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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Out with the old and in with the new

Mata adds more playmaking, and a promising new role for McTominay

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There is not one Manchester United fan who saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team selection on Saturday and actually felt better about United’s chances against Newcastle.

Harry Maguire? He needs a break but I see Solskjaer is being loyal. Dan James on the left wing? At least that’s better than Dan James on the right wing! Marcus Rashford as the no. 9? Guess he really hates Ighalo.

Fred and McTominay in the middle? Seriously? This again? Have we not called uncle on the Fred-McTominay midfield pair? It doesn’t work! It never works, especially not against teams that want United to have the ball.

McTominay is typically too slow on the ball in midfield. Neither he nor Fred really have the passing repertoire to effectively progress the ball from defense to attack. Most of all, they just end up being very “boxy.” Whereas Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba move around to change angles, McTominay and Fred tend to always stay in a straight line, making it far too easy to defend them.

When United attack a low block, they like to push into a 3-2-5 formation, with Bruno and Pogba pulling the strings as the number eights. When they pushed into that front five formation on Saturday, that left Fred and McTominay in midfield, neither of which have the creativity to operate in that role.

Enter Juan Mata.

Last week I wrote about how Solskjaer needed to address a few different problems in the squad. One was the midfield not protecting the defense. The other was the lack of a right wing.

The obvious solution to the first problem is either push Paul Pogba up or drop him to bring in an extra defensive midfielder. The tradeoff to that is that McTominay and Fred — and to a degree Fred and Matić — really struggle to progress the ball up the pitch. That forces Bruno to drop deeper into midfield and handle the progression himself. But when he does that, you don’t have a number 10 to progress the ball to. You’re not getting Bruno the ball in positions where he can be at his most dangerous. Perhaps that’s why Bruno struggled so much when playing with McTominay.

My suggestion was move Fernandes to “the Mata role” and play either Pogba or Donny van de Beek as the number 10. Solskjaer opted for something a little simpler: Juan Mata himself.

The Mata role is simply how Mata plays on the right wing. In defense he plays on the right hand of that attacking midfield three. In possession he drops into midfield and plays much more as a right center midfielder. Or he stays high, cuts inside to find space, and plays as a 10.

Basically exactly the same way as Fernandes plays as the 10. By playing them together you now have someone who will drop deep and help Fred and McTominay progress the ball and you still have someone up the pitch who’s great at finding the half spaces to receive those passes.

In fact they’ll often just rotate around and split this duty. One drops deep, then moves, and the other drops accordingly.

And just like that you’re able to progress the ball and start running at defenders.

Here we go again. United have forwards that make this run, and Bruno could pick them out to create a great chance. But if Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, and Anthony Martial are on the pitch and Bruno drifts out the left wing like this, none of those players get into the half space like this and then get the ball to Bruno, so you wouldn’t have the opportunity to create this chance.

Mata’s football IQ puts United in situations that you just don’t get when you play with only one number 10 and two wingers/forwards out on the wing.

The only thing wrong here is Mata makes too much of a run, leaving him just a tad offside.

It’s amazing how much more dangerous you can look when you have two players adept at finding the half spaces.

That’s all great and everything, but what about width? You still need that and if Mata is popping up everywhere but the right wing, your only width is coming from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a right back who’s attacking abilities are not quite there yet.

That’s the beauty of the “Mata role.” It manages to hide Wan-Bissaka’s biggest deficiency and put him in a position where he can have success. Remember this Wan-Bissaka zone map from last week?

Wan-Bissaka’s issue isn’t so much attacking — he’s quite decent in the final third. His on-ball issues are in United’s buildup play. By having Mata drop deep as a de facto right center midfielder, he’s able to take those buildup responsibilities himself, freeing up Wan-Bissaka to just push up to an advanced right wing position.

Wan-Bissaka’s best run of attacking form in his United career was post-restart when United were at their best playing this 3-2-5 formation. Right up until Luke Shaw got hurt and United needed to change how they built up attacks. Take a look at where the percentage of Wan-Bissaka’s touches were during those periods last season and where they were against Newcastle on Saturday.

Look at that! His best periods seem to coincide with him touching the ball more in the attacking third and less in the middle third. On Saturday, he touched the ball more in the final third then anywhere else. In fact he only had three touches in the defensive third!

One of the knocks on AWB has been Solskjaer still having to get on the touchline and urge him to get forward. When you know you’re supposed to get forward, but also know you have buildup responsibilities, hesitation is only natural. With those responsibilities taken away from him, Wan-Bissaka was bombing forward all game. Just look at him flying up the top of the screen on Bruno’s winner.

