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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United’s greatest hits

United fell into all this season’s worst habits against Watford

Watford FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Leila Coker/ MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s a testament to how the rest of the Premier League is playing that Manchester United have hit the halfway point of the season eighth in the table despite winning just six games. Had United won this past weekend, they would have been fifth, just four points back of the Champions League places.

But, like the rest of the league, United haven’t been able to find any consistency. Just when you think they’ve taken a step forward, they take another one back.

I’ve been writing these tactical analysis pieces for about half a season now. I’m not going to lie, it’s starting to get a little difficult to find new angles to take every time they pick up another 1-1 draw to a bottom of the table club.

In Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to dead last Watford, they made my life extremely easy. As they hit the halfway point of the season, it was as if United decided to release a “greatest hits” album to recap all the tactical reasons they are where they are this year.

There was: being wasteful when you get an early chance on the break.

Not finishing good chances.

Being slow on the ball.

United’s forwards, other than the number 10, not moving or giving the midfielders any options.

Which then forces the midfielders into making lateral pass after lateral pass. And since the Scott McTominay-Fred partnership is functional but not creative, it means the onus of the line-breaking pass has to come from none other than Victor Lindelöf.

When the midfielders do finally play a good ball to a forward, if it’s not Anthony Martial then no one else can take a good touch with their back to goal.

And then of course there was Jesse Lingard very much not being a number 10.

And who could forget lazy defending and a completely unnecessary foul?

Which sets up the terrible set piece defending and, as an added bonus, this week’s David de Gea howler.

The only thing this game was missing from what we’ve previously covered was Andreas Pereira on the pitch being rubbish.

This match really had everything in “why Manchester United lose” bingo.

There was only one thing missing and I don’t even want to call it by its name. I hate the phrase so much. I’m talking about the quote unquote low block.

We never heard the term “low block” until this year, specifically on Sky Sports after the first game of the season. José Mourinho spoke about how United thrived by picking apart Chelsea on the break, but when they came up against teams that defend in two low blocks of four, they would struggle.

He was right. United have struggled mightily against teams that defend deep this year. My problem is the term “low block” has now become some sort of online buzzword for people to just say after United lose to a team that’s lower than them in the table and sound like they know what they’re talking about.

It was no different after the Watford match. Fans lamenting that yet again when Untied face a low block they drop points. The manager must be clueless.

I’ve got no problem with anyone criticizing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. I’ve done it myself and he certainly deserves to be criticized after this match. But if you just want to yell that once again Solskjaer failed to break down a low block then you’re outing yourself as someone who just looked at the score and didn’t actually watch the match.

Because here’s the thing, and in my opinion, this makes the loss that much worse. Watford didn’t play a “low block!” They came out and attacked United. They left themselves open to be attacked. United couldn’t do it. United just flat out got beat.

Right from the get go Watford were throwing men forward. They even pressed United as soon as they lost the ball, hoping to win the ball back right away.

Once Watford went 1-0 up, knowing United’s struggles to break down teams, you would really expect sit back and defend deep. Did they? Of course not, they kept pushing and won a penalty two minutes later.

This is not a “deep block.” Just look at how many men they have forward!

Even when they went 2-0 up they didn’t stop. Here they are with under 20 minutes to go, and they still have men forward.

The “deep block” lets teams walk up the field. They concede the territory all the way until their own 18 yard box. Then they pack in together and restrict the space you have to get close to goal (what Colchester did). They concede the space because the most important part is not letting you get in behind.

Watford were defending compactly, not deep. They weren’t conceding territory on the field to United. Even when United were being slow and playing lateral balls, Watford weren’t deep. There was space behind them and United just weren’t exploiting it.

Playing higher up the field and sending men forward should leave them open at the back, where United could be so lethal, and it did. Within minutes United got in behind.

United get a break that they’re just so wasteful on. Dan James slows up as soon as he gets the ball. His final ball isn’t great; it’s behind Martial. Rashford is making a weird run, and despite being at the top of the box, Martial doesn’t realize he has all the room in the world to play Rashford in.

United played this game in slow motion. It started with the press, or rather a lack thereof.

Not pressing Watford was weird — United are one of the top pressing teams in Europe — but it wasn’t unprecedented. Just two weeks ago they came out against City and didn’t press them at all.

I thought the tactic was strange, but understandable. United have a thin squad and a lot of games coming up. They need to save their legs. Besides, it’s not like they weren’t pressing at all. They may not have been aggressively pressing, but they were still pushed up as a unit, and cutting off passing lanes which forced turnovers.

The problem on Sunday was what happened when the turnover came. All season long Solskjaer has talked about wanting his players to play on the front foot. Win the ball and immediately attack. The first pass is key.

Look at what Scott McTominay does when he intercepts this long ball.

Nothing. Just a small layoff to Fred, who holds it for a bit and then gives it back to the defenders.

That was the story of the match for United. Everything was just too slow. The risk wasn’t there. The forward runs weren’t there. Look at this situation in the first half when United had a chance to go on the break.

United go from defense to offense quickly. The passing is quick too but the ball out to Luke Shaw is painfully slow. Shaw, not a player known for speed these days, is moving at half speed and still has to stop his run to wait for the ball. By the time it gets to him, Watford have seven players back. There’s no more break.

That was the match in a nutshell. Slow, slow, and more slow. There was no urgency from United. I understand that when you’re not in an aggressive press you don’t need to fly around when defending, but when you do get the ball you can’t play at the same speed. You need to pick it up.

United didn’t fail to break down a low block on Sunday. They just flat out got beat. That happens in football but it can’t happen when you’re consistently dropping points to teams you should be beating.

If it wasn’t impressive enough that this game featured nearly all the things that have slowed United down this season, the final 25 minutes also gave them a glimpse of what they were missing and what they can welcome back in the second half of the year.

With 25 minutes to go Paul Pogba saw his first action since the end of September. Immediately United changed and had a pulse.

It wasn’t long before Pogba was linking up with Anthony Martial again, and then making the run, to create what was probably United’s most dangerous moment of the second half.

Or how about reminding United what it’s like to have a midfielder who can make inch perfect long balls?

United took 13 shots against Watford. Five of them came in the first 64 minutes (and Scott McTominay had three of them). The other eight came over the final 25 minutes after Paul Pogba was introduced. That’s a big difference, and United’s xG chart for the match shows as much.

Pogba’s introduction was too little too late Sunday. It wasn’t United’s day, but not because Watford sat deep. Nobody besides Pogba played well, and for as bad as the players were, questions have to be asked of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Paul Pogba is back now, and with his agent saying that Pogba wants to be in Manchester (whether you want to believe that or not is a different question), you’ll have a determined Pogba the rest of the way. Now the onus is on Solskjaer to prove himself as a manager.

Beating the top teams is great, but over the next five months if he wants to prove that he’s the right guy to lead Manchester United, he’ll have to get this team to start consistently beating the others as well.