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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United succeed by being bold on the ball

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A breakdown of United’s last two wins shows that United are better when they aren’t afraid to take risks

Partizan Belgrade v Manchester United: Group L - UEFA Europa League Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

In a results based business, it was a good week for Manchester United. They played two games, winning them both to secure their first away win since March and their first Premier League away win since February. They also (finally) scored more than one goal in a game.

Outside of the results, it wasn’t as pretty. The two games against Partizan Belgrade and Norwich City could not have been more opposite. Whereas United ran rampant on Sunday against Norwich, they slogged to a 1-0 win midweek that one could argue they were lucky to win.

We’ll look at both today, a two-for-one special.

Partizan, frankly, was the same kind of game United had played all season. They failed to generate many chances, and were even worse at converting the ones they did, but didn’t concede any great chances either holding Partizan to just 0.75 xG. The difference between this game and the ones against Newcastle or Wolves is that Partizan didn’t convert any of their chances, while Wolves and Newcastle did.

Following the Liverpool match, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave more insight into his tactics and how he wants his team to play.

“I spoke about it before the game: take more risks, be braver, it doesn’t matter if you lose the ball up there, you can win it back. Being more direct helps us.”

In other words: be bold on the ball. Don’t be afraid to lose it.

Against Partizan United looked the same way they did whenever they’ve been without Paul Pogba this year. No creativity. United only took four shots all game. They only put one of them on target and that was Anthony Martial’s penalty.

It was, to put it lightly, ugly, and it all came from United not being bold on the ball.

Solskjaer returned to the 3-4-1-2 formation that was so effective against Liverpool and actually turned it into more of a 3-1-4-2 with James Garner sitting in front of the defense and Scott McTominay pushing up next to Juan Mata.

Part of the concept of that formation is to bypass the midfield and have the defenders play line breaking passes. That means that United’s forward lines need to be able to play with their backs to the goal and be able to hold up play. That is not something Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard are particularly adept at doing.

When the passes are actually controlled, that’s when it’s time to be bold on the ball. With your back to goal you need to either have someone running in behind you, or you need to be willing make a move to turn towards the goal.

Every time Mata, Lingard, McTominay got the ball, whether it be with their back to goal or even on the half turn, they seemingly refused to turn towards goal and look at their options. It was almost as if there was someone in their head shouting “play the way you’re facing! play the way you’re facing!”

Quick one touch passes don’t help when everyone is being stagnant. You need to have confidence to take on defenders. Martial was the only forward who seemed to be willing to turn on the ball, but was then left with no support. The only other players who were particularly bold on the ball were defenders Marcos Rojo and Brandon Williams, making it no wonder that Williams was United’s most dangerous attacker.

It should come as no surprise that United’s goal came as soon as the risk averse midfield decided to take a risk.

McTominay wins the ball and plays it quickly to Mata, who finally makes the half turn up the field. By looking up, he sees Williams in space down the left flank and Williams makes a powerful move to win the penalty.

There are plenty of things that can go wrong here. Mata could easily mishit that ball. Williams could easily take a bad touch. But that’s OK! Remember Solskjaer’s words, “it’s ok to lose the ball up there because we can just go and win it back.”

If you play that ball enough times, you’ll get it right on a few of them. United were lucky that they got it right the only time they did it.

For more on United’s decisions on the ball, I highly recommend reading through this thread.

Solskjaer’s second half substitutions were certainly questionable. I understand the thinking. A 1-1 draw away in Europe isn’t a bad result, and with a half hour left he was trying to not wear his team down ahead of a crucial Premier League match.

It got dicy at the end when Solskjaer called off the press, making things far too easy for Partizan.

United were probably a little lucky to hold on for a 1-0 win, but then again they were unlucky to concede those goals against Wolves and Newcastle. That’s football balancing itself out. Solskjaer gambled and he won.

Result aside, Solskjaer was clearly frustrated with the performance. As he should have been. We established last week that Solskjaer has a tactical plan, but the players on the field weren’t executing it. On Thursday, it literally looked like they were doing the opposite of what he said.

On Sunday, it was almost as if it all magically clicked in the players’ heads. Reverting to the 4-2-3-1 with a midfield pair of McTominay and Fred, United were far more direct and much bolder on the ball. The result was a whopping 11 shots on target from 21 shots, the most they’ve taken in a match without Paul Pogba in the last four years.

