Huddersfield Town (4-2-3-1): Lossl; Hadergjonaj, Zanka, Schindler, Kongolo; Williams, Billing; Quaner, Ince, van La Parra; Mounie
Manchester United (4-3-3): Romero; Young, Smalling, Lindelof, Shaw; Carrick, McTominay, Matic; Mata, Sanchez, Lukaku
David Wagner made very few changes to the side which had beaten Bournemouth 4-1 in the league the previous weekend. Terence Kongolo came in at left-back, while Danny Williams and Philip Billing played in midfield, instead of Aaron Mooy and Jonathan Hogg, and Alex Pritchard was replaced by Colin Quaner.
Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, rotated his team quite a bit, due to injury concerns as well as with one eye on the Champions League tie against Sevilla. Phil Jones was absent through injury, so Victor Lindelof partnered Chris Smalling at the heart of the defence. Antonio Valencia was rested, so Ashley Young came across to right-back, and Luke Shaw played at left-back. In midfield, Paul Pogba was unavailable through illness, which allowed Michael Carrick to come into the side, while Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez flanked Romelu Lukaku
Major tactical themes:
United struggle against aerial balls and high press
United have oddly struggled a lot against high balls this season, conceding a number of goals from such situations. This issue continued at this game as well, as United’s backline failed to deal convincingly with Huddersfield’s long throws and corners. Chris Smalling was especially at fault, and was somewhat fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty when he inadvertently handled the ball from a Huddersfield set-piece. He consistently lost out on aerial duels as well, despite his height, and while Huddersfield were unable to capitalize, this is a damning indictment of any centre-back. United’s individual and collective lack of organization under aerial bombardment is a major concern.
Another issue which has dogged United has been their struggle to play out against a well-drilled, high press. This is partially due to the type of centre-back available to Jose Mourinho this season; Eric Bailly has been injured for the most part, while Victor Lindelof, probably the best at passing out from the back, is yet to settle into English football. This has meant that Chris Smalling has usually started games, and without wishing to pile onto the former Fulham defender, he is extremely poor with the ball, with the result that opposition teams usually structure their press to allow Smalling to have the ball, in the knowledge that he would not be able to cause any harm with it. United have often resorted to long, hopeful balls in the general direction of Romelu Lukaku when faced with a high press, with the result that they are unable to construct attacks in a cohesive manner. All of these problems manifested themselves against the Terriers, and the Red Devils will need to drastically improve both these facets of their defensive play, with Sevilla and Chelsea their next two opponents.
Lukaku’s brilliance went beyond the goals
Romelu Lukaku scored a brace on the night, and deservedly so. However, as has been the case for the last few games, it was his all-round game that impressed. Once again, Lukaku was constantly on the move, dragging defenders out of position and offering himself for quick one-twos. It was one such situation which set up the first goal, as Lukaku came short to receive the ball, played it to Mata and then set off to sprint into the vacant space, allowing Mata to play a perfect through ball for him to finish. He did this throughout the game, posing a constant threat with his movement, and providing an outlet for United’s midfield by running the channels. Lukaku looks to be coming into form again, having now scored six goals in eight games since the turn of the year, and he will be a real danger to defences in Europe and England if he manages to keep this up.
United’s change midfield shape, but struggle without Pogba
Mourinho looked to have given in to popular demand and reverted to a 4-3-3, although he was unable to play the player whom it would have benefited the most. Paul Pogba was absent owing to illness, which forced Mourinho to move Matic into the left-sided role, and bring Carrick in at the base of midfield. The change of shape did not make a difference in the first half, as Huddersfield dominated the ball and created a number of chances. The issue was with the choice of personnel; Matic was constantly shuttling out to the left flank to cover Hadergjonaj’s runs, which left the centre undermanned. Tom Ince was also easily able to run past Michael Carrick, and had one superb opportunity to level the score when he ghosted into the box but was only able to toe the ball wide. McTominay was once again too cautious with his passing, which meant that United lacked a player to link the midfield and attack, contributing to their lack of control in the first half. A related issue was the fact that Mata and Sanchez were both coming inside from their wide positions, as is their want, and while this did allow United to outnumber Huddersfield in midfield on occasion, it allowed their fullbacks room to bomb forward. Hadergjonaj took advantage of this consistently, and while once again Huddersfield did not take advantage of this, United need Pogba back in order to play this system effectively; his absence causes a number of structural issues which could be exploited by better sides.
A number of the issues plaguing United this season manifested themselves in this game; the defence’s lack of composure when pressed, susceptibility to an aerial assault, and a lack of midfield structure. However, United were able to eke out a win despite these problems, largely due to Romelu Lukaku’s excellent finishing and all-round game; Jose Mourinho has little time before games against Sevilla and Chelsea to iron out these kinks, and must hope his players are able to come up with solutions in-game.