Three things Manchester United must fix to avoid Champions League defeat against Juventus

There were only a few differences between Juventus and Manchester United in their previous meeting and Rio Ferdinand summed them up quite nicely.

“Juventus were superior,” he said on BT Sport pundit duty. “Their shape, intensity, quality on the ball, calmness in possession, game management… they were well deserved winners.”

Jose Mourinho might have a bit of thinking ahead of Wednesday’s match. What must he fix first of all?

Passive first half

United have been dreadful in the first half of a lot of their recent matches. Newcastle had a two goal lead by half time against them, Bournemouth could have been about 3-0 up by the break on Saturday and Juventus completely dominated on their trip to Old Trafford.

Whether a case of lethargy, lending too little or too much respect, or odd tactical choices – something which seems unlikely given that Mourinho comes across exasperated as to why his team hasn’t turned up – United keep starting games without energy, aggression or bite.

United played a deep defensive line against Juve, with players staying compact to force play around them and Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford expected to counter-attack down the wings. Juventus’ 4-4-2 diamond shape enabled them to gain total control of the midfield and outnumber United all over the pitch – might we see a change in formation on Wednesday by Mourinho?

Juan Mata, as the 10 in a 4-2-3-1, was supposed to mark Miralem Pjanic and looked lonely the few times he managed to get on the ball, while Romelu Lukaku might as well not have been on the pitch. The team looked to win turnovers near halfway as many Mourinho sides have in past, but because they didn’t chase down the ball or press with any intensity, none of it worked and the most obvious thing that Mourinho will have to address is why. His players cannot roll out the red carpet for the likes of Paulo Dybala to have an easy wander into their defensive third again – Juventus would be more than happy to defend a 1-0 lead for an entire match.

Shut Pjanic out of the game

Mata followed Pjanic around but was never tight enough to actually take him out of the game. Mourinho could well have Ander Herrera perform this role in Turin, with the midfielder far better at man-marking and defending than Mata.

Only Rodrigo Bentancur made more passes (86) than Pjanic (79) in that game and the Bosnian’s influence extended to creating three scoring chances and recovering the ball an awful lot thanks to smart positioning and United’s deep defending.

Marouane Fellaini (if fit) is another player Mourinho could call on to prevent Pjanic controlling the game again, and since a midfield two of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic made no impact whatsoever last time, a tidier, stabler and snappier midfield three seems necessary for United to protect the defence and, crucially, actually keep the ball.

Attack without a striker

Romelu Lukaku’s ongoing mystery illness is not a band – it should be – but something that will likely rob United of their only top-level, natural striker for this game. Marcus Rashford didn’t produce a performance that Mourinho was happy with when given the chance to play a central role recently but Alexis Sanchez’s selfless running off-the-ball against Bournemouth appears to have been enough to earn the position.

Sanchez has been out of sorts since joining United but was better involved with play as a ‘nine’ in the win on Saturday. His direct running stretched the defence and opened up space for others to move into, pushing the Bournemouth back-line closer to their own penalty area – Juventus are a different beast though and if the right passes aren’t made into the channels for Sanchez to chase, he could quickly become isolated and redundant.

It is possible Sanchez is used a false-nine instead, dropping to mark Pjanic instead of one of United’s midfielders, freeing the nine space for Rashford and Martial to attack instead.

The other worry for United is that a lot of Juventus’ chances are created by the full-backs, meaning Martial and Rashford must be expected to track back to ensure Ashley Young and Luke Shaw aren’t doubled up on, freeing up Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro to cross into Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic (if he’s fit).

The most important, key part of Mourinho’s strategy will be ensuring the players are fired up and actually start the game as though they intend to win it. Mourinho has repeatedly stressed in interviews that he doesn’t actually want to park the bus and be as cautious as it appears but the players don’t seem to realise it until too late.

Juventus are far better at defending than United and have the greatest goalscorer of a generation – perhaps any – upfront capable of exploiting the most miniscule of chances. If Man Utd don’t play like Man Utd, they will be beaten in Turin comfortably like so many other clubs in the past.

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