Image: Nick Pasquet
Manchester United concluded their pre-season tour by visiting the Principality Stadium in Cardiff to take on Italian giants AC Milan. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the match live. For a pre-season match, the atmosphere was fantastic, with 65,000 fans attending, most of them supporting the Red Devils.
Starting XI: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay, Matic, Pereira, Mata, Rashford, Martial
As has become the norm throughout this pre-season, United lined up using a 4-2-3-1 system. On this occasion, McTominay and Matic acted as the double pivot, Pereira played from the right, Mata in attacking midfield, Rashford on the left and Martial up front. Although there was not quite as much front four rotation as there had been in previous matches, there was still some evidence of this tactic being in use. The most common rotation was between Martial and Rashford as both are capable of playing on the left-wing and at striker. Martial spent more time up front and was the designated striker on the team sheet but there were a number of instances where Rashford took his place for brief spells in the match.
In defensive phases, United defended using the 4-2-3-1 but in a much narrower set-up. In attack, the wingers (especially on the left-hand side) would look to stretch the width of the pitch. However, when the ball was turned over, if United couldn’t win the ball back through gegenpressing, then they would drop back into a narrow variation of 4-2-3-1 in which the wingers tucked in.
A lot of United’s play for the first 60 minutes lacked speed and certainly a final third creative spark. However, some of the substitutions made just past the hour mark went a long way to rectifying this problem. Lingard, James, Tuanzebe, Fred and Young replaced Mata, Pereira, Rojo, Matic and Wan-Bissaka respectively. Lingard and James replacing Mata and Pereira made an especially significant difference to how quick we were able to attack and counter-attack and we became far more direct as a result of these changes, ultimately resulting in our equalising goal.
United’s first goal came about after a long ball from Matic reached Rashford on the left-wing by the touchline. Rashford wasted no time and immediately dribbled at speed towards the Milan box, taking the ball past 2 defenders before directing a controlled finish towards the far corner, taking a slight deflection along the way. For the second goal, Lingard positioned himself inside the Milan box in the left half space, Martial played the ball between the Milan right-back and centre-back towards Lingard who cut the ball onto his weaker left foot and drilled past Pepe Reina.
Milan equalised after Rashford’s goal when Matic gave the ball away far too cheaply in midfield, opening up space for Borini and Suso, who combined before Suso had a free shooting opportunity in the space Matic had left behind and bent a perfectly placed near-post shot past De Gea. Milan’s second came out of nowhere after a ball into the box was headed on by Castillejo before hitting Lindelof and landing in the net beyond De Gea.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka had yet another faultless defensive performance, providing his usual contribution of tackles, blocks and interceptions. Scott McTominay also continued his fine form in midfield, doing the dirty work and looking to play progressive passes, playing alongside both Matic and Fred at points throughout the match. It’s fair to say, Fred’s introduction made McTominay’s job a lot easier as he was far less error prone than Matic had been. In fact, Matic was comfortably our worst player, giving the ball away and therefore being out of position for Milan’s first goal as well as making numerous other mistakes and generally being far too slow in just about everything he did.
Aside from the individual brilliance for his goal, Rashford put in fantastic effort levels into his overall game, looking to run in-behind, dribble at defenders or lead the press at all opportunities. The same cannot be said for Martial however, who although played a few nice one-twos and gave Lingard the ball for his goal, he lacked the desire and determination that Rashford was showing and was often halfheartedly jogging around.
Rather strangely, Pereira started from the right-hand side of midfield. Straight away this became an issue as he has an innate tendency to drift inside into central midfield positions, however, Mata was operating in this central position already, meaning that on multiple occasions United were left with no one exploiting the right side for the first hour or so. I noticed on a number of occasions that Mata was directing Pereira to take up a wider position but even when he did, he lacked the speed to counter-attack down the flank and seriously threaten the Milan full-back. Just past the hour mark, Dan James replaced Pereira and the difference in threat was immediately apparent. James did two things differently: held his width more often and was looking for the pass in-behind rather than to be playing the pass like Pereira was attempting. Lingard also looked to do both of these things, with an emphasis on driving at the opposition with the ball.
In terms of the youngsters, Tuanzebe, Greenwood and Gomes were all given a run-out, with Tuanzebe seeing the most minutes having replaced Rojo around the hour mark. Tuanzebe impressed me massively, demonstrating his speed, composure, ability to play out from the back alongside an overall strong defensive performance. He notably saved Ashley Young’s skin after our unreliable as ever full-back gave the ball away during the build-up phase, but Tuanzebe was there to make a last ditch block to prevent a potential goal conceded. Both Greenwood and Gomes only had 10 minutes or so to impress, with Greenwood sending the one chance he had wide from a header and Gomes demonstrating some fantastic ball control and dribbling which almost saw him pull off an incredible skill around at least 3 Milan defenders.
Overall, this was not our finest team performance of the pre-season tour, but ultimately a faultless penalty shoot-out saw us claim victory, completing our winning streak. Bring on next Sunday and let’s hope we can take all of the positives from these 6 matches and channel them into beating Chelsea at Old Trafford!