Vishakh’s latest “The Manchester Musings” column.
What a difference 10 days can make.
After a 1-1 draw away at Goodison Park where Manchester United threw away 2 points, games vs Zorya Luhansk (in the Europa League), Tottenham Hotspur, and Crystal Palace (in the Premier League) all became must wins for the club if they wanted to keep up the fight for finishing in the top 4.
Edging out a win in freezing Ukraine
The Zorya game was played in freezing conditions in Ukraine, but United managed to deal with the threat and comfortably win 2-0.
It had remained 1-0 for a while following a solo goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic kept up his scoring streak after Paul Pogba played him through 1v1.
United won only their second European away game since 2013 (the other being a qualifier vs Club Brugge) and it was enough to see them qualify from Group A for the Round of 32.
They did end up second due to Fenerbahce’s superior record, but the draw paired the English club against AS Saint-Etienne of France – a matchup in which Paul Pogba could come up against his elder brother Florentin who plays CB for Saint-Etienne.
Massive three points against Tottenham
Fresh from a European win themselves over CSKA Moscow, Tottenham Hotspur came to Old Trafford knowing that a win would all but rule Manchester United out of top 4 contention.
It was a strong lineup with the return of Toby Alderweireld, and Spurs came into the game confident. However, Spurs did not press as well as they had done against Manchester City, and United were the ones creating clear chances.
The goal came just before halftime, with Ander Herrera playing a lovely through ball for Mkhitaryan after winning the ball in midfield from Harry Kane.
Mikhtaryan found himself 1v1 with Hugo Lloris, but chose to drill the ball over Lloris into the roof of the net. It was a great finish, and he became the first Armenian to score in the Premier League.
Mkhitaryan was definitely man of the match – his pace, acceleration, and dribbling really caused a threat to Danny Rose down the left.
Spurs upped the tempo in the second half, but did not really create any clear cut chances- David De Gea remained untroubled.
With the score at 1-0 with United though, anything could happen – and the fans sensed it. The mood around Old Trafford became nervous, and even more so when Mkhitaryan was stretchered off after a tackle from Danny Rose.
However this served as a rallying point for the fans who used it as a common point by abusing the Tottenham left-back. United managed to see it through for a 1-0 win, and a big 1-0 at that- reducing the deficit to 3 points away from 5th and 6 away from 4th.
Tough away win against Palace
Beating Spurs was only going to be important if it was followed up with three points away at Crystal Palace – a tough game with the dual threat of Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha.
However, Alan Pardew may have got his tactics wrong by playing the aforementioned duo in a 4-4-2 instead of sticking to the 4-3-3 that had served them well.
United comfortably dominated the first half, and Palace’s tactics of a low-block meant that Pogba/Mata/Carrick had plenty of time on the ball.
Wayne Rooney missed a couple of good chances in the first half, and Wayne Hennessey saved well from Pogba.
In the last minute of the half, a Juan Mata set piece was ‘chested’ (with use of the left arm) by Zlatan Ibrahimovic into Paul Pogba who couldnt miss from about 5 yards out.
United also got away with what should have been a straight red card for Marcos Rojo who jumped into a tackle two-footed.
Palace came out a little bit more inspired in the second half, and their goal came through some inspired play from Damien Delaney (an unlikely source).
Joel Ward cut in following a cleared set piece, and played the ball square to Delaney at the edge of the box. The Irish CB then backheeled it 90 degrees right into the path of James MacArthur who slotted home past De Gea.
The decisions evened themselves up, with United being disallowed a goal (incorrectly ruled for offside), and Joe Ledley getting away with a handball in the box.
Despite the game being 1-1, you got the sense that Palace were content for a point and were not really threatening De Gea.
If anything it would be United that created chances, and if they could be clinical it would be a deserved three points.
Paul Pogba was too strong for Yohan Cabaye, and he found Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the box who had peeled off the defenders. Ibrahimovic hit it first time with his left foot, and the ball went into the post.
It was a stunning goal from United’s marquee summer signings, and resulted in a well earned three points that puts United only 7 points away from 2nd place.
Huge change to narrow the gap
With Arsenal playing Manchester City this weekend, there is a huge chance for United to make up some lost ground and keep the top 4 race alive – however there is the test of West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns to pass first.
The Baggies are in inspired form, and will be looking to gain a scalp themselves.
However points at the Hawthorns followed by a couple of wins over Christmas will really set the cat among the pigeons in the top 4.
As Mourinho said though, United just need to keep putting the wins on the board.
Finding the right balance in midfield
One of the (justified) criticisms of Mourinho was that he did not know his best midfield.
The season started off with Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba as a two-man midfield, but they were exposed against some of the better teams.
Pogba also looked limited as he was not getting forward as much as he would like. Injuries/form meant Mourinho brought Carrick to sit in front of the back four, and allow Herrera/Pogba slightly more freedom.
This has worked brilliantly so far this season – Carrick sits and uses his intelligence to screen/control the tempo, and he knows he can work it forward to more attacking players.
Ander Herrera then becomes a true box-to-box midfielder, and his game is built on hassling and harrying opposition midfielders.
He intercepts/tackles well, and is able to spring United forward on the counter. He helps Carrick out with defensive duties when protecting a lead and does not venture as far forward.
Paul Pogba seems to have been liberated in the 4-3-3 formation, playing slightly to the left of the triangle.
He is allowed to be the furthest forward midfielder, and has the room to run without interfering in an attacking midfielder’s space.
The 4-3-3 also allows Pogba to run off Ibrahimovic as the Swede’s excellent hold-up play brings the players around him into play.
Pogba also is able to run at the opposition with momentum rather than have a man on him at all times when he plays as a No. 10.
The creative freedom is now on the French midfielder’s shoulders, and he looks to be thriving in the role.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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