The two faces of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United were perfectly exposed at Old Trafford on Thursday night as the Red Devils laboured to an extra time victory courtesy of Marcus Rashford.
A scrappy start from United in front of an expectant crowd created the shape of things to come. As Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan spent their evening attempting to run past Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United juxtaposed a stationary focal point with penetrating pace – a front four severed from the back seven, leaving United in need of perfect passes between the lines in order to launch attacks. Anderlecht, on the other hand showed an energy in midfield which would prevent United from ever getting this game under control.
It was a familiar story for the Red Devils, as they struggled to obtain the right formula in the midfield to really seize control of the game. Anderlecht’s press forced United to bypass the transition and risk losing possession, whilst Mourinho’s first half ideas seemed to amount to hitting Marcus Rashford early, and at every opportunity.
It paid off, though. Paul Pogba broke the Belgians’ press by beating his man and looked straight away for Rashford, finding him, too, with a searching through ball. The young England international’s deflected cross found its way to Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the edge of the box, and it was the Armenian who smashed home as United looked well on their way.
Suddenly the expectant air around the ground looked justified. Anderlecht looked rattled and United had chances: Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard forced superb stops from Ruben in the Anderlecht goal.
But if United threatened a stroll in the park, it was only because their pace up front looked too hot to handle. The mistake, though, was overloading the attack. United’s midfield two of Pogba and Michael Carrick were outnumbered by Anderlecht’s middle three, and were unable to take control of the game.
That was underlined further by Anderlecht’s impressively youthful midfield duo of Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker who rarely let Carrick and Pogba settle into a passing rhythm for the entirety of the first half. It was a near-fatal mistake.
It allowed Anderlecht a route back into the game, and an equaliser – after Tielemans’ shot rebounded off the bar and fell to captain Sofiane Hanni who thumped the ball home from close range – left United in shock. After the trauma of conceding a sucker punch goal in a first leg they should have won by a wide margin, it looked like the Old Trafford crowd would be left ruing missed chances once again.
The second half saw United start brightly, though, and those behind the front four linked up more efficiently. Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford terrorised the Anderlecht defence down United’s left with their directness and overlapping runs, creating chances for the hosts as their pace continued to make another breakthrough look likely.
But United also showed their other face, a less exciting and less youthful one. Marouane Fellaini’s introduction, taking the place of Jesse Lingard on the hour mark, saw Mourinho resort to the same turgid plan B he’s used for much of the season, and one that Louis van Gaal also favoured at times over the course of his two seasons in charge. As Anderlecht dropped deeper, United crossed from deep. With Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Fellaini all on the pitch, suddenly United’s pacey counter-attacks disappeared and morphed into an aerial bombardment. Mourinho has formed an unholy trinity with his three battering rams, though a bad-looking injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic right on the final whistle, before extra time, may force a change to Mourinho’s approach for the remainder of the season.
Whatever you think of the aesthetics, you can’t fault the effectiveness. In the second half, United’s new plan directly created two clear cut chances for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, but both missed when goals looked certain.
Thankfully for United, Anderlecht’s Austrian coach Rene Weiler inexplicably substituted his two best players, Hanni and Lukasz Teodorczyk. After that, his side found it hard to create, and the whistle to end the 90 minutes and signal extra time didn’t sound as ominous as it could have done, given United’s spurned chances.
In the end, it was left to Marcus Rashford to score the goal to take United through to the semi-final of the Europa League for the very first time. From a Daley Blind long ball and a Marouane Fellaini knock-down, Rashford found himself with the ball at his feet on the edge of a crowded box. But from the hopefulness of the long ball, came a moment of inventiveness from the teenager, who made shooting space for himself with a Cruyff turn, sending defenders the wrong way before calmly slotting home the winner.
In many ways it was a fitting goal to win the game for the home side, who had shown inventive sparks at times, but resorted to the tried and tested battering rams in order to coax out a positive result.
There are two faces to this Manchester United side, but Rashford has shown more than just glimpses of talent to beat both Chelsea and now Anderlecht, and you wonder just how long it will be before Mourinho decides that lumping it to his big men up front is beneath the talent his team possesses.