Nobody was surprised when Manchester United struggled against Everton and League Two side Colchester United right after successive 2-1 victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. That’s been the theme of United’s season. They’re lethal on the break but struggle to break down teams that sit deep.
So the question is: why can’t they break these teams down?
The obvious answer is that they lack a creative midfielder, a true number 10. There’s no argument there, but that’s not the only thing holding them back. After all, even in the six games Paul Pogba played this year United only once managed to score more than a goal in a game.
United’s problem, however, extends beyond the person making the pass. Bringing in a world class attacking midfielder would undoubtedly help, but the real creativity problem lies farther forward.
United don’t have creative forwards.
What does that mean? Creativity is a two way street. Playing a ball into space is only a fantastic play if there is someone running into that space to get the ball. That is precisely where United struggle.
This isn’t anything new. Just look at how painfully stagnant United’s forward line was in the buildup to Daniel James’ equalizer against Crystal Palace.
No one is moving, and no one is giving Pogba options. He’s forced to try and jam a pass through a very tight window and it’s no surprise it doesn’t work.
This was on prime display again last week against Everton and Colchester. In the latter match, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started Andreas Pereira next to Nemanja Matić in midfield. Pereira in midfield is an experiment that really hasn’t worked this season, but with Colchester sitting so deep he didn’t really have any defensive responsibilities and just acted as a deep lying playmaker.
Now, you can say what you want about Pereira, and believe me I have said nearly everything there is to say about Pereira, but he actually played pretty well Wednesday night. Or, if you don’t want to dish out too much praise, he played completely adequately.
In his deep lying role he spearheaded United’s attack and witnessed first hand the same agony that Pogba has been dealing with this year. What happens when there’s no one available to pass to?
I cut this clip down to about 15 seconds but this whole sequence went on for about 30. Just passing it around because, well, there’s nothing else to do. Look at Marcus Rashford, look at Anthony Martial, look at Mason Greenwood. They’re all just so painfully stagnant.
Here Pereira tries moving the ball across the field only to get it right back. He then lofts in an unlikely cross because he has no other options. No one is moving.
Here Pereira plays a good ball into a dangerous area of the box. There’s only one problem — there’s no United player making that run. Pereira isn’t under pressure, he can see that no one is going there and therefore he shouldn’t play that ball, but the fact that none of United’s forwards, or Ashley Young, also saw that space and tried to make a run for Pereira is a problem!
You’ll notice in those three clips that there’s one player who doesn’t stop moving: Juan Mata. Mata has always been one of the best players at making off the ball runs. He runs not just for himself, but to create space for his teammates.
Oftentimes a player will make a run to get behind the defense, but they’re not in a goal scoring position. It’s just a move to advance the ball and get the defense moving. The key here is your forwards spotting that run and making secondary runs off it.
It’s supposed to look like this.
The ball gets played in to Rashford, Martial breaks for the back post, Rashford squares it and Martial taps it in.
Unfortunately, United’s forwards are really bad at making these secondary runs. They barely do it.
Here Martial gets played in, but no one supports him. Rashford hangs out unhelpfully at the top of the box, Mata breaks in slowly and is covered. Greenwood is open, but there are six players between him and the ball. It’s only at the very last minute where Mata tries to drop back towards the top of the box but by then it’s too late. Rashford should have been going there.
A few minutes earlier United actually show some movement and string together some one touch passes. Rashford gets in deep off a 1-2 with Luke Shaw and then Mata. In this case, Mata, Martial, Greenwood, and even Ashley Young all go straight to the net. No one thinks to tail back towards the penalty spot for a pull back (which was wide open). In this case with Greenwood already more central than Martial, that’s the run Martial should have made, giving Rashford another option besides a tight angle shot/cross.
In the second half Matić plays in Shaw who gets to the byline. Martial and Greenwood charge the box, but what does Rashford do? Nothing! He doesn’t even jog straight in behind Shaw. Look at how much space there is! That’s right in Rashford’s wheelhouse.
This is all when United get the ball in behind the defense. Just getting it behind the defense seems to cause United trouble, and that all stems from United’s forwards having no creativity. When United’s front line have the ball, they often resort to just trying 1-2s, only too often they don’t even look like they’re on the same page when doing that.
Take this instance against Everton.
Shaw plays the ball to Rashford who with one touch gives it back to Shaw. Why? I don’t know, it did nothing. What Rashford didn’t see is what Shaw was trying to do.
