A sensible approach. No need to spend money for the sake of things, but you can still invest in some young talent as Poch has.
2022-23 SECOND HALF : CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DÉJÀ VU
Probably a result of many factors, one of which was likely the insane schedule crunch caused by the World Cup, the cream of the English crop rose to the top across almost all competitions. With a smattering of players tired after the World Cup and teams playing three games a week in some instances, the big boys were able to take the strain best and seemed to be every present in the latter stages of the EFL, FA, and Champions League. Mauricio Pochettino adopting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s use of a first and second squad was a massive advantage, having fresh legs turned out to be a bigger deal than one might have thought.
MATCH(ES) OF THE SECOND HALF
Champions League (A) : City 2(2) - Manchester United 4(4)
The primary advantage Pochettino had coming into this game was the tepid 0-0 first leg result at Old Trafford. Massimiliano Allegri had that creepy smile on his face after that one, sandwiched between massive wins (7-0 against Everton and 11-0 against Southampton) it made it seem like Allegri had figured United out. Failing to score at Old Trafford meant that City would need to win this one outright, and United hadn’t lost since September.
Allegri’s choice of a 4-1-2-3 was a good move, it worked to slow down United and put City in a position to advance for all of 8’. Ousmane Dembélé would work the ball in close and chip it across the goal for Jadon Sancho to head it in, that’s roughly when all hell broke loose. Bernardo Silva would score a stunning goal at 12’ after United’s defensive line rushed up on a deflected corner, Houssem Aouar would collect the ball and pass it to the top of the arc for Bernardo to hammer it into the far side of the goal with nobody between him and the net. With the score 1-1 things got really tense, but that was in City’s favor as it meant Sandro Tonali was doing his job as a midfield destroyer. Things got even better for the Italian when he scored at 43’ to put City in the lead, once again a set piece fell City’s way and Tonali managed to make it count.
Pochettino must have given a stirring speech in the locker room, United came out in the second half and finished off their noisy neighbors like champions. At 55’ Dembélé did a Sancho impression, receiving a cross at the back post from Jorge, only to have Ederson block the shot. The ball went right back to Dembélé and he was able to react quickly enough to score point blank and put United level at 2-2. City didn’t have much on the attack in the second half, but they did do an excellent job of slowing down the United attack. City had a few chances but the game rolled into stoppage time with the hosts tired and looking at elimination, Sancho clinched it with a killer goal at 90+2’ and Florentino Luís finished them off a minute later to pour more salt on the wound. Sancho’s huge game would earn him a PoM award and the love of half of Manchester. The win would earn them a place in the next round against Liverpool, broadcasters and advertisers couldn’t have asked for a better run of fixtures.
Champions League (N) : Atlético Madrid 1 - Manchester United 2
Essentially a home game for United, the Champions League final would fill Wembley to capacity with fans draped in red. This would be United’s third cup final here this season, hoisting yet another trophy would cap an incredible season for Pochettino. Atlético Madrid, now managed by Marcelino, would still look like a Diego Simeone side. After winning La Liga in the 2020-21 season Marcelino has been stuck in 3rd, but a win today would have them back on top of the world.
This game was just what anyone would have expected of Atlético Madrid, Jose Mourinho would have been proud of the 4-4-2 bus that Marcelino parked right in the middle of the Wembley pitch. It would be generous to say this game was boring in the first half, Marcelino managed to grind United down to a halt and force them into taking long shots. Jan Oblak had an easy start to the game, he was barely troubled by United’s shooting even when it was on target. Things got easier for him in the second half when Tete scored at 66’ to put some serious pressure on Pochettino. Jean-Clair Todibo would head a Thomas Lemar cross out, but not far enough, and João Félix would get the ball near the penalty spot and find Tete unmarked at the far post. Now Marcelino could really park the bus and play for penalties if United managed to pull even, this game was going to be a major grind.
