Football Features

“The kid is a sniper” – key performers as Manchester United thrash Partizan Belgrade

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:27, 7 November 2019

In a swashbuckling night of football, Manchester United smashed Partizan Belgrade 3-0 at Old Trafford.

There was definitely a sense of palpable relief around Old Trafford when the second and third goals went in. Finally, a routine win where the team scored more than once. United haven’t managed to do that at Old Trafford all season after thrashing Chelsea opening weekend (which was obviously not a routine win).

So what allowed them to for once have the punch to do the simple thing and beat a team that they should beat? Well firstly there was the quality, or lack thereof, possessed by the visiting side. Partizan are not as good as top-half Premier League sides and without the raucous nature of their home support were eminently beatable. So as much as United will draw confidence from this win, they will know that they were basically obliged to win here tonight.

But again, they’ve been obligated to win before and haven’t. So even though Partizan were inferior, there was something about United which enabled their comfortable victory. In truth there were a few somethings, or someones, beginning with Marcos Rojo’s display at the back.

The consensus is that Victor Lindelof is Man Utd’s second best centre-back after Harry Maguire but the Swede is having a poor season and besides that, doesn’t have the skill-set to compliment Maguire and help cover up for his weaknesses. Rojo has many flaws in his game, possibly more than Lindelof, but he’s a dynamic centre-back with enough athleticism and recovery skill to be a better partner for Maguire.

United haven’t conceded a single goal all season in the Europa League and it’s no surprise that Rojo has played in all four games. Axel Tuanzebe should still take his spot whenever the youngster can find his fitness, but Rojo has proven he’s the man to partner Maguire in the near-future.

In midfield it’s clear that Fred and Scott McTominay are finding their groove as a midfield duo. The pair have similar but complimentary skill-sets. Both can get up-and-down, defending and attacking in equal measure, and most importantly neither has the lackadaisical style that makes Paul Pogba such a problem in a central midfield role despite the obvious genius of his talent.

Up-top the big differences were obviously the increasing fitness of Anthony Martial as well as Mason Greenwood playing ahead of Dan James on the right. In terms of Martial, the Frenchman is a sensational talent and unlike Marcus Rashford can play brilliantly as a no. 9; it’s not a coincidence that United’s poor run this season didn’t involve Martial at all. His movement is so sharp, and his dribbling is mesmeric as we saw today for his goal where he danced through the Partizan defence.

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For James, he’s a great player, but he’s more creative than a goalscorer and doesn’t have the kind of sniping instincts that Greenwood does. The teenager is a lethal finisher off either foot and we saw that today. The way he took his goal, cutting back onto his left before faking the keeper out with his reverse finish, was positively delightful and the kind of intelligent finishing United can be lacking. It opened the scoring and also released the pressure that so often builds on this young United side.

This is not to say Greenwood has to always play, but it’s clear that against low block defences he offers more than Daniel James thanks to his lethal finishing and instincts in tight spaces (whereas James is a thrill in the open field). The kid is a sniper, and indeed with two clinical finishers alongside him, Marcus Rashford was able to play a freer, more creative role. Dropping deep, getting the ball and running at the Partizan defence.

The Englishman is always more dangerous coming from wide zones, and knowing his other two forwards were reliable scorers meant that even though Rashford missed three amazing chances before finally scoring, his head never dropped and he continued to be United’s driving force forward. He’s now scored five goals at home this season, more than he had in all of last season.

All that said though, United’s main weakness all season has been the no. 10 position. Today, however, Juan Mata made it a strength. It’s unclear if Mata can play like this more regularly now that the front-line is overflowing with the kind of harmonious movement which gels perfectly with how he plays the game, or whether this was a one-off because Partizan just aren’t all that good.

But it just goes to show why United were desperate to sign a no. 10 this summer, because that is the player around which the whole attack can flow. Mata was everywhere against Partizan, dropping deep, moving wide, always making complimentary movements and encouraging fast-passing and good interplay. He was the key player, because his very presence promoted passing and movement rather than talented players running isolation plays and working off the cuff every week.

When Mata plays like this he’s sensational, and he holds the key to Manchester United becoming a consistently good side this season (unless they sign someone in January). The other players stepping up was a great help, but nothing would have happened without Mata’s excellence – a constant ceding of the spotlight in order to allow his team-mates to flourish. That’s Juan Mata, and that’s what Manchester United need.

If United can keep this side fit for the next few games (well, maybe bringing Brandon Williams in for Ashley Young) they may really be able to kick their season into top gear.

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