This was a special type of poor though. United weren’t that bad as a team, but individually basically all 11 players on the pitch were poor. This still shouldn’t be a surprise considering they had no preseason and the players aren’t fully match fit.
But when you play this poorly after losing 3-1 at home to Crystal Palace, people are going to ask questions of you. Unfortunately the media has no creativity so when they do ask questions they’re always going to go back to the same one: Does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have tactics?
At this point we have about a full season’s catalogue of Tactical Analyses to prove that yes, in fact, he does. The team last Saturday was playing like a Solskjaer team. The styles that United had last season, the things that Solskjaer clearly wants them to do, they were all on full display.
The players just stunk.
What does Solskjaer want his players to do?
When you win the ball back, look to break quickly. Check.
Which turned into United getting a quick break, complete with Mason Greenwood firing in a low hard cross for Marcus Rashford to finish.
But it’s ruined because Rashford is offside.
Anthony Martial dropping deep and hitting a runner filling in the space? Check
Again ruined by Rashford being offside.
When United get the ball wide, Solskjaer doesn’t want big looping crosses. He wants his players to get to the byline and fire in a low hard cross. For example, what Rashford did last season against Sheffield United.
When Luke Shaw got to the byline in the second half against Brighton, that was exactly what he did. When it was blocked, he did it again.
This was the match for United. Everything Solskjaer wants was there, but it either just wasn’t coming off or there were individual mistakes being made.
Take this. Pogba collapses on his own box to win the ball back. He immediately turns to try and find a breaking Marcus Rashford — exactly what Solskjaer’s system calls for — but Pogba doesn’t put enough height on the pass and it’s intercepted.
Here United are pressing in complete tandem. Bruno Fernandes takes a square route on the press to cut off a passing angle as he should do. Maybe he goes one step too wide, maybe he’s one step too slow, maybe Martial is a step too slow. Either way, despite doing what they’re supposed to (in theory) they’re a step too slow and the press is broken easily.
The ball comes to Bruno, Bruno looks to break, Rashford mis-controls the pass...
Nemanja Matić doing whatever this is rather than bringing the ball down and controlling it, something he’s really good at.
Win the ball back, misplace the next pass.
Finally they do get on the break, only to lose the ball.
You get what I’m saying.
These types of errors are easy to see and when you see them you (hopefully) can tell the difference between a misplay and poor tactics. But there were all these mistakes, most of them mental, that were far too prevalent throughout this match.
Take a look at Rashford on this break. Shaw gets the ball in space and begins running up the pitch. When that happens, Rashford needs to start running too. He doesn’t. Instead he drops to the halfway line and Shaw has to lay it off.
Shaw correctly continues his run but at this point it’s no use. Rashford is trapped because by the time the ball comes to him, the opposing midfielder who was coming over to pick up Shaw can now simply mark Rashford and the fullback can follow Shaw’s run. Had Rashford started running when Shaw had the ball, the fullback would have followed him giving Shaw more space.
If he doesn’t, Shaw plays Rashford in behind. If the fullback passes Rashford off to the centerback (as he does to Shaw here), that frees up Martial.
Let’s see what happens when it’s done correctly.
This time Bruno is on the left. When Shaw gets the ball he starts running, not sprinting, but enough that the fullback has to pay attention to him, come wider, and back up a bit. That creates space for Shaw to continue his run. Shaw’s pulled down, and United score on the ensuing free kick.
The simple mental error by Rashford stops a potential attack.
Here a couple of things go wrong.
For one, Pogba should have hit this ball directly to Aaron Wan-Bissaka. That would have forced the left-back to step out on Wan-Bissaka either freeing up Greenwood or Rashford.
Instead he goes to Bruno. OK. Bruno still has a chance to turn and immediately play it to Wan-Bissaka. Doing that would still force the left-back to step out on the ball. Once he does that, Rashford could then make a run into the channel and drag one of the center-backs with him. That would open up the middle for any of Greenwood, Martial, or even Bruno to make runs into the box, with Pogba coming up behind to be the safety valve on the right.
But instead Bruno holds it. That allows the left-back to just sit and wait for Wan-Bissaka to come to him. He’s covered now. Without making defenders move, no space is created for a United player to run into. Everyone is easily marked, with Rashford being in no man’s land allowing one defender to cover him and Bruno.
Unless Solskjaer had given his players the instruction of “don’t pass to your overlapping fullbacks,” which based on how he’s played in all his previous games as a United manager seems extremely unlikely, this is just a poor decision that when not made ends up killing a United attack.
One of the weird parts of this match was that Matić ended up playing like Paul Pogba and Pogba was playing like Matić. One of Matić’s biggest attributes is his ability to read the game and to stay calm and organized defensively. He doesn’t typically take risks; if he’s being aggressive it’s because the odds of him coming out on top are in his favor.
Which is what made the following all the weirder. Brighton come in off a throw-in and United are pretty organized defensively. They slip through a Bruno-Pogba trap but United are still in a very good shape.
That’s when Matić bizarrely decides to come out and press — something he never does. He’s unsuccessful, and more importantly leaves crucial space vacated. Brighton attack that space immediately and get a pretty good shot off. David De Gea rightfully had a go at Matić right after this shot.