Things were working out well as United picked up the pace and piled on the shots, Atlético formed a 4-4 wall with David Okereke hanging back to make a wall of players happy to be in the way. Finally things broke Pochettino’s way when Dayot Upamecano headed in a corner at 81’, and then everything came crashing down for Atlético after a rare mistake. João Félix intercepted Bruno Fernandes out wide while trying to hit a cross in and passed the ball to Tete inside the box to start an attack. Okereke and Tete collided trying to collect the pass and when Tete tried to turn with the ball Todibo was right there to knock it forward to Rashford who passed it back to Sancho around the penalty spot where he wouldn’t miss. Oblak stood frozen, he never saw the shot coming and all but three Atlético players had turned to run upfield. Down 2-1 at 85’, tired and geared up to defend, Atlético had nothing left.
Once again Sancho had come up big when the team needed it most. With Marcus Rashford having a bad game it meant even more that Sancho was able to get it done yet again. The win would be United’s second in a row, their fifth overall, and the final piece to a sextuple for the ages. Could Liverpool’s European perch be in danger? Does Pochettino have three more Champions League titles in him?
As mentioned previously, the second half of the season had a lot to do with squad depth and exhausted players. Time and time again, even against some of the biggest teams in Europe, United would line up against players struggling to stay fit who were visibly out of gas compared to United’s players. This turned out to be a big edge as Pochettino’s side put teams away late in games even when they didn’t look like the better team.
The many cup competitions became repetitive as fixtures with rivals just kinda blurred together, Manchester City’s Massimiliano Allegri must be getting really sick of seeing Pochettino by now. Just in the month of January the Manchester Derby was played out in the Carabao Cup Quarter Final (5-1 loss to United), the FA Cup (3-0 loss to United), and Premier League (0-0 draw) with the noisy neighbors coming up short in all of them. United would face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final, a 4-2 win, where Thomas Tuchel’s team looked like they were going to pass out by the 60’ mark. It would be déjà vu all over again for Tuchel when the two rivals would face off in the Emirates FA Cup Final, a 4-1 United win, where Tuchel had to send out a bunch of tired players to face a well rested second squad who only conceded after an Armel Bella-Kotchap tackle resulted in a penalty. The latter stages of the Champions League would be the same thing, as Pochettino had to go through Liverpool and Manchester City on their way to the final. In both instances Liverpool and City were almost playing with one hand (foot?) tied behind their back, if they dialed back their pressing United would own the field and if they maintained it they were broken down by the end of the game. The fixture crunch was an excellent advertisement for not altering domestic schedules to accommodate a poorly conceived World Cup, FIFA knew this coming in but they were not about to take responsibility for it.
The fixture crunch and fitness issues really helped United rip the league apart as a wide lead only seemed to grow by the day. From January on it was hard for anyone to keep United from scoring and they managed brutal wins against Watford (6-0), Brighton & Hove Albion (11-0), Everton (7-0), Southampton (11-0), Leicester (8-0), and a string of eye popping results when the league had already been won (Crystal Palace 5-0, Norwich 6-0, Wolves 5-0, and Chelsea 5-0). The beneficiaries of this offensive explosion were Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial, who had turned into a deadly scorer on the back post. An extended run at the end of the season, thanks to winning the league early and a deep Champions League run, allowed the second squad to rack up goals at an impressive pace. United’s 2-1 win over Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final would cap off a (49) game unbeaten streak across all competitions, great way to pile up silverware.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that United’s rough(er) first half coincided with a bunch of injuries, and a truly excellent second half also coincided with a light injury report. Eva Carneiro earned a break after the stress of the first half, nobody should have to talk about David De Gea’s leg that much.
Dani Olmo suffered an ankle ligament injury in late February which was more noteworthy for opening up a spot on the roster for Danny Ginger, but he was only out for (2) weeks. March was much worse as Albin Elmander would be ruled out for (3) weeks after suffering a concussion in practice, and Luca Pellegrini would miss (3) weeks with an ankle sprain suffered in an FA Cup game against Spurs. The worst injury, that wouldn’t really have an impact on the squad, would be László Puskás damaging his ACL. The youngster would be ruled out for (5) months, and once returned it would be a long journey to regain his match fitness. This is a sad one, it will likely be a year before United can evaluate his place in the squad.