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Manchester United Tactical Review: Lateral passes and more lateral passes

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All United know how to do is go sideways

Newcastle United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s no way to sugar coat it. There’s no spinning this one. There are no positives to take from Sunday’s loss to Newcastle.

This is a rebuilding season. Losses are going to happen. Painful losses are going to happen. Mistakes are going to be made. That’s all ok as long as you are learning from each and every one of those mistakes and losses. What gets learnt each week may not come to fruition until January, or February, or even April, but that’s ok too. Learning takes time.

Perhaps though, we can learn too. And Sunday’s display could be used as a good learning experience for fans.

With every loss United suffer the voices calling for #OleOut get louder. When asking someone who is #OleOut why, they’ll often come at you with an argument that is based on emotion and not on any sort of facts. The two most popular arguments are that Solskjaer has United in relegation form, and that there’s no clear style to how we’re playing.

First of all: things are bleak right now, but not only are United not in the relegation zone, they’re not on pace to be relegated either so pump the brakes there. Second of all, there is a style that this team is trying to play. There are coherent tactics. We’ve covered them on this site. The issue is that without their first choice players, specifically Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba, United’s players simply aren’t good enough to execute them.

Last season United were very susceptible to counter attacks. Last season United’s defense was awful. It wasn’t just because of a bad back four, it was because their midfield offered them no protection and they were very susceptible to counter attacks.

This year against Wolves we saw Solskjaer’s changes first hand. Wolves sat back and wanted to hit United on the counter, but United didn’t let them. That’s tactics that come from the manager.

After eight games United are still first in xGA. Not only are they not conceding good chances, they’re not conceding chances period. That’s not just because of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It’s because of a tactical shift in how they play.

Under José Mourinho, United would sit back and invite pressure. Probably not the best idea when you have a poor back four. This season they’re defending much higher up the field (ie: pressing).

As Jurgen Klopp made famous, the reason you press is because you win the ball back closer to the opponents goal and thus it should make it easier to score. By being a much better pressing team this year, United are doing that. It’s what happens next where everything falls apart.

United’s struggles this year have been trying to break down teams that sit and defend in low blocks. There are two keys to breaking down a low block: line breaking passes, and speed.

When teams lose the ball, their first priority is to regain their shape. You only have a second or two (at the max) to catch them out of position. You need to hit that first pass immediately.

Look no further than United’s goal against Crystal Palace. Paul Pogba goes and wins the ball back and immediately fires a sharp pass to Martial, finally catching Palace slightly open. The key here, is the pass is made immediately.

After a summer transfer saga there are still many fans (and media members, and former players) who don’t like Paul Pogba. They see him as disinterested. They think he’s not trying and most importantly, they think he’s not having an effect on the game.

They’d rather him just not play because they think his heart isn’t in it. They think we’d be better off with Scott McTominay because he’ll do anything for the shirt.

Well, over the past few weeks those fans have gotten their wish. Pogba’s missed three of United’s last four Premier League games and it hasn’t been pretty.

Without Pogba, United haven’t scored a goal from open play. Their xG dropped from 1.76 with him to 1.17 without him. Their shots per game dropped by over 10 shots from 17.60 to 7.33.

Why has this happened? Lateral passes. Lateral f***ing passes.

Since playing Pogba deeper put the onus of creation onto Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, it’s crucial to get the ball to them in open space. As I mentioned before, that means the first pass when United win the ball back has to come quickly.

Without Pogba, not only is it not coming quickly, it’s often not going forward. Look at this sequence off a Newcastle goal kick, where they actually pushed men forward.

Newcastle win the initial header, but the ball bounces right to Fred. Right away Fred can make a one touch pass to Juan Mata in space, who can turn and start an attack. He doesn’t. Instead he takes a touch and by the time he looks at Mata he’s not open, so Fred turns around and goes backwards.

