Manchester United – Valencia: Mourinho’s side stumble to draw against organised Valencia (0-0)
Manchester United may not have lost this match, but José Mourinho’s side looked second best for significant spells of the game. Valencia exploited United’s man-marking system but couldn’t find the finishing touch in the final third. Meanwhile United’s possession game was – once more – slow and lacking in ideas.
Manchester United’s current poor form under coach José Mourinho has been one of the main talking points in European football in recent weeks. Prior to this game, United had not won since their last Champions League game, against BSC Young Boys. They were also yet to win a game at Old Trafford since the opening day of the season and Mourinho’s methods – both on and off the pitch – have come under serious scrutiny.
Recent managerial troubles aside, the game against Valencia was important for sportive reasons as well. The Spanish side are probably United’s main competitor for the second place in their Champions League group, with neither of them seeming likely to seriously challenge Juventus to win the group.
Valencia have some issues of their own. Goals have not come easily for Marcelino’s side – no one in LaLiga has scored fewer than them this season. Furthermore, their win at Real Sociedad last weekend was their first of the season, following a run of four draws, and an opening day defeat.
Marcelino made six changes from the lineup that beat Real Sociedad at the weekend, including removing the scorer from that game, Kevin Gameiro, and replacing him with Spanish international Rodrigo. Cristiano Piccini, Ezeqiuel Garay, José Gayá, Francis Coquelin and Gonçalo Guedes were the others who came into the starting eleven. Coquelin is deployed in a rather different role to what Premier League fans may have been used to, as he started the game at right-midfield in Marcelino’s 4-4-2.
Mourinho deployed a 3-5-2 in United’s defeat at West Ham on Saturday, later explaining that the move was at least partly done to accommodate Anthony Martial as a striker. The United manager felt Martial was not defensively responsible enough to play on the wing and track his opposing full-back. The back three was scrapped in this game and United went back to a 4-3-3 formation, with Alexis Sánchez returning to replace Martial. Antonio Valencia and Marcus Rashford were the others to come into the side after not starting the previous game.
Valencia’s positioning and general movements. Pogba and Fellaini often moved up to press Valencia’s central midfielders.
Valencia exploit United man-marking
In their last meeting with a Spanish team, when they were eliminated in the Champions League round of sixteen by Sevilla last season, one of United’s problems was to carry out an effective man-marking strategy. The problems United were to face in this game against Valencia were similar in nature.
When Valencia had the ball, most United players were man-marking their direct opponents. The wingers, Sánchez and Rashford were tasked with tracking their full-backs when they made forward runs. Fellaini and Pogba marked Valencia’s central midfield pairing of Dani Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia in order to try and disrupt the Spanish side’s buildup.
These marking assignments meant that Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba would have to push quite far up the pitch though, due to Parejo and Kondogbia’s deep starting positions. As a result, the gap between them and the defense was often very large, which left Nemanja Matić isolated in defensive midfield, with a lot of space to cover.
Marcelino’s Valencia are a team that prefers to be direct in their passing. Very often, they are firing passes into the feet of the strikers, who then produce layoffs to supporting attackers, usually the wingers cutting inside. This makes them well equipped to play against teams that like to man-mark in midfield like United. One reason for this is that being man-marked means you can attempt to drag your opponent out of position and open the passing lanes to teammates higher up the pitch.
Additionally, Valencia’s wide-midfielders, Coquelin and Guedes, were often able to move freely into the large spaces either side of Matić in order to receive the ball directly or via a layoff from the striker. United’s full-backs at times seemed unsure of whether they should follow their opponents into these areas, at risk of leaving a space in the defensive line.
As a result, Valencia were able to make some promising entries into United’s final third. Unfortunately for them, this is where it broke down – they simply were not able to find the moment of quality in and around United’s penalty area to finish the moves they were putting together.
United struggle to create
It was not just in the defensive department where United underwhelmed. Their possession game did not inspire much confidence either, which was not helped by Valencia’s solid defensive plan.
Valencia defended in a 4-4-2 formation, mostly in a mid-low block In football, there are all sorts of coaches. What they all agree on is that the space between the defense, midfield and attack can never be too big. All coaches want their team to form a ‘block’ that contains all the players. Whether you position this block high on the field (Guardiola), middle (Favre) or low (Conte) is the manager’s choice. In this match, Valencia’s Marcelino chose a block somewhere between low and medium. . The two strikers would refrain from pressing the ball when it was with United’s centre-backs. Their aim was to control Matić in defensive midfield and prevent him from receiving. Valencia were successful in doing so: if Matić wanted the ball, he had to drop deeper back and even further away from United’s strikers.
Valencia would start pressing the ball after a pass to one of United’s full-backs. As the wide-midfield closed United’s full-back down, the surrounding players would shift and tighten the space around the ball. In these cases, the nearest central midfielder coming across to mark United’s nearest central midfielder prevented the pass inside. This approach from Valencia forced United into long spells of ‘u-shape’ ball circulation along the backline and the flanks without actually creating anything on opposition territory.
It has been said more often that Mourinho has been struggling to create attacking patterns or offensive flow. Against Valencia, this became apparent again, as United relied a lot on the wingers’ individual ability to create, even when they got the ball in very deep positions. Either the wingers were dribbling at their opponent or they combined with the overlapping full-backs, as well as with striker Lukaku who occasionally drifted wide.
Being unable to penetrate the center of the pitch, United were left with getting deliveries into the box. Pogba and Fellaini would both look to get into the danger zone to put their physical qualities to use. Combined with Lukaku, this should have given United a good presence in the box, but they did not get the service they required. Also, with Pogba and Fellaini playing so high up the field, usually joined by one of the full-backs, this left Matic fairly isolated in the centre when Valencia won the ball back and looked to counter.
So, as either team had their own set of offensive problems, this match ended in a goalless draw. United’s biggest chance in the second half came after a lofted pass by Pogba to Lukaku, who beat his defender one-versus-one, cut inside and forced Valencia’s goalkeeper Neto to a save.
This result extends United’s winless spell, and while the performance wasn’t their worst of the season, it didn’t exactly convince or inspire much confidence for the future. Mourinho said after the game that it was “not a good result, not a bad result”, but plenty of Manchester United fans would see it differently, as evidenced by the boos heard from the crowd at the final whistle.
Valencia gave a good account of themselves as a tactically very solid team who can certainly be competitive at Champions League level. A draw at Old Trafford is certainly an acceptable result for them, and they might be hoping to overtake United in the group over the next couple of matchdays, as United have to play Juventus, while Valencia will be hoping to beat BSC Young Boys. It’s still very early, but it’s not inconceivable that this group comes down to the final matchday, where United may travel to the Mestalla Stadium in need for a win to advance to the knockout stages. This sounds like an unenviable task for almost any team.
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