What Michael Carrick got right in Manchester United win over Villarreal
The ex-midfielder couldn’t have wished for a better start to life as a Red Devils manager.
After the gloom of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final weeks in charge of Manchester United, Michael Carrick’s Red Devils gave the team and fans a much-need boost on Tuesday night, with a 2-0 win over Villarreal.
Given just how poor they’ve been throughout the campaign, it’s incredible that the Red Devils are one of a handful of sides who have so far secured their place in the last-16 of the Champions League.
But goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho wrapped up a second win this season over Villarreal, on a night when United showed some semblance of composure and nous is still buried deep in this squad.
It was far from a vintage display from United for long spells at El Madrigal, but after the turbulence of recent weeks it’s a result rather than a performance that matters.
Needs must for United
Carrick made a bold call for the trip to Spain, dropping Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, while offering rare starts to Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek, while setting the side up in a more defensive 4-3-3 shape.
And it was a decision, in the main, that paid off for the Red Devils, who were much more compact in the early stages and limited space for Villarreal to attack into, although the hosts enjoyed far too much possession.
The midfield of Scott McTominay, Fred and Van de Beek buzzed around but failed to get near the ball and, as always, David De Gea was called into action on several occasions, twice denying Manuel Trigueros with a solid palms away.
Where United would be without the Spaniard and Ronaldo in this Champions League group stage doesn’t bear thinking about for supporters, but the goalkeeper has certainly endured busier European nights this term.
After a campaign where United have shipped goals far too regularly, Tuesday was all about staying in the game during the early stages.
They needed to be compact, obstinate and, frankly, dull. Carrick deserves credit for achieving at least some of this, especially with the team participating in just two sessions since Solskjaer’s sacking, led by the same coaches who have guided them to such underwhelming football this season.
It was something Carrick even acknowledged after the game, when he told BT Sport: “Let’s be honest, I don’t think we could have come out here and expected to play pretty football from the word go.
“When you’ve suffered results-wise and you’re not in a great vein of form as a team and individually, it’s not easy to come out here and make everything click.
“In some ways, it was the best way to win for me. We had to show some character and had to dig in and fight. The game looked like it was drifting away from us at times after half-time and then we got back together again and the subs made a massive impact towards the end.”
Substitutes changed the game
While Carrick’s pre-match decisions relied on perhaps a slice of luck - United still looked too open in the first half and lacked any real offensive threat - there’s no taking away from his in-game choices.
Clearly, the plan had been to last an hour and then go in search of the win, and the introductions of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford on 66 minutes changed the flow of the game.
Suddenly, the Red Devils looked confident, linked well in midfield and Rashford provided an equal threat on the left that Sancho was delivering from the right.
The pressing was even at a higher level than we’ve seen of late, with McTominay and Fred now more energetic than the opposition midfield. It was the latter who created United’s opener when his quick reactions forced Etienne Capoue into an error and presented Ronaldo with the ball, before the No.7 duly chipped Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli.
From there, United only increased in confidence and enjoyed their longest spell in the opponent’s half. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who barely advanced beyond the halfway line in the first hour, was now bombing down the touchline, while Fernandes was repeatedly playing through balls behind the Villarreal defence.
When the second came, it was a richly deserved goal for Man-of-the-Match Sancho, who rifled his effort into the top corner and finished an excellent counter-attacking move.
The full-time whistle was greeted with jubilation by Carrick and the United bench, with the 40-year-old leading the Red Devils to just a third clean sheet of the campaign.
Bigger challenges will come for the Red Devils, starting with the trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but whether Carrick is in charge for that encounter still seems uncertain, with reports emerging from BBC Sporton Tuesday night that Ernesto Valverde is being lined up to take over until the end of the season.
Regardless of the managerial situation, for now, it’s a night and an achievement to enjoy for the battered and bruised United faithful.