One of the things United were very good at last year was preventing counter attacks (if your defenders lack pace, you can’t let players run at them). But look at how far up the pitch Matić is as he joins United’s press. What in the world is he doing there? He never pushes up that high in the press, it’s not his game.
When the press doesn’t work Brighton are running right at United’s back four. Even weirder, Wan-Bissaka, known for his great recovery and closing pace, never really closes. He never really looks like he’s trying his hardest too either.
Surely “don’t push yourself too hard to get back on defense” wasn’t a tactical instruction? What is the line between players making mistakes and poor tactics?
Rashford not running and creating space for Shaw and Matić making completely uncharacteristic mistakes are things that set United back, for non-tactical reasons.
But this. This is tactical.
In the 83rd minute, removing Mason Greenwood to bring on Eric Bailly to switch to what an optimist would say is a back three but was really a back five, for the last 10 plus minutes of the match. That’s a tactical change.
Switching to a back five also means having everyone drop much deeper to defend. All 10 outfield players are in the picture here!
Having your goalkeeper start taking goal kicks long when usually you play them short.
United always play out from the back. That’s how Rashford’s goal (the one that counted) started.
Playing out the back has two functions. It’s good for your attack but also it keeps the ball in your possession. Last 10 minutes? Nope, now it’s just clear the ball wherever even if it means giving the ball right back to your opponent and having to go right back to defending.
These are very much tactical decisions, and they very much didn’t work. For as bad as Pogba was on Saturday (and he was horrible), when he was subbed out after 65 minutes United had 50.4% of possession. They were being outshot eight to three but the non-penalty xG was 0.64-0.56 in United’s favor.
From when Fred came on until United changed their shape (about 15 minutes), United had 46.4% of possession, a drop but not a terrible one. They did concede six shots in that time for an xG of 0.45. Not great, not terrible either.
But once they went to the back five their possession dropped to 32.5%. They were just sitting back and inviting pressure. The complete opposite of how they typically play under Solskjaer.
I say this every time but this is exactly what Sir Alex Ferguson would always say not to do. It plays right into your opponent’s hands. It’s one thing to bring on an extra defensive player to shore things up in the 89-90th minute (when there’s about 4-5 minutes left). It’s another to do it in the 82nd minute (when there’s about 10-12 minutes left). It’s far too much time to just be sitting there defending. You’re inviting trouble.
(This was the exact same thing Solskjaer did last season against Sheffield United and Southampton — even before the Williams injury. Coincidentally — or not — the only two matches where United went behind then scored in quick succession to take the lead. Both games ended in draws.)
And trouble found United. In a variety of ways.
There were the obvious ones. That 32.5% possession lead to United conceding another five shots, but this time for a whopping xG of 1.21. 1.21! It’s only natural that an equalizer found its way in there.
Look at the clock here and in the previous GIF. This is what happened directly after that Victor Lindelöf clearance right back to no one.
You could see the obvious trouble coming from a mile away, not just because United were sitting back and inviting it, but because they looked completely confused.
Let’s look at this photo again.
What are we playing here? Is this a 3-5-2, a 3-4-1-2, a 5-3-2, a 5-4-1? If we’re playing split strikers, Martial’s gotta be further over to the right. If we’re playing a flat midfield, what is Bruno doing on top of Fred?
With Bruno playing very centrally, Wan-Bissaka has to stay tucked in narrow otherwise you’re inviting a potential run from Adam Webster into a very dangerous area. But guess what. There’s a player (Solly March) lurking off the screen on the left, and since Wan-Bissaka can’t cheat wide, March is pretty damn open.
Someone (Martial or Bruno) needs to know there are players behind them and shift accordingly. If they don’t...
A few minutes later we got our answer to this question. United are playing a 5-4-1 with Donny van de Beek on the left and Bruno on the right wing. But Bruno is all too eager to get dragged out of position and come inside, leaving Wan-Bissaka outnumbered on the right again. Luckily this time Harry Maguire is there to head it away.
It’s another personal error. Scroll back up and watch the goal again. You’ll notice how this time Bruno realizes he needs to get wide and pick up March, which he does right up until an actual ball is played and he just...stops.
Is this a tactical problem or are these individual errors?
For the last 10 minutes of the match the answer is both, and because the answer is both, that’s on the manager.
United almost never play with this formation. When they do change things up, it’s to a back three, with the wingbacks pushed up higher. Bruno remains as the number 10 and they have split strikers up top. Playing with five defenders and a flat midfield four? Never.
Therefore it’s understandable that the players weren’t sure of their roles and that puts some big questions onto the manager. Mainly, why switch to a formation that your players are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with while holding a one goal lead? If you needed to take Greenwood off because he wasn’t defending well on the wings why not go to Jesse Lingard?
It seems like this was always in the cards when Solskjaer left Dan James out of the squad and put three central midfielders (plus Lingard) on the bench. If that wasn’t the case, why weren’t the players more prepped for this contingency plan before the game?
Those are all fair questions. The good news is, United ended up winning the game and that in and of itself is no small feat. Last season United only won TWO matches where they went 1-0 down. Even if they equalized early in the match they still never got over the hump.
That’s a mental thing and the only way to get over it is to get those come from behind wins. You need to build that belief within the squad. The more United pull out wins like this the better they’ll be long term. That’s a big positive to take from this match, especially on a day where United had to overcome their players and manager not being at their best.