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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: What makes a “Tactical Masterclass?”

United’s performances against PSG and Chelsea were more similar than they were different, but outcome bias leads us to think otherwise

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the phrase ‘tactical masterclass’ to start being mentioned after the final whistle blew in the Parc de Princes last Tuesday night. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United put out an exceptionally well organized, disciplined, and well coached performance to snatch a 2-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain.

It’s a funny label, tactical masterclass, as it only seems to get thrown out for very defensive performances, specifically ones where you don’t deserve to win. José Mourinho put on a tactical masterclass at Old Trafford, where he targeted and exploited United’s weaknesses last month but no one called it that. No one called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer holding Manchester City to seven shots and 0.59 xG at Old Trafford one either. But that label was used last season when Spurs survived a 90 minute Manchester City onslaught to win 2-0, scoring on two of their three shots.

There’s a huge level of outcome bias in what we ultimately describe as a tactical masterclass. The same plan can be used in different games, but if at the end of them one team has put the ball in the net and the other hasn’t, history will be far kinder to the former.

I took some heat on The Busby Babe podcast last week for being critical of United’s setup against PSG. Tactically, Solskjaer didn’t have much of a choice. No one could have expected Axel Tuanzebe to deliver a 10/10 performance. At best you could expect a 7 or 8/10 and because of that United needed to play a back three to try and contain a front three of Neymar, Angel Di Maria, and Kylian Mbappé.

In midfield some eyebrows were raised at the absence of Paul Pogba, but it was clear Solskjaer wanted industry, hard running defense, and energy from his midfield. Fred and Scott McTominay are the two best players United have for that role.

United came out as expected with a back three formation. Well, on paper it was a back three — on the pitch it ended up being more of a lopsided 4-3-1-2 with Alex Telles playing more of a left midfield position. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, fresh off a game where he freely bombed forward at Newcastle, was far more reserved.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how while the back three is becoming a popular option among fans, United struggle to score goals from it, specifically in open play. For as good as United were defensively on Tuesday (and they were excellent) the limitations of the back three system were clearly exposed.

Throughout the match it seemed like United were just one attacking midfielder short.

It was really just this front three, plus Telles, and occasionally Fred would get forward. Five players. That’s not a lot, and United struggled to create because of it.

Telles finds Marcus Rashford in space, but there’s no one near him to help him.

Even when United got out on what looked like a break they didn’t exactly have a numerical advantage.

When United did get men forward, things went a bit better.

United were hurt a bit by Telles not offering them much in the final third. There’s a HUGE caveat of “except for his corner kicks” here, but when Telles got the ball in open play, his only look was to cross.

After hesitating he booms this one in. It’s a really good cross, but there’s only one United man in the box, and he’s covered by two defenders. What were the chances of this going through?

That’s not too different from this low driven cross by Aaron Wan-Bissaka to a double covered Anthony Martial, but fans will of course swoon over the Telles delivery.

When Telles wasn’t crossing the ball in, he didn’t have any other ideas. He didn’t take defenders on, he just went back to Bruno.

That’s fine and it’s only his first match, but it quickly started to feel like United were leaving something on the table. They basically had their back six and front three, with Telles shuffling in between. They were giving PSG far too much respect.

(Telles did give us a lot to be excited about. Pogba, Cavani, and Maguire getting on the end of his corner/set piece delivery is a tasty prospect, and those crosses will be far more dangerous with a poacher like Cavani on the other end. But with Rashford and Martial as your strikers... not so much.)

A little after the hour mark Solskjaer replaced Telles with Paul Pogba. United went to a more clear cut back four, with the midfielders playing in more of a 4-2-2-2 formation. The game changed — United were going for it but PSG got their chances too. Ultimately United prevailed.

That tactical tweak was pre-planned. Just like Solskjaer’s tweak at Newcastle. His strategy was clearly to keep the game tight for 60-70 minutes and then bet that the firepower he could bring off the bench would be able to find a winner in 20 minutes.

That’s not a terrible strategy. United just lost 6-1. Solskjaer needed to bolster up that defense and if that meant playing an extra defensive player he needed to do it. United also have a brutal schedule this month. He can’t play his top players every game because he’ll burn them out. If you could limit the amount of running/minutes your top players are doing right now, you have to do it.

Given the circumstances, I don’t think anyone would have turned it down if you offered United a 1-1 draw before the PSG match. An away draw in Europe? That’s never a bad result. But once the match was played it certainly wouldn’t have felt good.

That game was there for the taking. In this case, United took it, making Solskjaer’s plan look really good.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a very risky strategy. By shortening the game to about 20 minutes, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your top guys and the margin for error is incredibly thin. The difference between a positive and negative result is massive, and on Saturday the pendulum swung back the other way.

Solskjaer raised eyebrows again Saturday when he named the same team that defeated Newcastle seven days prior. Given the circumstances, chiefly the fact that Solskjaer has to look beyond each game (at upcoming opponents) when making his team selections, you can’t complain much.

Axel Tuanzebe wasn’t available. He had just played his first game in 10 months, he was in no way ready to play twice in one week. