Manchester United’s extra time victory over FC Copenhagen took them to the Europa League semi-final, but it was hardly a riveting match. Both extra time and the formality of a Bruno Fernandes penalty were required for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to get over the quarter-final line of the Germany-based mini tournament, despite the inclusion of seven of the manager’s preferred post-lockdown XI.
United’s Monday night display was pretty average for the side post-lockdown, falling somewhere in between the dire FA Cup tie against Chelsea and the dazzling 3-0 win over Brighton. It was definitely far more stable and effective than recent performances against West Ham, Leicester and LASK.
Solskjaer’s side registered a remarkable 26 shots, hitting the target with 14 and the post with two. Sergio Romero didn’t even have a save to make as the Reds held the lion’s share of possession and even had two goals – from Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford – disallowed for offside.
By all conventional measures, United dominated the match, even if Copenhagen’s brave effort deserved plaudits and yielded goalscoring chances on occasion. Perhaps the most telling measure of United’s dominance, though, was their ability to get the ball to their two most important players: Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
Pogba recorded a remarkable 111 touches of the ball, the most on the pitch, dominating the midfield with ease throughout and even getting into the final third during United’s best spells. The midfielder completed 84.4% of his passes and often executed eye-catching transitions when afforded the time and space on the ball.
Second to him for touches on the ball was Fernandes, who, though more wasteful on the ball than he is at his best, still fulfilled his role as the focal point of the side, sparking some brilliant creative moments. The midfielder needs to improve the consistency of his ball retention, but his ability to occupy excellent spaces and pull off the spectacular typically sees him register a goal or assist- only the post denied him of a non-penalty goal against Copenhagen.
Given their obvious creativity, getting Pogba and Fernandes on the ball in advanced areas is clearly key to United’s success. As such, the importance of progressive passing between the lines behind them is often what differentiates the quality of United’s performances.
Solskjaer relies on the likes of Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw, the two most progressive passers per 90 in the side behind Pogba, to provide those passes into the middle third. When Lindelof and Shaw are absent, even more burden falls on Harry Maguire- United’s next most progressive passer and most progressive ball carrier outright- instead of Eric Bailly and Brandon Williams, both of whom fall well short of their first-team counterparts on the ball (FBRef).
This isn’t to suggest that Bailly and Williams aren’t effective as depth players, as both earned their clean sheet on the night, but United need to balance their defensive solidity with more progressive ball players to compensate for the weaknesses in their game.
That was the logic behind Solskjaer’s decision to introduce defensive players Lindelof and Nemanja Matic when United were searching for a goal. Neither Matic nor Fred is as effective at progressive passing as Pogba, but Matic is an extremely experienced and accurate operator of his own third, which has earned him the anchoring role in 2020.
As seen in the match against Southampton, though, even United’s preferred back four and defensive midfielder can be found out in possession, whether due to fatigue or lack of overall quality. Changes are likely needed if Solskjaer’s men are to mount an improved challenge on all fronts.
Firstly, United need to develop current players- in particular, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who needs to improve when receiving the ball at feet. Wan-Bissaka is a sure starter for United next season given his status as one of the best defensive fullbacks on the planet, and he has come leaps and bounds in terns of his final third output, but the 22-year-old’s progressive passing and pass accuracy are about 10% and 5% lower than the rest of United’s starting back four, respectively (FBRef).
Williams is young and can improve, potentially even playing at right-back instead of left-back, a position befitting his right-footedness.
Secondly, United need to make the necessary signings this summer to improve the defence; most notably, a holding midfielder who can drop between the centre-backs. Solskjaer needs a player who can offer more long-term promise, stamina, progressiveness, and mobility than Matic — it could be as important as Jadon Sancho, a player whose services will likely cost the Red Devils more than £100 million, according to FourFourTwo.
Solskjaer also needs defensive depth, primarily in the form of a ball-playing centre-back who can ease the season-long burden that United have placed on Maguire and Lindelof. Depending on how he sees Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Diogo Dalot, and Ethan Laird as depth options at fullback, Solskjaer may also be interested in a fullback with ability on the ball.
Ensuring that Pogba and Fernandes are effective in the final third could be the difference between a good United team and one that wins multiple trophies in a season. And based on performances in recent weeks, a deep squad of defensive players who can progress the ball will be just as important as the group of forwards that receive the chances the mercurial midfield creates.
Statistics obtained via WhoScored unless otherwise stated.