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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: How do you fix this mess?

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United have individual and tactical issues, but there are potential solutions using current personnel

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Oli Scarff - Pool/Getty Images

The dust has settled on what has been unequivocally a disaster of a first month of a season. Manchester United haven’t merely been bad so far, they’ve been terrible. The overarching theme of the first few games has been United’s players looking completely clueless as to where they’re supposed to be, which is weird because these are the same players who formed one of the most organized teams in the league last year.

The transfer window has now closed. Jadon Sancho is not arriving. Neither is an additional centerback or defensive midfielder. Ed Woodward ultimately failed in that regard. United have added some pieces but not all of them will even be available for Saturday’s match against Newcastle United.

The time for reinforcing the squad has passed. What you see is what you get. So how do you fix these current problems?

United currently have two big problems. Individual problems and tactical problems. Individually, nearly every player they need to rely on has been particularly awful. The midfielders being positionally poor and careless with the ball has just hung the defenders out to dry and made their jobs nearly impossible. Somehow the one player at the back we were all worried about — David de Gea — is the one player actually doing his job back there.

Tactically, United’s problems all start with the right wing.

Right Wing

Mason Greenwood is not ready for this job.

There’s a reason Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s number one priority this summer was Jadon Sancho. United’s right wing is currently a black hole.

Dan James got the bulk of the time there last season but has seemingly forgotten how to play football, leaving Solskjaer with few other options besides the 19-year-old Greenwood.

Greenwood’s playing time was limited in the first part of last season as Solskjaer didn’t want to give the youngster too much too soon, but also because he was a defensive liability. That’s not too much of a surprise. He’s naturally a center forward and at 18, it was expected that he’d have some gaps in his game that he still needs to develop.

Greenwood returned from the lockdown a completely different player. He showed his defensive and positional awareness in a fantastic display against Sheffield United. He scored four goals in United’s next three games to essentially make himself undroppable.

Greenwood’s good form was short lived, however. The more he played, the more teams learned how to play against him and the less effective he became.

Teams have now found out that Greenwood likes to shoot. Okay, we all knew that already, but other than shooting Greenwood doesn’t contribute much in open play. That makes it fairly easy to defend him.

Take this situation against Brighton. Greenwood gets the ball on the edge of the box, and four Brighton defenders converge on him. No one even pays attention to Harry Maguire, or Marcus Rashford at the top of the box.

If Greenwood could slip a pass to either of them, or the overlapping Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United might have something. Instead he pretty much handcuffs Rashford.

A week later against Tottenham it was even worse.

Again Greenwood gets the ball at the top of the box and four defenders converge on him. This time all he’d have to do is slip an easy ball straight ahead for Rashford. That would cause Davinson Sanchez to chase Rashford. With the ball heading towards the byline, Anthony Martial is free to make a near post run, while Bruno Fernandes can basically go to where Martial is. Either way Eric Dier has to choose which one to mark. That’s a lot of moving pieces for one very simple pass, but instead...

The argument for having Greenwood on the pitch is simple. He’s such an elite finisher that you feel like all he needs is one chance to make an impact on the game. As long as he’s getting, and finishing, those chances you can forgive the fact that he doesn’t contribute much in the other areas of play.

But Greenwood isn’t getting those chances anymore. Last season Greenwood actually played just as much in the Premier League before lockdown as he did afterwards (660 minutes apiece). Before lockdown, through mostly appearances as a sub, Greenwood was getting 2.86 shots per 90. After lockdown that dropped to 2.32, about half a shot fewer.

That’s not too big of a concern except for the location of his shots. This is Greenwood’s shot chart from both this season and last.

He doesn’t do a great job of getting himself into dangerous positions. For such a great finisher, you want him getting into the dirty areas (otherwise he’s just a great shooter). Granted, Greenwood plays on the wing but compare his chart to Marcus Rashford’s from last season, where he played predominantly on the opposite wing.

