Breaking Down A Wall Of Green
Overcoming stodgy defences has been United’s Achilles heel this season, something highlighted by their 9 league draws. Contrary to popular belief, turning up to defend is neither nothing new nor illegal and much of United’s woes have come from their own profligate finishing.
In Saint Etienne they face one of the continent’s stingiest backlines. Whilst their game plan is somewhat dour their defensive chops cannot be questioned - Saints have the 8th best defensive record of any team across Europe’s top 5 leagues.
With Michael Carrick out José Mourinho is expected to go most guns blazing at Old Trafford with a racy midfield of Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera operating behind Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Whilst many would expect United to dispatch of a team that’s perennially the 4th best in France, the standard of Ligue 1 has improved markedly in recent years and Saints are undefeated against heavyweights such as Monaco, PSG and Marseille this season.
Zlatan Has To Start…
With young Marcus Rashford allegedly bellyaching about his pitch-time this season, whilst Zlatan plays every minute possible, some managers would see this game as the perfect opportunity to rest the old boy whilst placating the young star.
Mourinho, however, would be daft to do so. An FA Cup tie against Blackburn on Sunday is the perfect time to rotate his forwards whilst Zlatan’s record against ‘Les Verts’ is his very best against a single team - he’s notched 14 times in 13 run outs against Saint Etienne.
…But Wingers Should Feed His Head.
Whilst Ibrahimović’s goal scoring reputation is fearsome, his record for piquing the linesman’s interest is even better. Only one man in the entire of Europe (old pal Edinson Cavani, as it happens) has been pinged offside more times than Zlatan this season, as his slowing legs see him gamble earlier and earlier on the last shoulder.
Rather than looking to play the Swede in through the middle United would be best served working crossing opportunities down the flanks.
Zlatan’s a fearsome prospect in the air at the best of times but he will be licking his lips about being pitched against a pair of centre-halves who are, at best, a little on the stumpy side. The Swede has a full 6 and 5-inch height advantage over Loïc Perrin and Cardiff City legend Kévin Théophile-Catherine respectively.
If ever there was ever a game when Antonio Valencia penchant for farting long, eggy crosses high towards the back stick might have some vague use, this is it.
Welcome To The North
Whilst Saints have faced Manchester United in Europe before, in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup in 1977/78, this will be the French outfit’s first visit to the north-west. Following crowd trouble in the first leg, drawn 1-1, the return had to be played on neutral territory (for some reason the stipulation for that was ‘300km from Old Trafford) and Celtic Park was ruled out as it was feared United would still draw a home game advantage from it. Thanks to some remarkable leaps in logic, Home Park, Plymouth Argyll’s abode, was chosen. 36,000 fans, 35,000 of them estimated to be Reds, packed it out as United ran out 2-0 winners.
Whilst injuries have prevented Mourinho truly nailing down a first choice back four this season, one thing is for sure, Luke Shaw couldn't be further from his preferred left back right now as Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo all continue to get the nod. If the murmurs around Old Trafford are to be believed, Shaw will miss out on the match squad entirely tonight for the fourth game running.
This evening, the same back four to have delivered three consecutive cleans sheets will continue. Whilst Mourinho’s handling of one of English football’s newest darlings has ruffled plenty of feathers, the young left back, nor United fans with a fondness for his marauding ways, can’t really complain.
Image via PA.
Handed the No.3 shirt by the incoming boss over the summer, Shaw’s seven PL appearances this term have yielded just three wins, the last of which came in August. Dropped following a turgid draw at Burnley and defeat against Fenerbahce in Turkey, United proceeded to charge on with a 17 game unbeaten run and boast the second tightest defence in the Premier League in his absence.
Mourinho’s calculated tough love policy is well documented and often delivers – look at the performances of Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan having felt the frosty side of the Portugeezer’s shoulder this season. The door is far from closed for Shaw at United, Mourinho tried his damnedest to sign him when Chelsea boss in 2014 after all, but he’s clearly not developing his game in the way his manager desires right now.
It’ll be interesting to see whether José perseveres with him over the summer or cuts his losses on a player who represented such a significant outlay just two years ago.
Paul Pogba could line up against his elder brother Florentine tonight, should he get the nod at left back for Saint Etienne. Wouldn’t that be delightful? Everyone loves siblings facing each other in sports, except when it was the Nevilles. That wasn’t cute at all, that was disgusting.
Pogba with his older twin brothers - image via.
Oh Captain! My Captain!
Who wants to watch a video of Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimović battling a massive cheese? OF COURSE YOU DO.
Honestly, nearly 800 career goals between them and they needed some bald bloke to help them do a cheese in. Well done that man.
Wazza’s got two years left on his contract. Now that United have bought some forwards worthy of the name I get the feeling this sort of guff is going to make up the majority of his action for the club. 300k a week to hack through massive Babybels, what a life.
Cover Image - PA
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