It has become increasingly common, especially this season, for broadcasters and pundits to describe every big game Manchester United have play as a “Mourinho Masterclass”. Often, it seems, this is something of an attempt to justify the decision to reserve a prime TV slot for a dull, low scoring game in which United sat deep, kept the ball out of play and looked to spoil the occasion. There are reasons to praise his pragmatism, of course, but it is perhaps overblown when Mourinho could have combined his side’s defensive resilience with a greater threat on the counter too. After all, with 5 other ‘big teams’ in the league this season a 10 point total from those games a point per game isn’t a great return.
If then, the term ‘Masterclass’ has been applied to Mourinho too frequently this year then United’s Europa League Final victory is a notable exception with the Red Devils not only fully shutting the young Ajax team out but also demonstrating total control over the game, scoring two and threatening for more.
Mourinho is infamous for his use of a 4-3-3 shape that quickly falls back into a 6-3-1 low-block. On this occasion, however, United mirrored rather than matched Ajax’s own 4-3-3 by deploying a 4-2-3-1 shape in a medium-block with tight man-marking on the midfield three.
With Schone essentially removed from the game by Fellaini, and both full-backs quickly closed down in possession, Ajax’s defence had a lot of difficulty trying to progress the ball forward. Each one of the back four were at one point guilty of over-hitting a pass into a marked midfielder in attempt to force the play.Eventually right wing/forward Bertrand Traore took advantage of the man-marking schemes by coming in narrow and deep to receive the ball, disrupt United’s midfield and create combinations. At this point Ajax were able to find some success in building attacks but then United pounced on an error from a throw-in and Pogba’s deflected shot opened the scoring.
After the first goal United began to sit a little deeper. Traore was still coming in from the right, but with right-back Veltman a natural centre-back pushed out wide due to the balance of the Ajax squad, he was unwilling to push high and maintain Ajax’s width. With Veltman unable to provide United with a reason to remain stretched they were able to come in narrow when Traore attempted to overload midfield.
It’s somewhat ironic that the club side most closely associated with totaalvoetbal were unable to take advantage of man-marking through the use of positional fluidity in this game. This is a situation that Michels and Cruyff sides would have flourished in.
A lot of Ajax’s attacking success this season has come from their aggressive counter-press. In possession United either immediately went long, to Fellaini when possible, or quickly found Pogba for his ability to retain the ball under pressure, beat players with skill and then, himself play accurate long balls into space for Rashford or the wingers to run on to. Mourinho also opted for Daley Blind at the back and I imagine Blind’s comfort with the ball at his feet under pressure played a part in that decision.
The Manchester side would again look for Fellaini in the attacking third for his ability in the air against Ajax’s 17 and 20 year old centre-backs. Fellaini won a massive 15 of the 17 aerial duels he participated in fulfilling both the roles of a target-man and a hardworking, defensive number 10.
As the match wore on United dropped deeper, into a more typical Mourinho shape. Ajax threw players forward in attempt to start a comeback, but remained too narrow in attack. United were able to aggressively close down Ajax in central attacking areas and clear the ball into the path of Rashford who was able to get in behind Sanchez’ aggressive positioning multiple times and force a number of last ditch efforts to prevent his shot.
Clearances. Ajax left, United right.
Independent of this result the excitement around both individual Ajax players and the Bosz Babes as a whole is completely justified. Tactical naivety may well have cost them on the night but the disparity of wealth between the two clubs means that, should reaching the final not already make them proud enough, simply keeping the scoreline as reasonable as they did is an overachievement in itself.