Rashford does a far better job getting himself into those danger areas, telling us that there is room for your wide players to get in the box. Greenwood is such a good shooter that his shot location isn’t a problem, but if teams are going to collapse four defenders onto you when you get the ball just outside the box, you’re not going to have much success.

At the moment, giving the ball to Greenwood on the edge of the box is no longer working. He needs to start making runs in behind, getting himself into the more dangerous areas, or passing to an open man who can hurt defenses when they collapse on Greenwood (preferably both).

Greenwood’s 19 so you don’t expect him to be the finished product yet, but if he’s not doing those things right now United can’t really afford to have him on the pitch. They’re better off moving him to a backup striker role and playing him more centrally (so he’ll get to those dirty areas) and using him as an impact sub to change a game when you can sacrifice a little defense.

So Greenwood can’t be your right winger week in week out. What else can you do?

A midfield diamond

It’s the formation many fans have been clamoring for for two years now. We’ve already gone over this in detail as to why it doesn’t work so I’ll be brief here.

Solskjaer has used the diamond a few times during his stint as United manager. Seven times in 2018-19 and once last season. Let’s see how it went.

It started well with two wins against Tottenham and Arsenal, though United were heavily outplayed in both of them. The Spurs match in particular was essentially stolen by David de Gea.

The diamond was best used when United were admitting they were facing a tough side and were trying to play Mourinho-Ball; congest the middle, sit deep, try to hit opponents on the counter (Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool). When they played it they failed to generate much of an attack and were typically worse defensively. (United played the diamond once last season against Everton — they conceded an xG against of 2.41 that game, their highest xGA of the season.)

In only one of those matches did Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial start up top together (the 3-0 loss to Barcelona). The nature of split strikers just doesn’t suit their game.

That’s ultimately what the diamond does. It takes United’s best players and takes them out of their best positions. Why would you do that?

It’s possible this is a system would work thanks to the additions of Van de Beek, Edinson Cavani, and Alex Telles, but we should really see how they settle in first before completely changing things up. Cavani isn’t even available for the Newcastle match anyway.

A Back Three

Another popular option. United sporadically used a back three last year to pretty good effect. Sort of.

There are many different types of a back three you can deploy but Solskjaer’s preference has been a 3-4-1-2 so he can play a number 10. (He tried a 3-4-3 against Sheffield United which was a disaster. The back three for Brugge away was something like a 3-2-2-2-1 and it was exactly as messy as that sounds.)

United had some great results with the back three.

They toppled Chelsea and Manchester City twice with the second City win probably ranking as their best performance of the season. Defensively they were pretty solid but again there’s a significant drop off in the attack. How significant? Just look at how they scored their goals when playing with that 3-4-1-2 formation.

Only three goals coming from open play. Thirty percent. Yikes. United don’t exactly score much from set pieces so playing a system that relies on them to be efficient from set pieces is pretty ballsy.

Now, part of that is due to who your opponents are, which is notable here. Let’s take a look at these games again.

Other than Partizan, every match Solskjaer used a back three was against one of United’s top four rivals. In each of these games Solskjaer was admitting that United couldn’t go toe-to-toe with their opponents, and that their best chance is to deny opportunities and hope to be efficient with their chances. If that sounds a lot like José Mourinho, it’s because it is.

The back three was never Solskjaer’s first choice — he never started Martial and Rashford there together — it was always picked due to circumstance and injury.

When Martial was hurt, Rashford struggled to play as the no. 9 and United lacked enough wingers to be threatening. When Rashford went down, Martial essentially had to try and be both Rashford and Martial, an impossible task.

The back three was supposed to alleviate that problem by freeing up the fullbacks to provide the width and bolster United’s defense. Just because United were more defensive with this formation last season doesn’t mean you have to be defensive with it.

With more offensive players available, the back three can be an offensive weapon and it’ll certainly help solve the problem of no right winger. But at the moment United still don’t have the forwards to play it.

