The Champions League sounded at Old Trafford for the first time in a year. Following David Moyes disastrous reign as Manchester United manager,the club weren’t in Europe for the first since the 1989-90 season following a very disappointing 7th place finish. Moyes was sacked in April and replaced by Ryan Giggs who took the job as a caretaker manager. On May 19, a far more reputable manager in Louis van Gaal’s was appointed,he wouldn’t just look to get United back into European football but to bring the title to the Theatre of Dreams. In his first season at the club,he achieved a 4th place finish,this would allow United to qualify for the Champions League through a play-off,the opponents would be Club Brugge of Belgium.
Many initially expected Brugge to be pushovers for United,but following a scratch below the surface,it can be seen that Brugge certainly do have a number of players that could damage United’s Champions League hopes.
United lined up with an unchanged XI from the game last Friday against Aston Villa. This season The Reds have switched to a 4-2-3-1 from last season’s 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations. In net remained Argentinian Sergi Romero,amid rumours of David de Gea’s departure to Real Madrid. A back four of Darmian,Smalling,Blind and Shaw was in front of him. Van Gaal again went with new signing Schweinsteiger on the bench in favour of a defensive double pivot of Schneiderlin and Carrick. In front of them was an attacking trio of Mata,Januzaj and Memphis Depay. Up front was Wayne Rooney.
Club Brugge were without key players such as Refaelov,Izquierdo and Meunier but still had dangerous players such as Diaby and Barcelona academy graduate Victor Vasquez available. In the end Michel Preudhomme settled for an interchanging 4-4-2. In goals was Bruzzese,at right-back Cools retained his place following an excellent run of form since filling in for Izquierdo,at centre-back was Duarte and Mechele,at left-back was De Bock. In defensive midfield was Simons,he was partner by Vormer,an old colleague of United manager Van Gaal. Brugge’s wingers were Dierickx and Bolingoli. The attacking midfielder was Victor Vasquez,as lone striker was Diaby.
Brugge Surprise United with High Press
Particularly in the first half,Brugge pressed United very high,with United even being pushed as deep as their own box at times,this was when Romero’s worried looking and at times sloppy distribution was shown up. Below we can see both Diaby and Vazquez pressing United in their own box,with Dierckx and Bolingoli just out the picture making Blind and Darmian dangerous passes for Romero,this often forced Romero to play long balls. Brugge pressed mostly in a 4-2-4 formation,although this offensive strategy often left the central-midfielders exposed in 4v2.
United Seriously Lack Width on Right Flank
A key part of Louis van Gaal’s teams game is usually to stretch the pitch and create lots of space centrally by playing very wide,whether it’s the full-back or winger providing width,9 times out of 10,van Gaal’s teams will have some sort of width,well against Brugge that was the one in 10. On the right flank United showed no width of any sort. Right-‘winger’ Mata was really just a wide playmaker who spent far more of the game in the right halfspace rather the right touchline whereas right-back Darmian focused far more on defending and preffered to sit deep and cross rather than cross from the touchline. This initially didn’t seem too much of a problem but as the game wore on,Carrick and Schneiderlin began to get caught on the ball in the centre of the pitch as Brugge players simply shaped their bodies and forced United to pass down the right,which was very one dimensional and easy to defend against.
Smalling and Blind Positive in Possession
As expected,Daley Blind operated as a ball-playing defender,often driving out from defence to step into midfield alongside Carrick and Schneiderlin. What was more surprising was the positivity seen from his partner Smalling,in the last year many have doubted Smalling’s ability on the ball but against Brugge he was excellent. Smalling and Blind often played simple combination passes to escape Brugge’s high press,then when the opportunity opened up for one of them to drive into space centrally,they certainly took it. The player who had driven would then look for a penetrative pass to break Brugge’s lines,Januzaj and Rooney were very often available while Juan Mata would sometimes even be available in a free space in the right halfspace. The situation below is in the 4th minute of the match,United now have a 4v3 overload in their favour thanks to Smalling driving into midfield,he now has a clear passing lane straight to Rooney’s feet.
Before th game,Michael Preudhomme had clearly decided he wasn’t going to park the bus and spend all night defending,he wanted his side to go on the attack but they would need a good plan to overcome United’s recently much improved defence. Very early in the game it was obvious that Brugge would target United’s left flank. Top scorer this season Dierickx,attacking right-back Cools and striker Abouladaye Diaby would all look to overload the wing. This was likely down to Shaw’s tendency to bomb forward,therefore leaving a big space out wide for Blind to defend alone as well as defending centrally,a very difficult task for someone who doesn’t boast brilliant pace. This actually worked quite well for the Belgians,the wide overloads often led to crosses into United’s box,where Vazquez would often make late runs into.
Is Wayne Rooney a Number 9?
A major problem in United’s attacks was the lack of an advanced,central focal point. This was purely down to Wayne Rooney often dropping into 10 and sometimes even 8 positions during build-ups. Although finding pockets of space deep and dictating play from there is a huge strength of his,when he is playing as a lone striker,he must stay central to give a central outlet.
Thanks to a late headed goal by substitute Marouane Fellaini,United are now clear favourites for the tie. If Brugge had managed to hold on for the final few seconds at 2-1,they would have earned themselves a very valuable Result and away goal. Now their task at home will be a very much uphill one and United look set to return to where many believe they belong,the Champions League.