For Manchester United, this past Tuesday night’s Champions League second leg at Old Trafford was disappointing, to say the least. As the final whistle blew, United supporters and players alike felt cheated out of a tie which they looked set to have won. Controversial calls by referee Cuneyt Cakir, including a sending off for Nani, saw even Mourinho admit that the better team had lost.
After the game, many people were left feeling sick to the stomach, wondering what could have, or even should have been. Although Manchester United ultimately lost, there are many positives to be taken from that tie, and encouragement for the future in not only Europe, but also the Premier League:
1. Valuable experience. For Manchester United’s younger players, this was the biggest test of their careers. Players such as Danny Welbeck, David De Gea and Tom Cleverley have not played in ties of this magnitude, and this experience will certainly help them for future European games. Playing against Madrid will only help these players grow
2. Players that stepped up. As well as gaining experience, certain young players stood out. Welbeck was excellent and besides his finishing, was a star throughout both legs. This is encouraging because due to his poor start to this league season, many people were slating him off as not United quality. If he can develop his shooting skills, he will certainly become a very valuable player. Rafael also played well, in parts, in the Madrid tie. Although he had a shaky start to the first leg, he settled down and played well in defence, while also getting forward. He also contained Ronaldo well up until the sending off during the second leg, after which he switched off and allowed Ronaldo to score the winning goal. Johnny Evans played well in parts in the first leg, and has looked to have eradicated his often mistakes for now.
3. Versatility. The injury to Phil Jones caused United to switch up their lineup and formation ahead of the second leg at home. The switch worked well until the controversial red card. Nani stood out in his limited time on the field, and was influential in the own goal that Sergio Ramos scored. As United compete on multiple fronts each season, it is important that they are able to change the squad depending on any situation, and this current crop of players are able to give them this option.
4. Playing Style. Manchester United are used to controlling ball possession. This season, in all competitions, Manchester United has averaged 56% ball possession, and 478 short passes per game according to whoscored.com. They were also second in this season’s group stage in ball possession, only behind Barcelona. When against a strong Barcelona side in 2009 and 2011, both in the Champions League Final, Manchester United had to make due with less ball possession then they were used to. Barcelona frustrated them and quickly broke them down, defeating them in both cases. Against Madrid, United also had to adjust their play as Madrid dominated possession, having the ball 63% of the time in the second leg alone. The difference this time was that United were able to cope with the change in playing style, and were hard to break down in both legs. This small success could be important in future ties against teams like Barcelona that dominate possession.