Martial and Rashford can both play on the left of a two, but neither are at their best there. Greenwood played on the right of a two twice last year, and was invisible both times. In fact, United’s best forward in the split striker formation last year was Dan James.

Maybe with Cavani that changes and he can play that role effectively. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see the back three next week against Paris Saint-Germain and/or Chelsea, but against Newcastle, that’s asking for trouble.

So what else can be done?

Change the role of the RW

United’s current 4-2-3-1 system already has a pretty loose definition of the right wing role based on who’s playing there. When Greenwood is there, the player essentially operates as a wide forward. When James plays out on the right, he hugs the touchline and plays more like a natural winger. When Juan Mata plays there he plays as more of a right midfielder.

That last one is the key, because it could help solve a lot of problems for United. Mata has a tremendous football brain that adds so much to United’s attack. But the age in his legs have made him a once-a-week player, and given how he rarely had an impact in the Premier League last season, he’s a cup player now. That’s fine because United now have another player who operates like that — Donny van de Beek.

Mata likes to drop deep into midfield to help progress the ball and facilitate play...

(Note that the buildup to United’s best chance of the first half sure looks awfully similar to Mata’s goal in the second half.)

...then continue his run into a dangerous area.

United also need to bolster their midfield. Right now, that midfield isn’t protecting the back four in the slightest. Nemanja Matić’s random aggressive pressing has continually left Paul Pogba alone in midfield, which is not a recipe for success.

Naturally Pogba gets the blame for not being good enough defensively, but United’s xGA/90 with Pogba on the pitch (2.25) compared to when he’s not (4.97) suggests the Frenchman isn’t the problem, but certainly isn’t the solution either.

Pogba’s form does merit being dropped. He’s been far too careless with the ball in midfield. There are calls for Bruno to drop back to no. 8, but he’s been just as careless with the ball.

United really need to bolster their defense. That means bringing in Fred. Does he come in and play next to Pogba or Bruno? Or does he come in and play next to Matić or Scott McTominay?

Perhaps right now they need the more defensive option, but when United play with two defensive midfielders they often struggle to progress the ball. That in turn typically leads to Bruno dropping into midfield — which is fine, he prefers to be there — to help out with the ball progression tasks.

But when you have Bruno dropping deep, that leaves one fewer player up the field available to receive that pass. Or one of your midfielders swaps with him. If that’s Pogba, fine. If it’s not...you’re not exactly playing to their strengths here.

That’s where Van de Beek comes in. Van de Beek excels at finding space to receive passes in dangerous areas. If you have Bruno playing “the Mata role” you have the luxury of an additional player in midfield to progress the ball and still maintain (good) options ahead of you to receive those passes.

It also solves another problem. United struggle to build up from the right side of the field. There’s a notion that Aaron Wan-Bissaka can’t attack but that’s not particularly true. He’s much better than you think in the final third, but he offers nothing for United’s buildup play — and thus can’t get the ball to the final third. Here’s a Wan-Bissaka zone map showing where he’s good and where he struggles.

When Mata drops in to midfield, that allows Wan-Bissaka, or whomever is playing right-back, to push up into the front line.

Thus the onus of build-up play from the right side is taken off the fullback and put on to the extra midfielder. It’ll help United bypass Wan-Bissaka’s weaknesses and play to his strengths.

For now, this is probably the best way forward. It gives United flexibility to push Pogba up to the no. 10 spot if they need extra defensive cover in midfield, or because you’ll want him making late runs into the box behind the striker. You can then rotate between Pogba, Fernandes, Van de Beek, and Greenwood between the no. 10 and RW positions.

Fernandes would provide more creativity on the right side than United currently get, but he wouldn’t be stuck there. The “Mata role” still gives him freedom to move about the pitch, specifically operating from his preferred position just outside the box. He’ll just be starting out his movements on the right.

There are plenty of options here. Now it’s on Solskjaer to pick the one that’ll fix this mess. That’s what he gets paid the big bucks for.