As soon as Shaw passes the ball he breaks forward looking at this massive amount of space in behind the fullback.
Rashford somehow never sees that and doesn’t think to take a touch and then play Shaw down the line. Unbelievable.
Considering Rashford’s form this year, I’ve suggested, on more than one occasion, that it may not hurt to try playing Rashford as United’s number 10 (so he can act like a second striker). Every time I do there are some in the comments section who say Rashford’s lack of vision and decision making would make him a poor choice in that position. Based on the above example, those commenters are correct.
The thing about trying a million 1-2s is that when they do finally work, the defense is expecting them and can easily deal with them.
Or United may panic when they do get through and try to force a ball that shouldn’t get played.
There’s also this little caveat. Breaking down a tightly packed defense isn’t supposed to be easy, that’s why bottom of the table clubs employ the tactic. They require a great pass to be played through a very small window, and then the receiver of said pass to bring it in perfectly.
Look at this situation against Everton.
James gives the ball back to Scott McTominay and does the right thing, making a hard run right back into the box. The pass to McTominay opens a small window as the right back is already stretched and the midfielder is going out to close down McTominay.
McTominay does the right thing too; he fires a hard pass into the space between the left back and center back. If played right, James is in on goal.
But then James takes a bad touch. He uses the outside of his right foot, as opposed to letting it roll on to his left and behind the defenders. Not only does he keep it on the outside of his right, but his touch is poor and it disrupts his running. Once he recovers, Everton have enough time to close him down and force him into a weak shot.
James is only 21. This is an area of his game that he needs to, and will, improve on. Had he taken a good touch on his left foot, the right back is out of the play and he probably could have gotten a half step on the center back.
A good number 10 will help out in all those areas. Notice how in almost all these examples the most prominent player out there is Juan Mata. Mata is by far United’s best number 10, but at this point in his career his legs and pace don’t allow him to be a big contributor in the Premier League.
Creativity is a two way street. You need the vision and the pass, but you also need the receiver and the finish. You can have Tom Brady as your quarterback, but if your receivers can’t catch anything how much can he really help you?
Regardless of who’s on the field, playing the great ball hasn’t really been United’s problem this year. They’ve out created their opponents in nearly every game they’ve played. They have the fourth highest xG in the league, and they’re third in expected points. They are where they are because they just aren’t clinical. The killer ball comes and this is what happens.
I’m going to give Greenwood a pass here because he’s 18 and this is a difficult ball. But it’s also a very good ball from Pereira and he deserves credit for seeing it and hitting it so well.
Against Everton, McTominay also found out what happens when you have to rely on others to finish off your great pass.
This isn’t the easiest angle for James (the ball runs just a little wide), but he has Lucas Digne beaten so bad that he easily could have pulled this onto his left and gotten a better shot (or probably drawn a penalty).
Victor Lindelöf got to experience it first hand too.
Terrible finish from Rashford, phenomenal touch to bring this down. Three days later, that touch seemed to disappear.
And what are you even trying to do here Marcus?
We’ve spoken about this before. Rashford may be on fire this season but the lack of an end product (and his lack of creativity) is the difference between Rashford being a really good player and a great one. And in a team that’s built around Rashford being the main man, it’s hurting United.
When I wrote that piece just over a month ago, Rashford had an open play conversion rate of 12.12% (and 13.63% in all competitions). Since then, he’s scored five goals in six matches (three open play goals) but his conversion rate has gone down to 11.76%. He’s right up there with the top guys when it comes to getting shots, but his NPxG per shot is among the worst among top strikers in Europe.
The average conversion rate among that select group of strikers is 19.25% (in the league). If Rashford was just bang on average (among this group of top forwards), he’d be sitting on 9.81 open play goals. That’s either three or four (if you want to round up) more goals than he currently has.
How much would an extra four goals be worth to United? Obviously those goals could have come in the drubbings over Brighton and Norwich in which case the answer is not much. But just think if he’d scored once against Southampton and Everton (or Aston Villa). Right there that’s an extra four points, which is currently the difference between 6th place and being level with Chelsea.
Part of the reason for Rashford’s low conversion rate and what his low xG per shot is telling us is that he’s not getting good shots. That all comes back to the lack of creativity up front. Without movement, without inventiveness, without the final ball, without the secondary runs, it’s very difficult to create good chances.
For now, United’s bare-boned midfield is doing just enough creatively. What they need is for the attacking line to start contributing.