Having endured fairly heavy criticism for his style of football a few weeks ago, Jose Mourinho then went and led his Manchester United side to two wins over rivals Chelsea and Liverpool. Going into the game against Sevilla without an away goal put things on a knife edge, but, in good form, it looked set that United should be able to brush off any challenge from a team eleven points off the Champions League spot in La Liga.
Vincenzo Montella set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while United were in a shape that could be seen as a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with Jesse Lingard higher up than Marouane Fellaini, but the Belgian also higher than Nemanja Matic.
The game followed the same patterns as most recent United matches: United would defend deep in their own half, denying the opposition attackers space behind them, while those ahead of them would defend with man orientations, diligently tracking their opposite number if they moved into their zone. With Sevilla’s full-backs pushing up, Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez would track back deep into their own half, forming a 6-3-1 in defence, while Fellaini would push up to close down Steven Nzonzi in midfield and Matic would stay close to Franco Vazquez.
When they regained the ball, United would either send a long ball forward – these often didn’t seem to be aimed at anyone in particular, but were obviously at their most successful when played toward Romelu Lukaku or Fellaini – or send the ball out to the wide areas for the full-backs to cross from deep. United’s players having to come so deep when defending really limited this approach as it meant they only ever had one player high up the pitch if they wanted to attack quickly.
As a result, United would generally play it from side to side around the back four while the attackers and Fellaini trotted up the pitch, before then hitting the long balls up for them to contest. This also gave Sevilla’s defenders plenty of time to get back into shape however, so United never really provided any attacking threat at all. Lingard was probably United’s brightest spark, often dropping deep to add some urgency to the circulation of the ball with his two touch passing, yet he didn’t really have much to work with.
As a result, the game was pretty much all Sevilla. Fellaini and Lingard would try to get close to Ever Banega and Nzonzi but both are good on the ball and would easily outmaneuver their markers with quick passing combinations. Likewise, the man-marking didn’t really work against Sevilla’s forwards: the wingers are both comfortable coming inside, Luis Muriel likes to move out to the left and Vazquez is equally happy moving out to the right or pushing forward to lead the line. On top of this, neither Matic or Fellaini are very mobile, so Sevilla’s attackers found it easy to drag them around and make space for themselves, playing quick one-touch football to get themselves running at the backline.
Nevertheless, Sevilla didn’t really threaten either. Their forwards are quite direct and, with little space behind the United backline, they often found themselves trying to thread passes through a narrow block of four which cut them out easily. They could have done with getting Banega higher to give them a bit more patience for a quality final ball, but this ultimately didn’t happen – Sevilla found it easy to get into the final third, but making that last step into the box proved difficult.
This improved in the second half, where rather than simply trying to play through the middle of United’s narrow defence, they went down the outside and tried to zip low crosses across the six yard box, however they still couldn’t quite break United down.
Paul Pogba was introduced in place of Fellaini on 60 minutes. This was presumably intended as an attacking change, giving Lingard some help in progressing the ball up the pitch, however the strategy didn’t change, with United still hitting long balls from defence or crosses from deep. Pogba was also quite clearly unfit, rarely moving or breaking into a sprint and struggling to even complete basic passes. This had been a problem throughout the game for many of the United players, as they sloppily misplaced passes or failed to protect the ball from Sevilla’s pressing.
Fellaini was immobile and offered little going forward, but at least he tracked back. Pogba didn’t and it was this that finally cost United – Pablo Sarabia snuck into space behind the Frenchman unmarked and set up substitute Wissam Ben Yedder for the opening goal, only to then double Sevilla’s lead minutes later from a set-piece.
As a result, United had to score three goals. Having barely mustered an attack for the entire game, it was simply beyond them, although they managed to pull one back from from a set-piece.
Overnight, many opinions on Mourinho appeared to switch due to the frankly bizarre way he set up his team, as if he was playing for penalties against a team significantly weaker than his own. It may seem fickle, but it’s also par for the course for how he sets up – if it gets results then it’s difficult to argue against, but increasingly it doesn’t.