In a frustrating night of football, Manchester United and AZ played out a 0-0 draw.
Despite the final score, the match itself was full of end-to-end action as neither side was able to get a grip of midfield. United did begin the match playing with a good control of tempo, but it seems like AZ were just paying their illustrious visitors a great deal of respect. Once they realised that the lads wearing Manchester United shirts carried none of the threat those shirts imply, they began flying.
AZ attacked United without fear. Calvin Stengs was a particular thorn in their side, driving forward relentlessly and showing his skills and vision to carve openings. The Dutch side had 12 shots, but only three of them hit the target. David de Gea had to play well, but he wasn’t flying all around his goal making miracle saves. AZ were definitely better than a ramshackle United without ever being overwhelmingly superior.
It’s worth pointing out that only Vitesse have beaten AZ this season. They came into this game having won four of their last five, the only blemish being a 2-2 draw against Partizan on matchday one of the Europa League. They are a vibrant young side full of great ideas, the kind of rapid counter-attacking side that you’d expect to humiliate United.
But they didn’t.
Again, they were definitely the more proactive side and their ability to play at pace was delightful. But for the entire match it was as though United were holding them at arm’s length. There was never the sense that it was a panicked, desperate display. Victor Lindelof and Marcos Rojo excelled in the middle of defence, shutting down countless AZ attacks with consummate ease.
Lindelof led the defence with a really assured display, the kind of showing that marks him out as a mini-Maguire (which is why he’s probably not the ideal partner for the Englishman). He regained possession nine times, more than all but one player on the pitch. Next to him Marcos Rojo showed his good side for once, a game-high eight clearances saw him repeatedly get the ball out of danger.
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Meanwhile at left-back a star was emerging as young Brandon Williams started his first game for the club and looked every inch a Manchester United quality left-back, at least defensively. He made two tackles, regaining possession 11 times (a game-high) and managed to avoid looking like a liability. He didn’t set the game alight in attack, but he certainly showed enough potential that Ole Gunner Solskjaer should be looking to start him ahead of the likes of Ashley Young and perhaps even perpetual disappointment Luke Shaw. Williams is just 18-years-old but he has so much potential for growth that even disappointing games like this afford him the chance to learn and grow.
For a ramshackle United back-line to look so confident and assured of what they were doing even without the monumental leadership of Harry Maguire or the ridiculous 1v1 defensive skills of Aaron Wan-Bissaka speaks so much to the good work that Solskjaer, Mike Phelan, Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick have been doing.
That said, in midfield Nemanja Matic put a shift in defensively, but here’s where the problem begins. Matic and Fred were utterly incapable of either controlling the tempo of the match or driving passes through to the forwards (who were starved of anything resembling decent service). They were two of the more senior men on the pitch and could offer nothing, which in turn impacted Juan Mata’s ability to do anything, which further isolated the young forwards like Mason Greenwood and Daniel James.
But then, that’s United’s season in a nutshell isn’t it? Despite their struggles (they have won just five of their last 22 games) only Liverpool and Leicester have conceded less than their seven goals in the Premier League. And they’ve yet to let one slip by in the Europa League as well. The Red Devils sit 10th, tenth, yet they have faced just 66 shots in the Premier League this season. Only four clubs have faced fewer. Manchester United are a surprisingly solid defensive side.
For all his talk about fast fluid attacking football and “The United Way,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is building Manchester United in the old fashioned way: from the ground up. He has drilled The Red Devils well into becoming a solid and secure outfit at the back. Yes, they are diabolically bad going forward (they had zero shots on target tonight) but that’s largely a personnel issue.
If United manage to sign some quality in attack (and a midfielder who can pass the damn ball with accuracy and incision) then we could see them explode. Until then we should perhaps reframe criticism of The Red Devils; they’re not a bad side, they’re a bad attacking side. It’s not much, sure, but it is a sliver of light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.