Club Brugge vs. Manchester United: An Unconvincing Draw with a Silver Lining


Manchester United played out a draw against Club Brugge in a game which lacked quality. The ending, though, pointed to a better future.

A cold, windy, and rainy night in Bruges awaited Manchester United as they kicked off their knockout stages in the Europa League, which looks like United’s clearest route to silverware and the Champions League.

Club Brugge, despite what their manager claims, are no pushovers; they drew 2-2 with the mighty Real Madrid in the group stages of the Champions League. With Solskjær having gone into the depths of his squad to bring out six changes, you wondered whether he would go on to regret making so many changes to the team which had just won at Stamford Bridge.

And it seemed this Manchester United team was out to make him regret it.

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From the get go, the midfield and defense were less than assured in possession in a game in which they had to take the initiative. The key man missing was Fred. His replacement, Andreas Pereira, wasn’t as effective as him in bringing the ball out and distributing accurately; this is shown by the fact that Pereira had a lower passing accuracy and had a lower number of passes per minute compared to Fred in the Chelsea game, which in itself is an unfair comparison considering the difference in the quality of opposition.

Furthermore, with Bruno Fernandes also not in the squad, and with Juan Mata on the fringes of the game, United pretty much had no way to keep hold of the ball and exert any sort of pressure on Brugge.

The three man defense also struggled against the pacy Brugge counter-attack, with Nigerian striker Dennis causing United all sorts of problems with the Brighton loanee Percy Tau an able support cast in behind him. In particular, Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire looked unable to keep a hold on the Brugge attack, with Luke Shaw coming up with enough bursts of speed to protect the other two. It almost felt like United missed Eric Bailly, who had a great game at Stamford Bridge after making his first appearance of the season and who showed the speed that the two aforementioned center-backs didn’t have.

Speaking of Luke Shaw, though; he’s a revelation as a third centre-back. He almost seems built for the role, with the pace to cover for his partners, the attacking instinct to contribute to attack, and yet the defensive instinct and physicality to not be a liability aerially. This late resurgence may yet put him in Gareth Southgate‘s plans for Euro 2020, with England’s thinness in the left back position and their reliance on three centre backs putting him in prime position.

Back to this game though. The inability of United’s midfield to really assert themselves in this game exposed United to the counter-attack, with the midfield unable to recycle possession. And that’s what happened, albeit in a rather bizarre and, to reiterate, illegal under the rules of football, way. Nemanja Matić was stuck near the Brugge goal-line and tried to win (and should have won) a corner. However, to United’s surprise, it was given a goal kick, and from there, Mignolet exploited the fact that both United centre-backs were upfield after their previous corner, and went route one towards the pacy Dennis. For some reason, both Diogo Dalot and Brandon Williams were unable to get to the ball before it bounced. To add on to this comedy of errors, the usually reliable Romero was miles off his line, and outside of the box as well, and basically stuck in no man’s land. Dennis showed more decisiveness than most recent United strikers by improvising and finishing over Romero. And just like that, Brugge were ahead. Oh, and the only reasonable explanation of the goal not being ruled out was that the video assistant referee was asleep on his job.

This ushered in a period of Brugge dominance, with United seemingly dazed. No one was able to hold on to the ball in the United team. Brugge pushed on and created a couple of great opportunities, with profligate finishing and good goalkeeping keeping United in the game. The worst came in the 34th minute, with captain Harry Maguire putting a regulation pass to his regular defensive partner, Victor Lindelöf, out to touch.

But from that throw in came the best bit of United play in the half. Funnily enough, it involved two Brugge players and one United player. Maxime de Cuyper, the debutant right wing back for Brugge, took the throw in towards Brandon Mechele, their centre back. Rather than taking the ball head on, Mechele let the ball go across his body. The wet surface and Anthony Martial‘s pace did the rest.

There’s so much to admire about Martial’s goal. Just like his goal at Chelsea, this was a proper centre-forward’s goal. Both these goals show completely different aspects of Martial’s play and really demonstrate his talent, which just doesn’t express itself enough. While the goal at Chelsea displayed his remarkable instinct and sense of where the goal was and his physical attributes, the goal here was all about his thought process. Seeing that Mechele had misjudged the speed of the ball, Martial moved quickly to overtake him and get his first touch on the ball at the centre circle, which was both far enough from Mechele and also in a direction which allowed him to put his body between the ball and Mechele. The second touch, too got him into the box and allowed him to cut across the defender further, so that he created a situation where the defender had no choice but to let him go through, because he risked fouling him and giving away a penalty and earning a red card, which would undoubtedly have been the worse outcome. This entire process demonstrated the striker’s instinct that Martial undoubtedly possesses.

So, too, did the next chance that Manchester United created. After Martial’s goal, Manchester United had gained much more confidence. There was definitely a snap to United’s play, demonstrated by the passing sequence started by Matić and ending with Martial hitting the bar. Matić has definitely reached another level. Most people had him written off when he made his first appearance of the season, looking slow and lethargic compared to the energetic McTominay. Since then, however, we’ve been treated to a player rich with experience. His screening of the defense has been one of the main reasons why United’s midfield have looked better this season and why United have conceded fewer goals. He also seems to have added some skills to his armory, aided by Michael Carrick‘s coaching. He has been playing many more line breaking and sharp passes into feet, which remind me of peak Carrick and his metronomic regulation of play in midfield, raising and lowering the tempo of the game at will.

The second half provided little to go on. Manchester United began brightly after a giveaway from Brugge created another chance for Martial, who opted to try to tee up Mata rather than go for the shot himself. After that, Manchester United settled into their mediocrity, and Brugge occasionally threatened to score, with one huge chance wasted. To be honest, the game was pretty boring at that point, and I could feel my eyes drooping.

It was only after the introduction of Bruno Fernandes and Fred that United really managed to impose their will on the game and show that they did want to go for the win as compared to settle for the away draw and the advantage of the away goal. Abysmal free kick aside, Bruno Fernandes really sparkles and is a breath of fresh air in this Manchester United team. It seems so easy for him. Even in tight spaces, he has all the space he needs to find teammates on the other side of the pitch. He is looking to get forward with every touch and every pass, and it forces his teammates to accommodate him and create combinations with him. With Fred and him on, United were able to exert some pressure on the Brugge defense and keep recycling possession, because they needed all hands on deck and were unable to find outlets. With Bruno on, the hitherto anonymous Lingard began to look useful again, because he does have the intelligent movement which helps him complement players like Bruno. The connection between Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes was obvious as well, with both Iberians linking up well and spotting each others runs. The chance that Fernandes created for Mata was especially good, with Mata just marginally offside.

This game, more than anything, showed that United’s squad wasn’t good enough to play on a regular basis. Sure, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata are both players good to have in reserve. Andreas, in particular has the technical ability to do a good job and have a steady career at United in the future, as a squad player. He’s been given many chances this season to show that he deserves a spot in the first eleven, but he hasn’t taken them. Lingard, with the right players around him, can be the ‘glue’ that many previous managers have talked about, but currently, whenever Manchester United play him, they are carrying him. Manchester United can’t continue to play him to see those one or two pretty combinations that he has with his teammates; we need some hard numbers to go along with them. Even Dalot failed to take the opportunity given to him. He is generally considered a better attacking player than Wan-Bissaka, but even in that department, he failed to impose himself, and his indecisiveness in defense cost United a goal. The gulf in quality between the ten minutes that Fernandes and Fred were on the pitch and the rest of the time that they weren’t really tells us what was wrong with this United team all along.

Next. Manchester United finally given hopeful Paul Pogba news. dark

Who was your man of the match against Club Brugge?