But these are all old principles. We’ve seen them all before from United and while the final score may have been 4-1, unless we know the plan was “keep it level for 70 minutes and then we can bring some game changers off the bench” it’s hard to definitively say that these tactics worked.

On the one hand, by the time Paul Pogba came on United should have been 3-1 or 3-0 up. Newcastle’s one goal was a fluke own goal, while United had missed a penalty and had a goal called back for offside.

On the other hand, through 68 minutes United had taken 18 shots but had a non-penalty xG of just 0.69 (to Newcastle’s 0.87), 0.03 xG per shot (That extrapolates to 0.91 - 1.06 per 90). They were creating chances, but not any good ones. They were kinda exactly where they should be.

Then Paul Pogba replaced Fred.

That makes it sound like the Frenchman came on and started dominating the game. He most certainly did not. But what did happen when Pogba came on is United made a subtle change to their formation and tactics.

Usually when Pogba plays Matić or Fred drop between the centerbacks to form a back three. This is something that McTominay really struggles to do and it hurts United.

On Saturday McTominay dropped deeper in possession, but not between the center backs — instead he dropped off to the right to become the right center back. This is the same position McTominay has been playing for Scotland over the past two months. A position he’s been playing really well.

By dropping back to centerback, McTominay isn’t being hounded by midfielders when he’s on the ball anymore. He’s playing a bit more between the lines. There’s more space and more time on the ball. The knock on McTominay is typically that he’s too safe with the ball and plays too many square or backwards passes. By dropping him back and putting more of the game in front of him, the only direction he has to go is forward.

Take a look at his pass map from Scotland’s recent match against Israel posted by The Athletic.

C: The Athletic
The Athletic

There are a lot of incomplete passes there but that’s a lot more ambitious than what we’re used to seeing.

On Saturday for United it was very similar.

It doesn’t have to be quick, it doesn’t have to be ambitious. When you’re playing at the back you have more time. McTominay ended up completing 85 percent of his passes Saturday, with six progressive passes — both increases on his season averages. Even more important was his contribution to buildup play. McTominay’s xG Buildup Saturday was 0.54, the highest of any player (his xG Buildup/90 last season was 0.23). Baby steps, but steps in the right direction.

More than what McTominay was able to do on the ball was what it meant for United’s shape. With McTominay playing as a hybrid right center back, it allowed Wan-Bissaka to freely push up the pitch knowing he had someone covering him.

As soon as McTominay drops into the back three here, Wan-Bissaka doesn’t even have to look at the ball, he knows Mata has dropped into midfield and McTominay is covering the flank, so he can just go forward.

And if United lose possession while Wan-Bissaka is high up the pitch? Don’t worry, that’s covered too.

He’s there to clean up on counter attacks as well.

The most telling sign as to how much this was working was when Matić came on for the final few minutes of the match, McTominay was still playing as the deepest midfielder.

Even when United were in possession, it wasn’t Matić falling into the back line, it was McTominay.

The tactical change worked! Over the final 22 minutes United took nine shots with an xG of 0.77 (0.09 xG per shot). That extrapolates to an xG of 3.15 per 90. Not bad, but more importantly, Newcastle didn’t manage a single shot during that time.

There was also another change that gave us a possible glimpse into the future. With 15 minutes to go Donny van de Beek replaced Daniel James but moved inside to the number 10 role with Bruno Fernandes coming out to the left wing.

That created another interesting twist, as with Mata continuing to drop in from the right, and Fernandes now dropping in from the left, it left Paul Pogba free to make runs forward.

Nothing came of this on Saturday but it makes you wonder about potentially another way of United being able to play. Who is United’s biggest aerial threat in the box? Probably Edinson Cavani. Who is their second? Paul Pogba.

With Cavani coming into the team, along with Alex Telles and his crossing ability, United could theoretically have Bruno and Van de Beek or Mata dropping in to midfield, pushing it out wide to Telles to cross. Cavani makes a run towards the near post to occupy the first defender and Pogba lurks in behind with a late run to the back post. Sort of like this.

Just something to think about.

It’s only one game so we shouldn’t get carried away but this was a very promising development. For months now I’ve been wondering where McTominay fits in with this team. He’s not good enough to be a number 8 and he can’t do what Matić does to really land as a number 6.

Solskjaer has seemingly recognized that and rather than continuing to ask him to do things that don’t fit his game, he adapted his role to make it similar to where he’s had success with Scotland. The early return was very positive. Now it’s on McTominay to do that consistently.

If he does, Solskjaer suddenly has options. Not just with which midfielders he can rely on, but how he can set his team up to play as well.

Out with the old stale tactics. In with the new.