Manchester United fell to a narrow defeat in the 2022/23 Europa League opener at the hands of Real Sociedad, with the Spanish outfit edging the Red Devils with a 1-0 victory on Thursday night.
How did United set up?
Having named more or less the same starting side for four games on the spin, Erik Ten Hag looked to rotate the personnel for the game against Los Txuri-Urdin.
This meant the likes of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof returned to the side in defence, with Cristiano Ronaldo given a chance in the striker role having been subjected to the bench in recent weeks.
However, some of the regular starters maintained their places, as seen with Diogo Dalot and Tyrell Malacia in the fullback spots, as well as Christian Eriksen in the heart of the midfield.
Here were the starting lineup and substitutes…Embed from Getty Images
Starting XI: David De Gea (GK), Diogo Dalot (RB), Harry Maguire (CB), Victor Lindelof (CB), Tyrell Malacia (LB), Casemiro (CM), Christian Eriksen (CM), Fred (CAM), Antony (RW), Anthony Elanga (LW), Cristiano Ronaldo (ST).
Subs: Tom Heaton, Martin Dubravka, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Tyler Fredricson, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez, Scott McTominay, Zidane Iqbal, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Alejandro Garnacho, Charlie McNeill.
How it went down.
The earliest sign of promise came from Elanga on the left wing as he got himself out of a tricky situation and down onto the byline. A placed Eriksen cross from the middle of the park just escaped Ronaldo’s head before the 20th-minute mark, with the Reds looking sharp in the attack early on.
Ronaldo did manage to head the ball in the net in the 36th minute following a pin-point cross from Dalot on the right, but the goal was swiftly ruled out for offside.Embed from Getty Images
United did have a lot of the ball as the manager would have liked, with minimal threat coming from the Spanish visitors. It was by no means breathtaking from Ten Hag’s men, though, with play often breaking down in the final third, perhaps due to Fred being positioned in an unorthodox no.10 position.
There were a couple of changes for United at the break in the form of Martinez- in place of Dalot- and Fernandes- in place of Eriksen. This saw Lindelof switched to right-back in the absence of Dalot and Fred dropped back into a more familiar no.8 position to accommodate Fernandes.
Just minutes into the half, Fernandes made an impact with a delightful cross to Ronaldo, but the Portuguese superstar did not connect with the ball as well as he would have liked, with his header just wide of the mark.Embed from Getty Images
Then came the decisive moment in the 57th minute when Martinez rushed out to shut down a David Silva effort on the right-hand edge of the area; the ball deflected up from the thigh of the Argentinian defender and onto his arm, which the referee deemed as a penalty and a yellow card offence.
VAR saw nothing wrong with the on-field decision, controversially, and Brais Mendez tucked the penalty beyond the reach of a frustrated De Gea, with the Spanish shot-stopper going the right way for the spot kick.
Casemiro was making his full debut in the infamous red shirt on Thursday, and the Brazilian nearly got himself on the scoresheet, yet his header bounced down onto the ground and up onto the crossbar following a deep Fernandes cross.
Antony and Elanga were off in place of Sancho and Garnacho in the 71st minute as Ten Hag looked to add some flair to the fading attack, with Charlie McNeill on in the 83rd minute to make his debut for the club.
Although, the changes were not enough to inspire the Reds to an equaliser in what ultimately turned out to be a drab defeat on home soil.
Final score: Manchester United 0-1 Real Sociedad (Mendez 59’ [pen])
Man of the matchEmbed from Getty Images
Christian Eriksen has been building up a small repertoire of good performances in recent weeks, and his quality was there for all to see again on Thursday night.
The Danish midfielder appears to be essential to the Ten Hag system at Old Trafford, and with his eye for a pass and quality in making those passes happen from deep, you can see why.
The 30-year-old operated once more as a box-to-box midfielder against La Real, with most of United’s best sequences having him involved. He hardly set the world on fire in the defeat, but you can see what he offers this United side at the moment, often helping with ball retention and transitioning the ball from back to front.
The bigger pictureEmbed from Getty Images
After clocking up four impressive wins on the bounce, fans are disappointed that the win streak has come to end against a rather average side in Real Sociedad. In reality, the game was more of a 0-0 draw, and probably should have been a draw had it not been for a bewildering refereeing decision around the hour mark. Sociedad never looked like scoring at any point in the game, really.
Supporters knew prior to the season starting that there were bound to be ups and downs in this Ten Hag rebuild, and the defeat to Sociedad is an example of a down. United were an absolute mess last season, so this sort of result should not come as a major surprise. Inconsistency has been in and around the club for years- it will not suddenly disappear.
It was interesting to see certain players get game time who have been resigned to the bench of late. Whilst not playing particularly poorly, the likes of Maguire and Lindelof do not look as natural in the system as Varane and Martinez. Similarly in the midfield, Fred does not suit the system, as well as Eriksen, does.
It is important to not get carried away when the team are winning, but not to get carried away when they are losing, either. Fans and pundits are looking for steady improvement across the course of the campaign, and time will ultimately tell if that progress comes to fruition.
Due to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II prior to the game being kicked off, most sporting events are being cancelled this weekend as a mark of respect for Her Majesty, which means the game against Crystal Palace is postponed until a later date (TBC).