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1. It’s the Final Countdown
It’s probably wise to start any analysis of a performance with the result – Manchester United are going to the Europa League final to face Ajax in Stockholm on 24th May. That was the aim, and the fact is that it’s an objective achieved.
The relief within Old Trafford at the final whistle, following a frantic and chaotic final ten minutes, was palpable. The performance was anything but convincing, and but for an error of judgement in passing instead of shooting, and a miskick from City scoundrel John Guidetti, Celta would have caused last second heartbreak for the home support.
Ander Herrera illustrated the mood of panic and joy experienced in the closing moments in his post-match comments: “You cannot win a semi-final easily, or be calm. We are in the final, that’s what counts”. The sight of Jose Mourinho jubilantly swinging a match day scarf whilst screaming at the Stretford End faithful showed that he shared those sentiments. Reaching the final of any European competition is a proud achievement, and not to be taken for granted in the context of where this proud club currently stands in the post-Fergie era.
2. It was a hard watch
The result is one thing, albeit the most important. Which moves me on to the performance. We know what to expect from this Mourinho side, especially in recent weeks. Truth be told, despite the unquestionable spirit and rigidity of this team, performances have left a lot to be desired for much of the season. A 25-game unbeaten run in the league proves beyond any doubt that this is a hugely difficult side to beat, but in equal measure there are no guarantees that they will beat anyone. The last few games United have been dominated by their opponents with alarming regularity. They have been comprehensively outplayed not just by Manchester City and Arsenal, but even by Swansea at home.
Last night was no different. In the past, having won the away leg, that would generally have led to an opportunity for the dominant United sides of years gone by to exploit gaps left by visiting sides who have had to come to Old Trafford and attempt to win the game. From the start, Manchester United looked anxious and willing to concede the initiative, in contrast to the away leg a week ago.
Celta Vigo enjoyed a remarkable 67% share of possession during the 90 minutes, along with 16 shots on the United goal, and twice as many corners as their erstwhile superior hosts. As the game wore on, and with a two-goal initiative, the familiar pattern of recent weeks was repeated, as United retreated to the edge of their own area, with typically 8 or 9 men behind the ball, inviting the pressure on to them.
An uninformed observer would have been led to believe that United were the plucky underdogs, desperately fighting to keep out a European footballing giant. Manchester United are the richest club in European football, with the largest wage expenditure in England. The team featured the world’s most expensive player, and every player taking the field or sat on the bench was a full international.
In contrast, Celta Vigo have never in their history reached this stage of a European competition. They currently sit 12th in La Liga having lost their last five matches in a row. Yes, United have limped over the line, but they did it in almost embarrassing fashion.
I’m not often one to seek out the opinion or quotes of Sky Sports’ resident Spanish mouthpiece Guillem Balague, but his tweet following this tie provides an insight to how Manchester United, a club with proud footballing traditions, are viewed by the European media: “Proud Celta Vigo embrace the essence of the game, while United progress despite ignoring it”.
3. United are big game bores
Thankfully Mourinho has back tracked on his pre-match assertion that this semi-final second leg was the biggest game in Manchester United’s 139-year trophy-laden history. It is, however, fair to say that this represented the biggest game of the season so far. That doesn’t mean it needed to be the most difficult; as already discussed, this was not the Brazil team of the 1970 World Cup visiting Manchester. But the magnitude of the game, and the slender lead possessed, meant that Mourinho approached this game in the same fashion as EVERY other big game this season (possibly excluding beating Chelsea at home). To use the phrase he himself coined, he parked the bus.
This frustrates me on several levels. First and foremost, I don’t believe it was necessary. Having dominated the first leg, it was clear for all to see that United are a better team that Celta Vigo. They should have won the first game by more, but for their usual profligacy in front of goal. There are times in the past during successful Champions League runs that United have conceded the initiative and attempted to close out games, but at Old Trafford they have been few and far between. That tactic was reserved for the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. As much as Iago Aspas has resurrected his career at Celta Vigo, he is hardly Messi.
On the occasions when Celta Vigo were pressed in possession higher up the pitch, they almost without exception looked vulnerable. As the game wore on, it stopped happening altogether. There was one point in the second half that Paul Pogba had to hold on to possession for about 30 seconds searching for a player to pass to, but they had all set-up camp within their own half.
Results are key, but performance is important too. Football in an entertainment industry in modern times, with so much hype and huge sponsorship attached to the game. If fans are to continue to buy into the club at a sustained level, the Mourinho approach needs to evolve and adapt.
To have Mata, Martial, and Carrick sat on the bench for a game like this to facilitate Fellaini and Lingard is tantamount to a criminal offence. It was predictable though – I was able to predict the entire starting eleven, because this is the current mindset and ethos of the team. Be resolute and hard to beat. There surely needs to be a balance. By not offering any threat on the counter attack, it only invites wave after wave of attack as the ball is constantly returned towards your own area, and it breeds nerves and angst. The phrase attack is the best form of defence has never been more apt.
Granted, Jose Mourinho has a CV that proves he knows a lot more about squad management and winning trophies than I do, but the hope must be that this season is a transition towards huge progression next season. If he wins the Europa League it will represent a satisfactory first season, but certainly no more than that. When performance level does not show a marked improvement on the last few seasons, results can only be scrutinised more heavily.
4. Bailly saw red
One of the most crucial occurrences of the closing minutes, following Celta’s equaliser on the night, was the red card for Eric Bailly. This rules him out of the final, which is a hugely significant blow to the squad. In the midst of a poor team performance, Bailly was his usual dominant and assured presence, and is by some distance United’s best defender.
His loss of discipline was foolish, and something that he has shown is in his makeup. Although the contact he made with the ear of John Guidetti was extremely minimal, and the subsequent reaction of the ex-City man was nothing short of comical, it was something that contributed to the nervy conclusion to the game, and it was unnecessary.
Thankfully it (just about) didn’t cost his team the tie, but there is no-one of comparable quality to replace him in the side. At least Jones and Smalling are currently fit, and will not let the club down, but there is no question United are far better with Bailly in the team, and indeed haven’t lost with him starting since the early season capitulation at Stamford Bridge.
5. Rooney played his part
To finish, this is a very small observation in the scheme of the evening, but the introduction of Wayne Rooney for the final minutes of the game actually proved to be of benefit! As the season has worn on, I have become somewhat dismissive of our captain’s ability. When I saw him getting stripped off to enter the fray, I let out a short groan, especially given the option of Martial still available. However, his ability of retain possession, and his experience in running down the clock and buying free kicks was important in closing the game out.
As much as it looks like his time with the club is drawing to a limp close, I was glad to see him make a positive impact. It was far from the impact he made as an electrifying 18-year-old when he first signed for United, but he showed that he still has qualities that can benefit the side if deployed correctly. Following his fairly disastrous outing against Arsenal, it was good to see Rooney make it through to another final, and although only appearing in a cameo role, he played some part in helping to get there.