You can even see Mata with his hands out pleading for the ball to be played to him. When the ball finally is played to Mata, he’s no longer open and he has no choice but to play a quick lateral ball to Ashley Young.

The ball is slow. Young has to wait for it and the possession amounts to nothing. Should Young have shown more urgency in running that ball and pushing forward? Absolutely, but by then Newcastle had already reset and the opportunity was lost.

It happens in the middle of the pitch too. When a midfielder gets the ball in space, you need to turn on the ball and look forward. Good things happen when you push forward. Not every time, in fact most of the time you’ll ultimately give the ball away, but if you just play it safe then nothing happens. That’s what Fred likes to do.

Fred is so unable or unwilling to try anything with the ball that Newcastle are completely unbothered to even defend him when he has it. Why should they? He’s not doing anything.

Once United do get forward, the lack of line breaking passes becomes an issue. Without them the defense is able to stay organized, and unless you want to take a risk, you don’t have many options. Thus you get... lateral passes.

The forward line doesn’t really help out their midfield here. They’re painfully stagnant. Watch as Juan Mata is the only one who even tries to lose his defender as the forward line moves across the field. It doesn’t work, mainly because the defense knows no one will even try to get the ball to Mata. And if they do, Mata won’t have any options because neither Marcus Rashford nor Pereira are trying to get open.

This would happen all game, because of course it would. No one wants to try and take a risk. They’d rather keep possession of the ball. The results of which are predictable.

This was part of a 44 second clip that was too long to gif. It was mostly exactly this. Fred looking up before sending it either off to the wing or to McTominay. When Newcastle did put a man slightly on him he’d turn and send it back to either Maguire or Axel Tuanzebe.

I don’t mean to pick on Fred here, simply because he’s not the only who does this. McTominay was doing it too and Nemanja Matić is just as bad if not worse than Fred when it comes to playing lateral passes.

Unsettling a defense requires running at the defense. It requires taking chances; taking risks. United’s one good chance from open play came exactly from that.

Andreas gets the ball with a defender all over him. Instead of playing a quick safe pass he takes a touch around the defender. Once he’s around the defender he’s now able to run at the back line. Additionally, United’s forwards are able to make runs. Does Pereira make the right choice to shoot from 30 yards out? Probably not, but it was the first time in 40 minutes that United looked dangerous.

Against a team that is sitting back you need to run at them to make things happen. That involves taking on players, taking risks. It doesn’t always work.

When it comes to Paul Pogba, some fans only see the turnovers. At the end of the game they only remember the passes he missed or the times he gave the ball away. If he plays every game, he’ll inevitably lead the team in turnovers.

That’s because Pogba is the only player in this team who takes risks. When Kevin de Bruyne won Player of the Year in 2017/18, no player in the league gave the ball away more than him. There’s a risk in trying to make things happen. De Bruyne plays with players who finish his chances, Pogba doesn’t.

Pogba tries to thread the needle on passes. He tries to take defenders on. When it doesn’t work he loses possession. But when it does, chances are created.

United have had two different managers since Pogba re-signed with the club. Each with different opinions about him and different idea for how to use him. But no matter how each of them used him, one thing remained the same. When Pogba started a match, United generated shots. When he didn’t play, the number per game dropped. Drastically.

This summer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chose to build his team around Pogba. With numbers like that, it wasn’t a bad idea. The issue was not signing a backup and becoming too dependent on one player.

Why didn’t they? Did Solskjaer not have anyone in mind? Was Woodward scared about the potential price of players? Did Woodward not fully want to back Solskjaer until he saw how his first transfers settled in? It’s probably a combination of all of them (they did try to sign Christian Eriksen but he turned them down, apparently).

Without Pogba, it’s no surprise United are struggling to generate an attack. He’s the only risk taker in the team (his team high 0.36 xGBuildup/90 suggests as much).

So the next time you see Pogba give the ball away, just remember what would happen if he wasn’t trying to make things happen. This is what you would get.

Lateral passes.