Paul Pogba returned from the wilderness to score the only goal in the San Siro as Manchester United won to knock AC Milan out of the Europa League and advance to the quarter final.
Much can be made about the advantage of an away goal, and that much is undoubtedly true – it provided Milan with a basis to sit back and a result to defend. But it also helps the away team sometimes in a second leg, knowing the value of their own goals are amplified. So theoretically, the advantage of scoring one goal becomes even more crucial because of the time you have to score a second.
It presents an interesting dynamic, such as the one played out in the first half, which was very much cat and mouse. United had a strong first ten minutes or so but fell short when Dan James was pushed to make a decision.
James, Fred and McTominay were all afforded more time on the ball than Fernandes, Greenwood and Rashford – a clear ploy from the hosts who knew where they could take that chance to have a breather. Milan, after their initial period of sitting back, sensed there was an opportunity with United as wasteful on the ball as they were, and grew in confidence, bossing the ball further up the pitch as the first half wore on.
Paul Pogba came on at half-time for Marcus Rashford; the Frenchman had occasionally done well on the left before his injury. Within four minutes he’d made his mark. It started with Fernandes – comparisons to Cantona have not looked favourable in recent months because, unlike Cantona, United’s number 18 lacks the ability to make others around him better. What he does share is the ability to create something in quiet moments – his cross-field pass spread the play and created panic in the home defence when the ball came back across goal. Fred and Fernandes couldn’t get a clear touch on the ball. Pogba could – and finished very cleverly at the near post.
Suddenly the advantage had swung, and Milan needed to come out and play with more impetus. Greenwood almost caught them out but his effort was smartly saved.
Milan brought on Zlatan Ibrahimovic – his impact was almost immediate, rising above Shaw to get a header in on goal. Henderson was superb to deny him.
United, though, finished the game well, and Pogba might have even added a second, heading over from a James cross.
It was a game perfectly managed, perfectly coached and perfectly played by United – Milan can have no complaints that the better team are going through to the next round.
The biggest ‘gamble’, if we call it that, was keeping faith with Henderson over the returned De Gea. But then we can look at the persistence with the same players and the same system, persevering in spite of its flaws and faults, and wonder if this is something to be held against the manager.
It’s a criticism only when United suffer negative results. It’s clearly a tactic for counter attacking so it was to Solskjaer’s credit that he showed patience to believe it was the right way to go about the game, knowing it wasn’t time to panic. He showed nous and ruthlessness to bring off Rashford when it was hardly an emergency to do so. He showed patience to not make any more changes, even when it might have been tempting to think Fernandes wasn’t quite at it, or that James could be a bit smarter.
In the end, both played their part, as did Fred, who went from wasteful to understanding the value of economy. Economy is the key word for how this United team operates, and once they are in tune with that, they are at their best. This was as professional a performance as could be hoped on an occasion like this with this squad. Everyone deserves credit.
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) March 18, 2021