Last-minute hurrah against Villarreal but Manchester United still look stale

Cristiano Ronaldo came in clutch to secure Manchester United an all-important three points at the death against Villarreal on Wednesday evening. However, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were anything but impressive on the night.

After going behind on 53 minutes, Alex Telles grabbed an equaliser on the 60-minute mark with a pin-point volley from the edge of the box. It was then late into injury-time when Fred’s deep cross into the box ended with United’s no.7 smashing the ball into the back of Gerónimo Rulli’s net from a tight angle to win the match for The Red Devils.

Late winners in the Champions League. There’s nothing better, and United’s manager knows that more than anyone else.

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Ultimately though, it was another poor performance by the men in red and, in fact, it was arguably the worst showing so far this season. The three points were crucial in a group where the Reds lost their first game against Young Boys, but how much longer can Solskjaer’s side play like this?

Paco Alcácer’s opening goal in the game at Old Trafford showed exactly what was wrong for United throughout the match, with Unai Emery’s side cancelling out the threat that the Reds have in offensive transitions by ensuring they overloaded in defensive transitions.

While it is in these type of situations that the Reds look so dangerous, Villarreal was able to limit this danger massively throughout the match. This image below is just 24 seconds before Alcácer opened the scoring, and it shows why United were so limited in transitions throughout.

With just four United players attacking against six Villarreal players (with two more retreating too), it was no wonder that the ball was turned over as Paul Pogba attempted a difficult through ball to Jadon Sancho. It was only 19 second later where Manu Trigueros was running at the United backline alongside three other Villarreal attackers.

Emery’s team had cut through United’s midfield like a knife through butter and had created an attacking overload which ended with the ball in the back of the net. The attack was blunt and the defence was naïve. One area that was positive was Solskjaer’s substitutes.

The manager brought in Jesse Lingard, who eventually set-up Cristiano in the last minute. But it was also the unorthodox change which put Fred as a left-back which helped United succeed in this matchup, as his well-timed cross towards the back post led directly to the winner. Edinson Cavani’s intensity off the bench was also vital in turning the game around.

Solskjaer and his team are able to change games, but poor overall performances are what is focused on. They won the match, isn’t that the most important thing?

Well, yes it is. Yet, we need to start seeing real improvements if beliefs about winning the big trophies are to become reality. The lack of control in this Champions League match was not a one-off for the Reds this season. With matches against Everton, Leicester City, Atalanta and Liverpool on the horizon, Solskjaer’s men will not be able to get through with a similar level of performance. Improvement is needed.

One interesting aspect from the match at Old Trafford against the Spaniards was the shape in which Solskjaer set his team up. The manager changed from his standard 4-2-3-1 where the full-backs would often provide the width in attack, to a 4-3-3 with Scott McTominay anchoring the midfield behind Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.

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The full-back’s were tasked with tucking inside to give the team more stability in defensive transitions, and to provide a more important role in the build-up.

“Today we wanted to give width with the wingers, with full-backs inside to stop counter attacks and build a little bit more from the inside.” Diogo Dalot told the press after the match.

But, that didn’t really work. And United were suspect in defensive transitions a lot. Dalot in particular had a torrid time against Arnaut Danjuma on Villarreal’s left flank. The midfield was often bypassed easily and United struggled to build out of the back very well with the Scotsman at the base of the midfield.

You’d expect teething issues in a new shape, and it’d be interested to see how utilising inverted full-backs will look when Solskjaer has his first choice options in Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka available. However, it’s evident that Solskjaer still believes that having a double pivot is good for the team after reverting to it after 74 minutes against Villarreal.

I’ve never been of the opinion that having both Pogba and Fernandes as ‘free-eights’ is the solution in Manchester United’s midfield and even if it is, the side need a true defensive midfielder behind the pair. But, whether or not the Norwegian manager continues to try with this shape, there needs to be an improvement in United’s performances before they start getting punished more often.

Last minute winners are always fun, but the worries about the way United are playing will not go away until we see consistent, impressive performances coming from Old Trafford — and not from the visiting team.

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