Welcome back Tom.
Because I don't get the channel that carried the match, I watched it at a nearby pub. I typically sit down for a 2nd viewing of the game at my own home if I initially watched it at the pub so that I can pay attention to more detail -- and less on
the female bartenders and drink the fish n' chips. Therefore, because I don't have access to a 2nd viewing for this match, I won't be providing the typical tactical review that TBB usually offers. However, here are some things that stood out to me during Manchester United's 2-0 Europa League away defeat of Ajax -- hopefully they provide some discussion points:
1. A Tale of Two Halves - I doubt you'd receive much resistance if you declared that United played much better in the 2nd half. I'd go into more detail on this, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson did all the work for me with this quote from his post-match interview!
"I’m delighted with the scoreline but I think it was a very ordinary performance by us. We didn’t reach any great heights in the game. We did improve in the second half and I thought we deserved to win it but I didn’t think we played well at all. There was no rhythm to our game. I know Ajax can make it difficult with their system and they pressed the ball really well but we didn’t get any tempo to our game in the first half. We did improve in the second half but it was not a brilliant performance."
- Ferguson | Source: Channel Five
This is pretty much how I felt about the match. Smart man that Sir Alex is.
2. Ajax's organized pressing - It wasn't just that Ajax pressed us, but it was their organization of how they did it that impressed me. Their front 3 actively closed down our defenders but it was Siem De Jong and Christian Eriksen that made it work. They were very systematic and De Jong and Eriksen did very well to close down the passing lanes to Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley. They zonally marked well and the United midfielders found it difficult at times to find space to receive in. This was complimented by Ajax playing a high-line for most of the match -- this helped them compact the playing space. When United were in possession, it was often only 20-25 yards that separated Ajax's forwards from their back four. It was no coincidence that United played better when Paul Scholes entered the match. His movement to find space to receive in was good as was his close-control on the ball.
3. United's approach - United had a good response to these tactics by Ajax -- play through balls in behind the home side's defenders for Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) to run on to. The Mexican striker is very intelligent with his movement and it was he that sat on the shoulder of Ajax's last defender and helped stretched the defense. The final product from United's attackers was lacking at times but Wayne Rooney eventually found Chicharito near the end of the match when the latter finished for a goal. Danny Welbeck has been preferred to Chicharito as of late but the latter was probably the better tactical choice for this particular match because of Ajax's high-line. Once again, that intelligent man Sir Alex had some good comments about Chicharito's contributions in this match:
"It didn't go well for Javier in the sense the final passes through were just too much for him. They were behind his feet. But he is always a threat. He might have had a penalty in the second half. It was difficult to see from where I was. He has that threat all the time and he has given us another goal."
- Ferguson | Source: Channel Five
4. United's returning players - In the long-run for this season, perhaps the biggest benefit on the night was the return of Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, and Nani. The latter's inclusion is particularly important because of the injury to the in-form Antonio Valencia. Nani didn't play too particularly well (that's probably an understatement) as his decision-making and final product was severely lacking but it was good to get him a game. He will likely be the preferred choice on the right-flank in the upcoming weeks and United will need him to return to his incisive ways for the difficult upcoming away ties to Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur.
Cleverley didn't display the sharpness of his early-season form but his movement and class was on display once again. If he can find that early-season form again -- and stay healthy -- then United's midfield situation suddenly doesn't look so dire. Fergie's choices of Carrick, Cleverley, Jones, Scholes, and Ryan Giggs in the center of the park looks promising for the run-in. That's a midfield that can likely compete with any midfield in England. Seeing Jones flying around the pitch again -- be still my heart...
5. Fabio and Jonny Evans - I could probably go into more detail on the other defenders but these two are of particular interest to me. Evans has obviously been a player that divides opinion and one that is maligned by many supporters. Some will even tell you that he always has a mistake in him. I won't get into that (the discussion has become tiresome), but I will get into Evans' current season -- quite simply, he's arguably been our best defender this season.
There has been injury concerns for Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and the da Silva twins while youngster Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have dealt with continual position shifts. Patrice Evra has just been bad. The one constant and solid defender on the squad for the season has been Evans. He's obviously had a few mistakes -- the Manchester City match comes to mind -- but his positioning (which arguably is the most important aspect of defending) has been excellent and he has shown great improvement in aerial duels. On the latter point, he failed to win half of his Premier League aerial duels last season but he's won about 70% of them this season. Another solid performance by him in Amsterdam and I hope that United supporters can appreciate his contributions this season -- despite what your feelings on him from the past are.
As mentioned, Evra has been poor this season so it was refreshing to see Fabio do a job at left-back versus Ajax. It was also refreshing to see him go the full 90 minutes without limping or being stretchered off. I have concerns that Evra has simply played too many games in the past few seasons and that perhaps his performances would improve if he was rotated more. While we have numerous trusted options at right-back, Fabio is the only trusted deputy at left-back but his constant injuries has hindered his progress and reliability. In comparison to Evra, Fabio showed a bit more bite defending and he was more direct in marauding up the touchline in support of Young. His passing was a bit looser than Evra's but his performance was one of the better ones this season from the left-back position. Let's hope the Brazilian can stay healthy. Let's hope that he can eventually become our future first-choice left-back.
All in all, a fine night it was in Amsterdam. While the injury to Valencia certainly darkens things, the result was a good one and it was a match that saw the return of a few vital squad members. It was also a match that gave Chicharito, Ashley Young, and Fabio a needed run. It was a match gave saw David de Gea come up with another stellar save -- hopefully his confidence is rising after his recent impressive run of games. It wasn't our 'A-game', but it was a solid enough away performance in Europe against a decent side. I wouldn't be surprised to see a weakened side fielded for the return fixture but United should be able to close out this tie next week at Old Trafford. Lokomotiv Moscow holds a 2-1 advantage on Athletic Bilbao after their success during an extremely cold night in Moscow (the winner of our tie faces the winner of this tie). However, I'll be hoping the Spanish side comes out on top during their tie so that we can see the tactical brilliance of their manager Marcelo Bielsa and the crafty ways of their young midfielder Javi Martinez. It is no secret to regular readers of this site that Martinez is on my wishlist. The Europa League may not be the grandest of stages, but it can still be a useful and fun one for the club.