Herrera on the ball ... even when he's not
Ander Herrera was spotted more than once imploring his team-mates either to work back and defend and/or to help the team regain their defensive shape (a José Mourinho man if ever there was one). It is this awareness as much as his understated influence on the ball that made the man of the match stand out.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan's answer when asked for his recollections of his goal revealed just how deep a thinker the Spaniard is, even in the heat of battle. "To be honest, I shouldn't have been there," said the Armenian international. "I should have been around the [edge of the] box, but as I had a yellow card Ander Herrera said it would be better if I got involved in the corner, and stayed in front of the goalkeeper."
Fellaini the target man
You knew that virtually every United goal kick, free-kick and corner would be aimed at Marouane Fellaini. The Ajax defenders knew it too. And yet, nine times out of ten, the big Belgian prevailed in the air – in fact, his 15 aerial duels won was a record for any UEFA Europa League game. He always gave the Red Devils an option for an out ball, and his physicality and presence clearly unsettled Ajax.
In contrast, the Eredivisie side's target man, Kasper Dolberg, rarely won his challenges and was largely peripheral. Without room to run into behind the United defence, he was forced to scrap for loose balls and speculative passes. He invariably came off second best.
Ajax need space to work their intricate triangles and fashion openings. Manchester United simply refused to grant them any. They bossed the midfield and harried any red-and-white clad opponent who had the ball. Relentlessly. Both Bertrand Traoré and Amin Younes repeatedly ran out of options.
Ajax were forced to retreat, regroup and try again. The Dutch team had two-thirds of possession in the first half yet still went in 1-0 down. Nothing materially changed after the break. Mourinho's men had a clear plan and stuck to it throughout. As a result, the swashbuckling, dynamic play evident in Ajax's quarter and semi-final home wins never featured.
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