow scoreline, the fact remains that Los Blancos were on the easy street for most of the game and indeed could have scored 4-5 in the first half itself, but for the heroics of David de Gea in the United goal and the woodwork. The defensive shape of the Red Devils was a surprise back four with the inconsistent Chris Smalling playing in the middle alongside Matteo Darmian on the left, who is not a centre-back and Victor Lindelof who has admitted that he is not used to playing in a back three. The only reasons United didn’t suffer a 5-0 or heavier defeat was thanks to De Gea and Nemanja Matic who provided cover to this makeshift defence.
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A huge surprise for the United faithful was when midfield dictator Ander Herrera was replaced by Marouane Fellaini as Mourinho tried to thwart the oppositions aerial threat by replacing the player who was trying his best to get the ball back with someone who could be used as a batter ramp in the attack. This massively backfired as United’s influence in midfield, already negligible, vanished almost completely and Fellaini did next to nothing to block out the opposition who enjoyed a free run after that. Surely, a club of the English outfit’s stature and ambition could do better than to throw on the likes of Fellaini when down 0-2 in a big European game. It’s a now predictable and overused tactic that speaks volumes of the lack of squad depth at Old Trafford.
A positive from the game was that Paul Pogba was able to move freely thanks to Matic who took over the midfield defensive responsibilities and allowed the Frenchman to do what he does best– attack. With Pogba’s influence in midfield, the Reds moved fluidly in attack but only in the few instances when they had the ball.
Another highlight of the game was the performance of Antonio Valencia, who has been United’s best right-sided defender for some time now. Unlike the left side of United’s defence which was shredded to bits by Isco and company, the right ride was relatively calm with Valencia not fearing to foray into attack and put balls into the box which was the source of most of United’s joy on the night.
United desperately need to field players in their correct positions and try to avoid sacrificing key midfielders for lack of height as such a playing style that lacks defined roles may not work in the long term and would be barely enough to take them beyond the first knockout stage in Europe and probably a top six place like last time around in the Premier League.