This was no doubt aided by the return of Anthony Martial. The Frenchman’s return allowed Marcus Rashford to play in his best position down the left, where he operates more as a second forward than a winger. Dan James took up the other spot on the wing, letting Andreas Pereira finally get a chance to play as a number 10.

Getting your best striker back certainly helps, but United’s onslaught came from individual players significantly raising their games. The first 10-15 minutes were slow; it was lateral passes that looked too similar to the Newcastle match for anyone’s liking.

The breakthrough came around the 18th minute, when United finally got a shot on target.

This is big for a multitude of reasons (not just that United actually got a shot). Let’s start with what Pereira sees when he first gets the ball.

The ball is bouncing. It’s not easy to control. Pereira could body off the ball and settle it down, knowing he has a safety valve in Fred behind him. He could also try and play it square to Rashford, a little riskier, but still an option and — let’s be honest — last week he would have chosen one of these two options.

Instead Rashford breaks forward, taking away the passing lane, but also letting Pereira know they can break. Pereira turns on the ball to look forward! He’s immediately closed down by a Norwich player but Pereira attempts a move and successfully gets by him. He can do that because if he loses the ball he has Fred and McTominay behind him.

That leads to a break where Rashford and Martial run at the defense, and suddenly you have a chance. United should have scored off the ensuing corner if not for a brilliant save by Tim Krul.

This was big if only because it showed United finally developed a new corner routine besides “put it on Maguire’s forehead.”

Martial’s presence would soon be the difference again. Without him in the team, United had no one who could play with their back to the goal. It can’t be understated how valuable his hold up play is to this team.

Maguire with the big pass forward, Martial lays it off to James who fires a long ball to Rashford.

Just like Mata’s pass to Williams on Thursday, that’s a risky ball. A lot can go wrong and it can easily be overhit. But again: don’t be afraid to lose the ball up the pitch because you can always win it back.

The second half offered more of the same from United. Their boldness on the ball quickly translated into chances in front of Norwich’s goal.

Again Pereira gets the ball in an interesting position. He really doesn’t have many options when he first gets the ball.

A week ago, he’d probably try to get his right foot around the ball, box out the two Norwich defenders, and then play an easy ball over to Aaron Wan-Bissaka. This week he smashes his left foot through it towards Martial who’s dropping into space.

Martial can play it first time into space for James and suddenly the break is on.

James plays another first time ball towards Martial running into the box. This one didn’t work. Well, it shouldn’t have worked. Norwich make a mistake in playing that ball resulting in Martial getting a shot.

And that’s why you play that ball! Mistakes happen! And the more pressure you put on your opponents, the more likely your opponent will make a mistake.

Again, it all started with Pereira playing the ball forward. Daniel James could have kept possession and charged down the right wing. Instead he plays a ball in where plenty of things can go wrong. It’s risky, but if you keep playing it safe then you end up only getting four shots against Partizan, or six shots against Newcastle.

Where United’s second goal came from a risk, their third goal came from the other element of Solskjaer’s style and the other thing he spoke about after the Liverpool match. The press.

“It depends on what you call a counter-attack. We’re better when we attack quickly, no dilly-dallying, but it doesn’t have to be a counter-attack.”

Fred’s pressure forces Norwich to just get rid of the ball. Ashley Young comes in to intercept, and Rashford steps in to recover the ball. Immediately he one touches a pass to Martial who turns up the field to run at the defense. Rashford makes a run, a quick one-two later and the ball is in the back of the net. Quick, decisive.

This was far from a perfect match. The biggest problem United have had this season was on full display once again. They are far from a clinical team. They missed another two penalties, leaving them well short of their 4.51 xG (they were right on the money with a 2.99 non-penalty xG). Part of that is they ran into a hot goalkeeper, but it says something that United seem to routinely run in to hot goalkeepers.

The difference between this match and the ones at the beginning of the season is that they kept creating chances. Their 11 shots on target was just two fewer than the 13 total they had coming in to this match. The more chances you create, the more goals you’ll score.

The detractors will tell you to relax. That it’s just Norwich City, a team who are second from bottom in the table. At the end of the day, they’re right. But this is about the performance. The players should look at what happens when they’re bold on the ball and grow their confidence. They can build on that for their next match.

There are still areas to improve, but they’re starting to play the way Solskjaer wants them to play. We’re two months into the season and we’re seeing genuine improvement. It’s almost as if these things don’t happen overnight and need time to develop.

Just like we’ve been saying all season.