Following an underwhelming home draw with Aston Villa, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer entered last week on one of the hottest seats in English football. Winless in their last three games in all competitions, Manchester United now faced having to play José Mourinho’s resurgent Tottenham Hotspur and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the span of three days.
To make matters worse, their best center forward, Anthony Martial, left the Villa match injured and it was still unclear whether Scott McTominay would recover from an ankle injury.
United’s backs were against the wall and all they responded with were their two best performances of the season. The Red Devils dominated Spurs and City, picking up a pair of 2-1 victories that weren’t nearly as close as the scorelines suggested.
United’s record against the top clubs this season is excellent. They have five wins and two draws in seven matches against Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Leicester City in all competitions. A large reason for that is due to their ability to hit teams on the break, something Mourinho warned his Spurs side about prior to the match.
The casual observer may suggest that the tactics in these two wins were quite similar. United were the underdogs in both and therefore were able to just sit back and strike on the counter.
In actuality, it’s quite the opposite. These were two different games, with two different formations, and two different and almost opposite tactical plans.
How were they different? That’s what we’re here to answer.
Against Spurs United put on a defensive clinic. Against City the clinic was about counter attacking.
Against Tottenham, United came out in a very narrow 4-2-3-1. Just look at how narrow the full backs are when the game kicks off.
There’s a reason for this, and we’ll get to it in a minute.
As soon as the game kicks off, Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood launch United’s press, forcing Tottenham’s defense to clear their lines. That allows United’s formation to shape itself.
By playing narrow United are basically going to cede the wings. Why?
Because Tottenham can’t hurt you from the wings.
Spurs’ forward line is very narrow. “Wingers” Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son are both players who like to get inside. Tottenham’s width comes from their fullbacks, Serge Aurier and occasionally Jan Vertonghen.
Remember last seasons Champions League quarterfinal tie against Barcelona where Ashley Young was just dreadful? There’s a reason for that. Barcelona knew that United’s skill piled up on the left side with Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba. Barcelona loaded their defense up on that side, leaving United’s right wide open to essentially invite Ashley Young forward. They did it because they knew Young couldn’t hurt them and letting Young have the ball on the wings was easy to defend.
Against Spurs, United used the same tactic.
Aurier has good pace and can put in a decent cross, but neither him nor Vertonghen offer much in creativity. It’s better for United’s fullbacks to stay narrow and deal with the likes of Son, Moura, and Dele Alli and let the wingers track back on the fullbacks. That’s made even easier when you have a winger like Daniel James whose ability to track back is exceptional.
That is, of course, when Tottenham could even get the ball this deep.
With pressing, and defending, the number one objective isn’t necessarily to win the ball back right away, but to make sure your opponent can’t do what they want to do with the ball. If you succeed at that, you’ll usually get the ball back.
All season long United have been one of the best pressing teams in the league. They defend from the front, starting with their forward line. This helps keep the ball away from their own goal and is a major reason as to why they’ve conceded the lowest quality goal scoring chances in the league.
Against Tottenham, they changed it up.
After the initial burst from the opening kick off United scaled their press back a bit to more of a three-quarter press.
Lingard and Greenwood are content to let Tottenham’s defenders pass the ball amongst themselves. Their concern is cutting off the supply line to midfielders Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko. By doing that, they forced Spurs to bypass their midfield and just hoof long balls down the field.
Long balls are fine. United have defenders back to deal with them. They’re also very hard to get them consistently accurate, so most of the time they end up pretty harmless.
Interestingly there was one defender that United did pressure. When the ball found its way over to aforementioned left-back Jan Vertonghen — the weak link in Tottenham’s back line — pressuring him was most likely to result in a turnover.
Occasionally Spurs did try to play through the press, and when they got through, United’s high back line was there to clean it up.
As mentioned before, the biggest part of defending is not allowing your opponents to do what they want to do. By playing narrow, United were able to prevent Spurs from launching any counter attacks, even if they didn’t snuff them out.
Just look at how United get back as a unit. Every Spurs man is covered forcing Lucas Moura to pull up and wait for support.
After about half an hour, United pressed even less, allowing Tottenham to carry the ball over the halfway line. However they still remained very compact by maintaining a high defensive line.
United were unlucky to only be 1-0 up after 30 minutes, but at the end of the match they held Tottenham to just 0.54 expected goals. In other words, other than the Dele goal, they essentially didn’t let Tottenham get near their goal.
With just two days in between games and no on pitch training sessions, it would only be logical to assume United would have a similar game plan when they faced City.
United did exactly the opposite. There was no press.
Right from the get-go, United backed off City. Instead of defending high, they backed off as much as they could. They let City walk up the field.
