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Kaustubh Pandey writes a detailed tactical analysis on the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 first leg that finished Rostov 1-1 Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United traveled to Olimp-2 in Russia to lock horns with the trickiest Europa League opposition they’ve faced this season- FC Rostov.
The Russian outfit, who are currently seventh in the Russian Premier League, have near impeccable home form this season. The only game they have lost at Olimp-2 is to Atletico Madrid during their Champions League group stage clash, but Ivan Daniliants’ men have managed to overcome, or come up with impressive showings against the likes of Bayern Munich, Ajax and PSV in European competitions at home this season.
And Manchester United headed into the game, knowing that it would be a test of resilience. Mourinho’s complaints about the pitch suggested that it won’t at all be an easy game, considering the way the Russian opposition play.
Rostov (5-3-2): Medvedev; Kalachev, Mevlija, Navas, Granat, Kudryashov; Erokhin, Gatchan, Noboa; Poloz, Bukharov
Manchester United (3-5-2): Romero; Rojo, Smalling, Jones; Young, Pogba, Herrera, Fellaini, Blind; Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan
Before the game kicked-off, there were doubts about which formation Mourinho had actually fielded, with many predicting it to be United’s usual 4-3-3 with Phil Jones playing at right-back. Others, who were predicting Mourinho to field a three at the back shape were proved right as the former Chelsea and Real Madrid boss opted for pragmatism over aestheticism.
The pitch, which was almost as hard as a batsmen favoring cricket pitch, was expected to get even more dry as the game would progress, making it tougher for players to get a hold in the game.
Rostov, who were expected to stick to playing narrow and allow United to attack from wide areas, also aimed to be organized in the midfield, denying the Red Devils any space in the heart of the park. This is exactly what the men from Odessa did and the signs were quite clear within the first two minutes itself.
Above, Rostov clearly have more numbers in the heart of the park and in central areas-7, when compared to United’s four or five. This though, allows United’s right wing-back Ashley Young to make in-roads down the flank and run into the spaces in those areas. Here, Ander Herrera has played the ball out to Young, who did manage to create an opportunity, but Paul Pogba could only fluff the chance to take the lead.
While, the Russian side were intent on doing what they’ve been doing to good effect against stiff opposition this season, Mourinho’s decision to field Marouane Fellaini as the link between attack and defense was crucial. The Belgian, throughout the game, changed his positioning from deeper midfield to almost playing as a striker. And the way United left the Rostov midfield snapping at nothing is clarified below.
This became a feature of how United would go on to approach the game, hardly placing anyone in the areas that Rostov usually pack. Against the likes of Bayern Munich, Ajax and PSV, the Russians had not allowed the opposition any room to play in the midfield, stifling them of space to operate from. But, Mourinho’s dexterity of countering the opposition with clever tactics left the Rostov midfield stopping something that was not about to happen.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who donned the role of a second striker, is seen doing a job on centre-half Cristian Navas, much like Ibrahimovic, who is acting as the lone man forward. The duo of Fellaini and Herrera are deep in the midfield, while Daley Blind is in the wide left zone.
While this was an indication of the fact that United will go long, Fellaini’s presence suggested that it would not take long for the men from Old Trafford to change from a 3-5-2 to a very direct 3-4-3 shape. This was what led to the opener, which was scored by none other than Mkhitaryan himself.
It was a long-ball by Phil Jones aimed at the forward advancing Fellaini that led to the goal. The swift transition to the 3-4-3 saw Pogba and Herrera play in the midfield, with the big Belgian playing almost like an extra striker. His usage in the game was reminiscent of the manner in which David Moyes utilized him during his Everton days and how Louis van Gaal had deployed the midfielder during an impressive in this time of the year back in 2015.
Fellaini managed to control it with his chest, allowing Ibrahimovic to run onto it and set Mkhitaryan up.
The Rostov attack though, was rendered largely useless by a stern United defense, which was keeping a high-line throughout the opening 45 minutes.
While, the Rostov attack was blunted to a substantial effect in the first half, they began the second half in a more flowing fashion going forward. This was probably a result of United sitting in their own half, with a view of defending their crucial lead. Much like how Rostov were expected to play, United played with blocks of two defending Sergio Romero’s goal.
Daley Blind’s late runs into the final third came a result of Timofei Kalachev playing more centrally than usual.
Despite allowing the Dutchman to make dashes, Kalachev was fearless enough throughout the game to venture forward from central areas rather than from wide areas. Rostov’s three at the back acted as cover whenever Kalachev moved forward with purpose. United though, missed two opportunities to double the lead, when Blind had marauded forward from left wing-back.
It was Kalachev’s adventurous intent that resulted in the equalizer just minutes after the second-half kicked off.
Kalachev’s positioning in the heart of the park allows him to pick up an uninvaded area. Blind is around 15 yards away from the 35-year-old, who has loads of space to launch forward a terrific long-pass towards Alexander Bukharov. The forward was making a piercing run between the two United defenders- Jones and Smalling as Kalachev had enough weight on his pass to pick out Bukharov, who finished it with some aplomb.
As the half wore on, the game turned more aimless as both sides began to struggle to impose themselves on the game. The hardness of the pitch forced neither of the sides into getting a foothold as United looked compact enough at the back to deny Rostov another goal. The temperature during this time began to decrease. This played a part in making the already deteriorated pitch harder, adding to the woes of both sides.
In the end, Mourinho’s decision to resort to playing direct football paid off. United kept the ball off the ground more often than it stayed on the pitch during the first forty-five and Rostov struggled to deal with the imposing presence of Fellaini during this time. Mourinho’s tactical astuteness was brought to the fore perfectly in the game.
The draw, from the outside, doesn’t seem like a good result for United, but it is more than just good considering the extreme conditions that the game was filled to the brim with. The away goal that Mkhitaryan came up with could very well prove to be a decisive goal in the tie, which will be settled at Old Trafford next week.
The good news for United will be that Rostov have won only four away games in all competitions this season and they have previously sustained a heavy 5-0 loss to Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena already this season. United have lost just a single home game this season and it would not be a surprise if they could well put three or four past the Russians next Thursday.
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