After a less than stellar showing at home to Tottenham at the weekend, Manchester United found themselves travelling to Romania, to take on Champions FC Cluj in the second of their Champions League group stage matches. After the setback on Saturday evening, it was hoped that United could keep their European campaign on track with a win that would put them in a strong position to progress to the next round.
Lining up for the visitors, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to place David De Gea in goal, with the same back four that started against Spurs, consisting of Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Evra. Sir Alex opted for a more narrow set up than what is normally seen in his selections, with a notable absence of any true wide players, in a midfield containing Anderson, Fletcher and Cleverley. Finally, leading the line was Wayne Rooney, Van Persie and Hernandez.
The game began with United in control of the opening exchanges, keeping possession and moving forward, without truly threatening the opposition goal. A comfortable start if not fast paced. However, as has happened with alarming regularity this season, United fell behind. Cluj, on the break, got forward down the wing via Sougou, who played in a ball for Kapetanos, who slotted home to give his side a 1-0 lead. A slick counter attack effective against weak defending.
United responded, continuing to dominate possession, but failed to test the opposition defences, for all their attacking potential. Soon after the opening goal, Cluj’s most effective player, Sougou was brought off after suffering an injury, perhaps fortunately from United’s perspective. With just under half an hour played, and another slice of luck as Rooney curled in a ball that caught Van Persie on his shoulder, with the ball looping the goalkeeper and nestling in the net. 1-1 and all to play for.
The half was seen out 1-1, with United somewhat blunt going forward and fortunate to be on level terms.
After the break, and there was nothing fortunate about the way in which Sir Alex’s side took the lead. Rooney and Van Persie combined again, as the England striker deftly chipped in a ball with Van Persie meeting it to coolly finish with his left into the corner. 1-2 in style. Immediately after, Cluj looked for a response, but soon after United began to take hold of the ball and started seeing periods of possession, with the visitors happy to keep the ball. There were some half chances from there, but the game was seen out 1-2. A victory, despite the early scare and United off to an ideal start on their European adventure.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) A narrow set up… Why?
One must admit to feeling somewhat surprised upon seeing the team sheet, to find a lack of width within the starting line up. There are risks with such a strategy, given United’s idea of playing with pace and regularly utilising the wings, be it through Valencia, Nani or Young to establish the attacking threat. It is a strategy that is often effective when the right players are on form and the decision to play narrower down the middle is one that at times looked an unfamiliar set up for them.
It is not necessarily the formation but the lack of pace out wide that seemed strange, and at times it did not look particularly useful, given that Cluj themselves seemed to organise themselves in the middle in such a way as the match wore on. An interesting change to the system, but one that could have used Hernandez out wide as an alternative or at least using one of Kagawa or Nani.
2) Rooney and Van Persie – Potential for great moments
Since Van Persie signed for Manchester United, fans have wondered what sort of strike partnership he could strike up with Rooney, as well as how well he would settle into the side. Certainly 7 goals from 7 starts is an impressive return at this stage of the season, and fans will be hoping the Dutchman remains fit and continues to score goals at a regular rate. Tuesday’s game against Cluj gave a glimpse of what could be possible between the two stars, Combining for both goals, the first involving more luck than the second. Both involved good play from Rooney, who looked to run play from deep throughout and did so effectively.
3) Defensive frailties exploited?
After a start in which United appeared to have control, they surprisingly fell behind. The counter attack was certainly smooth from the home side, with Sougou exploiting the right hand side to set up his teammate and open the scoring. In fact, he found life rather easy against Evra for the time he was on the pitch, getting by far too easily for the goal and exposing defensive weaknesses. The back line should have been prepared to deal with the counter but instead United found themselves behind, and not for the first time this season.
There were some jumping on pictures of Silvestre training with the side recently as a possible move to sign him and although this seems likely one cannot help but feel United do need to find some defensive cover, perhaps in January or next summer, if not replacing some of the defensive options all together. Perhaps as some return, they will settle and they will begin to look more solid. Perhaps constantly rotating the goalkeepers has proven detrimental or the full backs are not doing enough defensively. Whatever the reason, it has become evident that there are issues at the back, that the forwards cannot always solve.
4) Falling behind is becoming commonplace
Tuesday marked the sixth time in nine games that United fell behind in a game. It was strange to find the side controlling proceedings early on, only to get hit on the counter attack and all of a sudden find themselves a deficit to make up. Fortunately for the visiting fans, it was not to have much effect on the outcome and the side clawed it back and took the lead early in the second half. However, one cannot help but feel somewhat alarmed at the regularity with which this seems to happen. The defensive weaknesses have already been discussed, but are United also guilty of starting slowly anyway? Are the adjustments to play not quite settling yet? Certainly, against Tottenham they were very slow off the mark and failed to gel in what was an extremely poor first half that saw them fall behind by two. Sir Alex will unlikely be happy with this trend and must know there is plenty to work on and improve on if they a sustained challenge is to take place.
5) Two wins, two games, a solid start
Regardless of the issues within the side currently, there is still the important matter of a second win in the group stage and a commanding position within the group that sets them up for qualification to the next round if back to back wins can be secured against Braga. Given the failings of last season, a winning start was of the utmost importance and a point on which credit is due, providing it is maintained through the entire stage, without complacency setting in.