The only goal of the night came when a brilliant bit of opportunism from Marcus Rashford caught out the Benfica’s debuting goalkeeper Mile Svilar. What did we learn?
Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the season in blisteringly good form with five assists in his first three games of the season. Since then, however? Nada. No assists, and just the two goals (both in thrashings). The Armenian is a sensational attacking talent but right now he just looks tired.
Perhaps it’s the absence of Paul Pogba, but whatever it is, Mkhitaryan isn’t playing well. Against Benfica he repeatedly spurned possession and failed to offer anything in terms of real creativity. He completed 78% of his passes, but only one went into the Benfica area. He won 2/4 take-ons, but none in the final third. He made 3 interceptions and won 2/5 tackles, but he’s not around to be a defender.
Mkhitaryan was meant to be one of United’s chief creators, so his display was a serious problem because all of United’s football that wasn’t Marcus Rashford isolation plays ran through the Armenian. It’s hard to see what José Mourinho could do to solve this problem bar giving him some rest? Clearly he isn’t able to play through his slump and should be protected from a spiralling loss of confidence.
2. Alex Grimaldo proving Barça wrong
When Alex Grimaldo emerged in 2014/15, he looked to be one of the most sensational talents La Masia had produced in a long, long while. The 17 year-old left-back had pace, skill and a fearless drive that belied his age and was a genuine game-changer.
But then injuries set him back, and to compound that Luis Enrique didn’t seem to rate him for some reason. Eventually he left the Camp Nou, joining Benfica in January 2016. After taking his time to settle, he’s now playing very well for the Portuguese side.
Against United in particular, Grimaldo showed his quality. Patrolling the left flank with authority, he completed 97% of his passes, sent in 4 crosses, created 2 chances, won 3/4 take-ons, made 2 interceptions and 2 clearances. He was vibrant and oozed the kind of quality that screams “I won’t be at Benfica for long,” proving that the Blaugrana were wrong to let him go.
3. Manchester United miss Paul Pogba
It should go without saying that Manchester United miss one of the best midfielders in the world but no, seriously, there are people who don’t think that Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world. Although the riposte to that argument is see how prosaic United have been since his injury.
Sure they’ve won games, sometimes by big scores even, but they’ve lacked that control and invention they had when Pogba was in the line-up. The Frenchman’s combined the physical size of Marouane Fellaini with the tactical intelligence of Ander Herrera, and then added to that he has more skill and vision than both men combined and you have an impossible playmaker.
One that United will want to be sure only returns when he is 100% fit but also that he returns as soon as possible because my goodness do they ever need him to spark some life into José Mourinho’s dim side.
4. Don’t worry, Mile Svilar!
18 year-old Mile Svilar made his Champions League debut against Manchester United and, for the most part, he was alright. He wasn’t great or anything but he wasn’t a nervous wreck either. Well, except when he carried Marcus Rashford’s shot over the goal-line, giving United the lead.
To be clear, Rashford was definitely trying to catch the stopper out, but it should have been a simple take for Svilar. But having misjudged the flight of the ball, he adjusted poorly and instead of palming it out he simply caught it and his momentum took him over the goal-line with the ball.
Svilar could let that mistake eat at him (he apologised to the fans at full-time and they seemed to instantly forgive him) and Steven Gerrard certainly seemed to think it was a heinous crime to play him in this game rather than giving him a huge platform to gain experience. But in truth Svilar need not worry.
Sure, it was a huge blunder, but Victor Valdés did much the same in the Champions League back in 2007 against Liverpool. In the knockout rounds. And it was essentially the goal that turned the tie back in the Reds favour and eliminated the Blaugrana when they were defending Champions. Valdés recovered from that to become one of the world’s finest stoppers, and if he can do it then so can Mile Svilar.
5. United can’t lose The Double Act
With Paul Pogba out injured and Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of sorts, Manchester United’s only consistent source of creativity is their left-wing double-act of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. The two wing-forwards are both sensational players who could (should?) be starting every game together; but José Mourinho has instead opted to rotate them in the same position, with one starting and the other coming off the bench late in the half, with the roles alternating every game.
This has proven incredibly productive for United, as bringing a fresh player as good as Martial or Rashford off the bench after a player as good as Rashford or Martial running the right-back ragged for an hour is a wicked weapon. More often than not, one of these two is the difference-maker for The Red Devils – and it was the case tonight with Marcus Rashford’s brilliant free-kick forcing a mistake from the goalkeeper and opening the scoring.
But Rashford left the field after picking up an injury. He did not seem happy and even though Mourinho confirmed the youngster felt something in his knee, United will be praying that the injury isn’t serious. Yes, Martial becoming the starter is hardly a disaster, but it has been the combination of Rashford and Martial that has so often unlocked opposing defences – carrying United in the absence of their midfield maestro. So having just one of them would be a serious problem.