Manchester United maintained their unbeaten run in Europe and kept another clean sheet, but the away dugout wasn’t very jubilant at full-time at Anoeta Stadium.
Alejandro Garnacho’s winner wasn’t enough for the Red Devils to avoid the knockout-round playoffs. They came into Thursday’s game needing a two-goal margin to leapfrog Real Sociedad in their Europa League group.
Regardless, there were many positives as well as in-game lessons for Erik ten Hag to take into the next round.
1. Teenager Garnacho impresses for United
It was never going to be easy to rattle the net of the side that conceded just 4 goals in eight games in all competitions. But Garnacho stunned the hosts in the 17th minute with a powerful strike past Alex Remiro.
The United academy graduate, who only got his full senior debut last week against FC Sheriff, has been a lively addition to United’s left wing amid the fitness issues of Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho.
Ten Hag was already impressed with Garnacho’s pace and ability to take on defenders, and finishing like he did Thursday night in San Sebastian will only ensure more minutes for the teenager. With his goal, Garnacho (18 years, 125 days) became the youngest non-English goalscorer in Europe for United.
2. Ten Hag’s changes
The Dutch coach has so far impressed with his in-game management, but on Thursday his tweaks after the break tilted the game in Sociedad’s favor.
Ten Hag switched to a 3-3-1-3 shape, introducing Scott McTominay in place of Victor Lindelof just before the hour mark. The substitution effectively ended any deep build-up from United, who resorted to long balls in search of the second goal.
Imanol Alguacil’s men comfortably matched United’s physicality and didn’t allow many entries into their penalty box as the game progressed.
Interestingly, United didn’t follow their strategy of trying to outmuscle their opponent with full conviction, and instead of attacking Sociedad’s box with a long kick from a corner in injury time, opted to play short, missing out on a good opportunity to deliver a cross for a header – akin to the recent Chelsea outing.
The United boss acknowledged in his post-match interview that his side became too erratic following the introduction of offensive players.
3. Maguire in attack
Harry Maguire missed out on back-to-back starts for United despite his solid performance against West Ham. Instead, Lindelof returned to the starting XI in Europe. As such, not many expected to see Maguire late in the game with United looking to double their lead.
Ten Hag played his center-back alongside Cristiano Ronaldo up front in hopes of winning more aerial duels in the final third. Needless to say, that didn’t work, as neither Ronaldo nor Maguire (especially) aren’t known for their hold-up play abilities.
More than any tactical approach, Maguire’s substitution appeared to be a message to the club hierarchy to sign a new forward in January.
Anthony Martial has scarcely been available due to multiple injuries and Ronaldo has been underwhelming in front of goal, forcing the manager to experiment with his side’s structure on several occasions.
With United now certain to face a third-placed Champions League side in an already busy calendar, a new attacking option is a must to properly challenge for glory in Europe’s second-tier competition.