5 Things We Learnt: Manchester United 2-2 Benfica

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By Tony Mogan

Considerably more entertaining, but equally frustrating would sum up Manchester United’s exasperating 2-2 draw with Benfica last night. Once again, United have left themselves with no other option than to do things the hard way, needing to pick up a positive result in the final group game, a trip to Basel. Back in September, this game was viewed as a mere formality, an opportunity for United to perhaps rest and rotate members of the squad with the notoriously hectic Christmas period looming. But with the perturbing prospect of United missing out on the knock out stages of the Champions League now a worrying possibility, there will be no time for that. Drawn into what appeared to be a straight forward group, performances littered with defensive lapses and dangerously open game plans have left United in desperate need of a result, and an inspiring performance to boot. The catastrophic consequences of last year’s runners up bowing out of the Champions League before Christmas are hard to fathom, but improvements must be made to avoid such a thing happening.

1. Defensive superiority in Europe – what’s happened?

In the past 3/4 years, United’s defending away from home in the Champions League has been indisputably remarkable. Amazingly, its goals conceded at Old Trafford that has become the biggest cause of concern. United have conceded six goals in the group stages thus far, five of them coming at home. With respect to Basel and Benfica, these are teams United would have been expected to beat at home, and with far less stress inflicted on the fans, too. But both sides attacked the United goal with worrying freedom, bought on by lapses in concentration and nerve-wracking moments of indecision.  During the group stages of last season’s Champions League, United conceded just one goal, coming in a 1-1 draw at home to Valencia, with United having already secured their passage to their knock out stages. Yes, United remain unbeaten at this stage, but the ever-increasing tally in the goals conceded column is worrying, exacerbated by a perceived lack of a cutting edge at the other end of the pitch. Both were evident during last night’s game.

2. Performance vs. Results?

Following United’s humiliation at the hands of City last month, the Reds have gone on a succession of pragmatic, and at times, uninspiring 1-0 victories. Such wins away to Everton and Swansea and at home to Sunderland have hardly been candidates for Game Of The Year, but they have provided some much needed points and a period of solidarity following that potentially destabilising result. While this is hardly new territory (frustrated fans should be quick to remember United’s succession of six 1-0 victories during the first half of the 07/08 campaign, things didn’t end too badly in the end in that case), the lack of balance between entertaining performances and resounding results is a concern. There seems to be a bizarre contrast between United’s domestic and European exploits. A cautious, almost catenaccio-esque system that would have Helenio Herrera vehemently nodding in approval one week, replaced by the outrageously cavalier brand of kamikaze football which allows the opposition to mercilessly pick United off at ease, the next. Fans were treated to the energy, zeal, and boldness that has been missing in recent weeks during last night’s game, but it came at a cost.

3. Solidarity of Carrick and Fletcher.

Man United perceived short comings in midfield have been further intensified by the news that Tom Cleverley will be ruled out until Christmas. With Anderson’s lack of consistency an increasingly puzzling and frustrating problem, it was a relief to see Michael Carrick turn in another solid performance against Benfica.  A frequent target for United’s boo boys, Carrick picked up where he left off against Swansea with an impressive show, effectively shielding United’s back four and providing real moments of class in a game that rapidly flowed from one end to the other. Carrick will miss out on the final group game in Switzerland, suspended after picking up a dubious yellow card in the 76th minute, but signs of a return to form are promising. A tireless performance from Darren Fletcher was another positive, constantly making himself available for the pass and was duly rewarded with a well taken goal. Fletcher’s efforts alongside Michael Carrick gave United an element of control in midfield for the majority of the game, against a Benfica midfield packed with the industry of Alex Witsel and Javi Garcia, complemented by the guile of Pablo Aimar. Fletcher looked much like his old self, and he will be looking to re-establish himself in United’s engine room over the next few months.

