Manchester United will look to get their 2018/19 Champions league campaign off to the perfect start when they travel to Switzerland to take on Young Boys on Wednesday night. The last time United were in the elite European competition wasn’t memorable for them, as they lost to Sevilla in the first knockout round. This will be Young Boys’ first-ever appearance in the group stages of the competition, and they will be hoping for a historic win.
United’s momentum is building
United have now won two games in a row, and victory against Watford represented a huge win for Jose Mourinho’s struggling side. This may not seem like an impressive achievement, and United didn’t show a dominant performance, but two tricky away games against Burnley and Watford are behind them and Mourinho’s side’s momentum is starting to build.
And it’s thanks to a change in tactics.
Jose Mourinho’s primary system of play has nearly always been a 4-3-3, with the main benefit being the formation can provide him a positional mismatch in midfield. Sometimes he has switched to play a 4-2-3-1 in order to accommodate certain players (mainly Mesut Ozil in his spell at Real Madrid).
United struggled to play 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 under Jose Mourinho for the first two seasons. Firstly, there was a great battle in finding Paul Pogba a suitable position, and United lacks a world-class right winger. Partly this is why Mourinho targeted Ivan Perisic last summer, agreeing personal terms with the World Cup silver medalist, and almost did the same with Willian this summer.
But, Ed Woodward.
The Portuguese coach was once again left frustrated with the lack of elite players in that position which can partly explain United’s lack of ‘bigger’ trophies in Mourinho’s two-year tenure. After the second half catastrophe against Spurs where United deployed 3-5-2 (but lost due to individual defensive errors), Mourinho and his staff decided to make small changes and introduced them in clashes against Burnley and Watford.
Although on paper that was 4-3-3, in practice things were a bit different. For example, Jesse Lingard didn’t occupy positions of a usual right winger, but instead he played as a #10 where he had the freedom to drift into the middle spaces to help regain and retain possession.
One more piece of Mourinho’s excellent play on the chessboard was making Marouane Fellaini play in a defensive midfielder role in front of the back line. The colossal Belgian was there to screen his defence and neutralize Burnley’s long balls threats which could pose problems to the fragile United center-backs.
While with this formation Mourinho retained the three-man midfield, the diamond shape helped United to attack effectively as well. One of the biggest questions asked within United’s fanbase started to be answered, as Alexis Sanchez got the vertical and horizontal freedom he wanted.
The Chilean played mostly inside the left half-space constantly moving wide or coming narrow, depending on the movement of the left-back. Luke Shaw missed the Watford game but is back on Wednesday as Mourinho confirmed yesterday.
On top of everything said here, Romelu Lukaku is feeling better on the pitch with that dynamic movement by Sanchez and Lingard too.
Maybe it’s wrong to make big conclusions as United are far from perfect, but something is happening under the closed doors of the Stretford End and it’s worth being up to date with. The Champions League clash against Young Boys came at an almost perfect time for Manchester United. Mourinho will have time to oil up his machine while the players will have a perfect chance to show why they deserve that red shirt.
A historic night (and season) for Young Boys
The Swiss side finally managed to book their spot in the group stages of the Champions League. They had failed in each of their five previous attempts, but it was sixth time lucky as they beat Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb to reach the big stage.
They certainly lack recent European experience, but history shows they reached the semis of the 1958/59 European Cup, where they lost 3-1 over two legs to French outfit Reims.
Gerardo Seoane’s side has made a brilliant start to the new campaign, winning nine of their 10 matches in all competitions. Indeed, they have started the new Swiss season with six wins from six matches to book the top spot of the division. This year’s European qualification is special for them when you take in account that last season’s league title was their 12th, but their first since 1986.
Young Boys are playing very attacking-minded football where they create chances via positional play. Their tally of 16 goals in only six rounds of their domestic league proves they have a plain idea how to attack their opponents. Against United they’re expected to sit deep and hit the counters, but still, one cannot underrate them and their success.
Three figures are key on Gerardo Seoane’s board. Former Newcastle United defender Kevin Mbabu is known for tirelessly bombing the right hand side and playing high up the pitch where he creates a lot of overloads with the help of his midfielders.
Furthermore, there’s the experienced former Benfica and Ajax winger Miralem Sulejmani who poses a great threat on the opposite side of the pitch while 34-year-old veteran Guillaume Hoarau is the team’s leader. The ex-PSG and Bordeaux forward has bagged seven goals in 10 appearances this season and could potentially cause problems to United’s fragile defence via aerial duels.
Wednesday will be a historic night at the Stade de Suisse. It will witness the first ever meeting between Young Boys and United in European competition, and the home side will be looking to pull of an incredible result against the 20-time English champions. Still, quality and experience are on United’s side and they are not expected to slip on this easy task at the Champions league opening.