Manchester United continued their Europa League campaign today against Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. José Mourinho showed his intent with a very strong squad containing the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and other first-team regulars. Whether this was to satisfy the supporters or to avoid another result like that against Feyenoord is unknown.
Manchester United Dominate Possession Against Zorya Luhansk
The first half saw what many expected: a relatively dominant performance from Manchester United. Despite the fact that United were able to dominate much of the possession, and not leak any weak goals, the teams went into the first half level.
Zorya made it very clear that they were content to let United hold possession as they sat in their defensive half looking for a counter-attack. At times, the Ukraine-based club looked to exploit the wings, surprisingly the one with Timothy Fosu-Mensah more than that of Marcos Rojo. Rojo, who has been taking a great deal of criticism from the supporters in the last year, didn’t do himself much justice either against a much weaker squad, leaving Chris Smalling to cover him on multiple occasions.
Despite the fact that United controlled possession, moved the ball effectively and overall defended well, they didn’t reap the rewards. The only legitimate chances of the first half came through Marcus Rashford bashing a shot off the cross bar that went straight down, but on the wrong side of the goal line. Later in the half Juan Mata received a beauty of a cross, but was unable to get his head over the top of the ball and sailed it over the crossbar. And the third and last chance for United came from midfielder Marouane Fellaini, whose header was put down with enough power to bounce just over the crossbar.
Credit should be given to Zorya, who are playing in their first ever Europa League group stages, as they stayed very compact defensively. Due to their defensive and positional discipline, and a bit of luck, they were able to keep the score even going into the second half.
The first twenty minutes of the second half followed much of the same tune as that of the first, with United dominating possession and no real chances coming from either side. It seemed as though Mourinho opted to change the tactics a bit, with Ibrahimović and Jesse Lingard regularly dropping deep into the midfield to receive the ball in an attempt to create more space up top for Mata and out wide for Rashford.
For the first time all match Sergio Romero was tested with a shot on goal in the 66th minute in the form of a curling effort, one he comfortably stretched out for and parried away. And within a minute of that, Wayne Rooney came off the bench for Lingard. This paid dividends as the manager and supporters wanted. Rooney assisted the breakthrough goal to Ibrahimović only two minutes after coming onto the pitch (forget the fact that it was more of a missed shot than a good pass).
Mourinho then chose to use his last two substitutes in the 73rd minute when he took off Juan Mata and Timothy Fosu-Mensah in favour of Anthony Martial and Ashley Young respectively. A phenomenal performance from Fosu-Mensah yet again shows the almost unending depth that the Red Devils have at full-back, something they’ve lacked since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The goal seemingly stunned the confidence of Zorya, who created only one real chance for an equaliser. They did did press higher in the last five minutes of the match, but to no avail as the single goal was enough to secure the three points for United at Old Trafford.
Man Of The Match
It is a testament to what kind of match it was when a centre-back is the man of the match, but Bailly was phenomenal on the day. Aside from the one reckless tackle that saw him receive a yellow card, he was solid defensively and challenged every ball that came within 15 yards of him. He showed off his impressive pace and footballing IQ to continually cover for the full-backs and had great positional discipline as well. Had it not been for Bailly, one of the Zorya counter attacks may very well have ended up in the back of the net.