Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United all but booked their place in the last 16 of the Europa League with a 3-0 win over French side Saint-Etienne, courtesy of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat-trick.
United played well on the night but gave away some decent chances through lack of concentration and sloppy defending. Michael Carrick missed the game with a slight muscle injury and the control he brings to the play was missed.
Mourinho’s team selection looked fairly standard: a midfield three of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba. Fellaini came in for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who reported for duty under the weather, and was at the tip of the triangle.
Perhaps not the most progressive selection but an understandable one given the Belgian’s habit of giving away needless fouls in front of his back four when played deep.
However, if Fellaini plays at the tip then either Pogba or Herrera must be designated to sit. It’s usually Herrera, but tonight, particularly in the first half, they both insisted on pressing the ball leaving the holding position completely empty for St. Etienne’s midfielders to rush into.
It was a problem Mourinho remedied at half-time by introducing Jesse Lingard for the Belgian, with Herrera dropping deeper into a more obvious defensive midfield role. The only thing surprising about the change was that it did not come sooner.
United looked more comfortable, but there was still some uncertainty, particularly when Eric Bailly surged into midfield to unsuccessfully attempt to win the ball in what was undoubtedly his worst game in a red shirt so far.
Pogba had one of his most impressive all-round games since joining the club, dictating play from his free role in the middle of the park. He showed great strength and invention on the ball and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet at least once. However, he also showed an unwillingness to cover his full-backs when they ventured forward.
On one occasion in the first half, when Anthony Martial had dropped in to cover Daley Blind only to be skinned, Pogba simply stopped in his tracks. In the second incident, as Blind struggled to get back in time to cover a counter-attack, he failed to spot the danger leading to a decent chance for St. Etienne. As good as he is, the France international is no holding midfielder. Herrera is the most likely to take Carrick’s place in front of the defence in future.
The Spaniard has been played there a number of times this season and performed admirably. Tonight’s first half was different, however. So you’d have to wonder what Mourinho’s instructions were. Did he want Herrera and Pogba to press and feed off Fellaini’s hold-up play? Whatever his plan was, it wasn’t a success, as he acknowledged with his half-time substitution.
Perhaps a better team could have exploited United’s temporary weakness, but as it is United will easily see out the tie.
Finding a long-term successor to Carrick may be a minute issue at this stage, but it is one Mourinho will need to address sooner rather than later.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena