After the disappointment of the 2-2 draw with Stoke, United needed to bounce back with a confident performance against the Swiss champions Basel. Suffice to say they managed to do so, easily beating a poor opponent in the Red’s first Champions League game since 2015, thanks to a surprisingly good performance from Marouane Fellaini.
As expected, Mourinho named a more attacking starting eleven than the one that faced the Potters at the weekend. In midfield, Herrera and Rashford lost their places to Mata and Martial. An entirely new back four was named. Jose found Smalling and Lindelof at the back of his cupboard and they replaced the suspended Bailly and Jones. Young and Blind replaced Valencia and Darmian in the full back positions. Basel lined up in a 5-4-1, including Football Manager legend Eder Alvarez Balanta in defence and Norwich City ‘cult figure’ Ricky Van Wolfswinkel up front.
United had set up to take the game to Basel and started in complete control. The firm base of Pogba and Matic allowed the front four to move as they pleased, Lukaku often pulling out right leaving space for Mkhitaryan and Mata to drift into. The first major chance of the game came from one of these moves. After some fluid play down the right, Mata dinked the ball onto the head of Mkhitaryan, only for the Armenian to head over the bar.
After 15 minutes, disaster struck for United as their captain for the night, Paul Pogba, went off with a suspected pulled hamstring. Pogba could be out for up to a month with such an injury, which doesn’t bode well for United’s season; he could miss up to 5-6 games. Rather than turn to Michael Carrick to dictate the tempo and stroke the ball around, Mourinho turned to Fellaini to fill the Pogba shaped hole.
The Reds continued their dominance throughout the first half, Mkhitaryan missing a sitter from 4 yards out after Lukaku drilled a low ball across the six-yard box. The Armenian didn’t put his foot through the ball, rather, his weak first touch bounced off his toe and onto the post. His second attempt was blocked by the defender who lay flat on the floor.
United were able to commit several players forward, often leaving only Matic, Lindelof and Smalling back, allowing the rest of the team to push forward. Martial beat his man every time he chose to attack him with a dribble, while Fellaini spent most of his time in the Basel penalty area. The Swiss regularly had no one outside of their own third of the pitch, shifting from side to side as United tried to probe for gaps in the defence.
The opening goal finally arrived when Young made a yard on the defender on the right-hand side. He then swung in a perfect cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Like a siege tower rolling onto the battlefield, Fellaini met it with a towering header, the ball crashing into the net as he peeled away upper cutting the air. This is where Fellaini is at his most destructive. Ask him to sit in front of the back four and he’ll struggle. But put him in the penalty area and ask him to throw his body around and he causes havoc. To give the Belgian credit, in this particular game he was impressive throughout, playing like the all-round midfielder David Moyes thought he was buying in 2013.
United killed the game just over five minutes into the second half. Blind stood the ball up at the back post, where Lukaku rose to nod home when he reached the summit of his jump. The Belgian was fairly quiet all game, the first few minutes aside, he was rarely involved. But that now makes it 6 in 6 for the Belgian in a United shirt. You can’t argue with that.
Now 2-0 down, Basel decided it might be a good idea to try and score. They started to move further forward and attempted the odd foray toward the United box. This often amounted to little more than a cross into their gaseous forward Van Wolfswinkel, the unfortunate Dutchman never managed to trouble Smalling or Lindelof all game. Basel’s best chance came when Mkhitaryan gave the ball away and Lindelof failed to tackle Elyounoussi in the United penalty area, attempting to block a shot that never came. The Norwegian let off a shot that De Gea diverted over with a strong right hand. This was the first and last meaningful attempt Basel had on target.
Based on this performance, Lindelof still doesn’t look quite ready to usurp Bailly and/or Jones from the first eleven. He’s quick and his distribution is brilliant. However, he looks like he needs a more experienced defender next to him to guide him through the more difficult games. A quick glance at United’s defenders shows that this sort of player isn’t present in the current squad. It could be a difficult season for the Swede.
As the game went on, Fellaini stopped making so many runs forward, dropping a bit deeper just to add an extra layer of protection to the United defence. If the Reds had been more ruthless in this period they could have really dismantled Basel. Instead, they started to make silly errors and became more disjointed in attack, giving the ball away rather than peppering the Swiss goal with shot after shot.
In the 84th minute, Fellaini obviously decided he should finish the game once and for all. He made a run from deep, receiving a great pass from Lukaku on the byline at the right side of the box. The Belgian cut the ball back across the box, nutmegging both Mkhitaryan and Xhaka to find Rashford just inside the area. The youngster played the ball off the ground, the ball looping over the now prone goalkeeper and nestling in the net.
Overall this was a functional performance from United with Young, Fellaini and Mkhitaryan particularly impressing. Yes, Basel were a poor opponent, but Benfica losing at home to CSKA Moscow makes this is a very important win for United. Three points, a clean sheet and top of the table. You wouldn’t have argued with that before the game now, would you?