4. An education for Phil Jones

Phil Jones’ Premier League exploits in a United shirt have been nothing short of magnificent, and he has swiftly justified his price tag and earned him the recognition of a future United and England captain. But that first season in the Champions League is an enormous step up for any youngster. Add the small matter of playing in the heart of defence for one of Europe’s most successful clubs and that step up only increases in size. Are United fans too expectant of the 19-year-old? Jones has been drafted across an almost ever-changing defence, and at times during last night’s game, signs of his inexperience were evident. They were there in the 3-3 draw with Basel, too. Champions League football and domestic football are entirely different animals. Jones plays with the maturity and confidence of someone way beyond his 19 years in the Premier League, but he is still a Champions League debutant. Unlucky to send Nicolas Gaitan’s cross into his own net, the own goal may have affected the youngster’s confidence on the night. This season’s campaign looks to be an educational one for United’s young stars, not entirely dissimilar to the 05/06 campaign where Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher were taught some harsh lessons.

5. There may be trouble ahead…

It will sound painfully obvious, but United will have to address the issues which have plagued this uncomfortable group stage. A look at the potential ties that face United providing they come away with the right result in Switzerland makes for some grim reading at this moment in time. It hard to envisage Benfica failing to beat Galati at home on the 7th December, and should Arsenal and Chelsea quality and top their respective groups, as they are widely expected to do so, United’s list of potential opponents causes one or two nervous glances, with Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Real Madrid and Barcelona possibly lying in wait. United on their day can match anyone, but you would expect a serious evaluation of squad performance and tactics after this perplexing group stage. But as mentioned earlier, Manchester United and the idea of doing things the simple way free of hiccups rarely go hand in hand. Why change it?

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8 Comments

  1. With Nani, Young and Jones, many fans are mesmerized with their attacking style football. Tactically, however, such attacking football comes at a cost of imbalanced defensive side, especially during a counter attack.

    There are reasons Sir Alex always uses Park, Carrick and Giggs in big games in which much composure and discipline are needed. The team looked very disintegrated once we lost the possession because there were so many holes (a lack of covering for open positions by player’s switching).

    I also enjoy aggressive attacking-style football but would prefer a more balanced team that does not cause a concern every time we lose the ball.

  2. Valencia and Young were very poor.i can understand its Young’s first CL and he was played out of position but Valencia has no excuses for such pathetic display.

  3. lots of inexperience and players returning from injury last night leading to a patched up team yet again. i thought we did well under the circumstances and were very unlucky not to win the game.

  4. Valencia had a shocker last night. He’s been off form all season now as well. Jones has been put under far too much pressure at this early stage of his Utd career and all this talk of future England captain etc is not helping matters. I am seriously worried about not making it out of the group stages this year ( hard to imagine) but it is indeed a real possibility. Andersons days at Utd are numbered, he’s had too many chances already and we just have to hope Carrick keeps improving and Fletcher remains uninjured. But either way, to come up against Inter or Bayern in the next group stage, we will nbe beaten. If its barcelona….sheeeeeit

  5. Very good article Tony, but I’d like to point something out about Carrick & Fletcher. Usually I’d be happy to see Carrick play in a game like this, because one of the main qualities of his game his ability to sit in front of the back four and break up play via interceptions. But both of Benfica’s goals last night came from Gaitan & Co completely bypassing the United midfield, which has of course been a problem for many years now, but I don’t think last night showed any real improvement. Being caught on the counter- attack is usually the fault of full-backs and/or centre midfielders, and in both cases last night, it seemed to me to be the fault of Fletcher and Carrick’s lack of solidarity. That being said, I don’t disagree with your point on this entirely: I think throughout the game there isn’t many more examples to draw from than the two goals, and I think both players are ever improving. But it’s still the age-old question when it comes to Fletcher & Carrick: we know they’re good, but are they good enough?

  6. We could face the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Inter in the last 16 if as expected we finish 2nd in the group… Any thoughts ? Wouldn’t fear Madrid I’d say it would be a cracking game. Would hate to get Bayern again.

    • In my opinion Madrid are the one team I would like to avoid. Inter would be a nice draw I think, almost as nice as Apoel Nicosia.

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