United dropped deep. Really deep. Just look at the difference of where their defensive line is when Tottenham have the ball in the final third,
with how deep their line is when City have the ball in a similar albeit slightly more advanced position.
Just look at how deep Harry Maguire is.
It looked like United just wanted to defend with sheer numbers. Often they had as many as nine players in the box at once.
United may have been sitting deep the whole game, but their tactics had far more intricacies than that. For starters, there was the formation.
Despite flirting with a back three a few times this year Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has stubbornly stuck with a 4-2-3-1 even when United don’t have the right personnel for it. It looked like United were going to start the game in the same base formation as always.
It turned out it was anything but.
Out of possession, United’s 4-2-3-1 quickly turned in to a 4-3-3 with Dan James tucking inside to form a midfield three.
Once the ball went wide, James and Wan Bissaka would push out towards the flanks to defend, with McTominay dropping in to cover Wan-Bissaka.
Take a look at this instance from the match. Watch McTominay immediately fall in when the ball goes wide, leaving him in great position to pick up the run of Raheem Sterling.
When United won the ball back the formation changed again, not from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 but to an old school 4-2-4.
The purpose of this was clear. City’s full-backs play narrow, especially Kyle Walker, and United wanted James and Marcus Rashford to stay as wide as possible to pick on that weakness. Just look at how staying wide creates a beautiful chance for United on the break.
There were other intricacies too. While United weren’t pressing City much, if at all, they occasionally would. Watch Rashford immediately apply pressure when Kyle Walker gets the ball, and try to force him across the field towards City’s left.
There are two reasons for Rashford to do this. The first is to get Kyle Walker out of position.
Picking on Walker was a tactic United looked to exploit often. Walker plays very narrow and typically pushes up into midfield when City are attacking. If United could catch him out of position, it could cause chaos for City’s defense.
This happened a mere 90 seconds into the game.
Victor Lindelöf hits Lingard with an outlet pass and he immediately gets the ball wide to Rashford. By staying wide, and catching Walker out of position, John Stones then has to come over and defend Rashford. Walker has great recovery speed, but with so many moving parts in City’s backline, Dan James ends up getting played in for a shot.
United’s first goal started much the same way.
United sense an opportunity to pressure Walker, who’s out of position. Fred does a great job of releasing the ball quickly. Rashford is off to the races against John Stones and Bernardo Silva, two players not known for their defensive abilities. We all know what happens next.
Now, back to Rashford forcing Kyle Walker left. This had less to do with Walker and more to do with where United wanted the ball to go. Despite not pressing City, United would occasionally break their line to try and force City to go to their left.
The reason is simple. That’s where Aaron Wan-Bissaka is. In a game where United were backing off and sitting deep, Wan-Bissaka wasn’t. Just look at how tight he gets on Raheem Sterling, pretty high up the pitch.
All that space behind Wan-Bissaka invites Sterling to try and beat him down the touch line and if he does that, well, we know what happens.
Compare that with how United coped with City coming at them from the right, where Luke Shaw was manning the flank.
This is much more of a conventional full-back defending situation. Shaw has help, and it works. But when City attacks Wan-Bissaka, United don’t need to devote the same kind of help, leaving the middle better guarded.
Force the ball left because that’s where your better defenders are. How simple.
Falling back and dropping deep is a risky strategy. It invites pressure on your goal and where pressing puts an emphasis on team defending, this puts an emphasis on your individual players ability.
You also need players who are composed on the ball. If you’re sitting back and absorbing pressure, just hoofing the ball out won’t do anything. It’ll just bring the pressure right back at you.
When launching a counter attack the first pass is critical. When you win the ball deep you need players who will look to make that first pass rather than just clearing their lines.
This is where Victor Lindelöf was crucial. His ability to pass out from the back is vital for launching United’s deadly counter attacks.
Furthermore, for all the flack Lindelöf gets, he happens to be one of the best defenders on the ground in the Premier League.
In the Premier League this season, Victor Lindelöf ranks 4/61 in defensive duel success (77.5%) and 39/61 in aerial duel success (54.4%) from centre backs. pic.twitter.com/3SeKtpFlHa— UtdArena. (@utdarena) December 6, 2019
Considering that Spurs, and especially City, don’t typically pump crosses into the box, it’s no surprise that Lindelöf stood out in these games where his weakness was less likely to be exposed.
In two very different matches, United executed Solskjaer’s game plans to a tee, a feat all the more impressive considering the tactical challenges involved. Solskjaer is showing that he clearly knows what he’s doing, and the players look like they’re finally starting to get it.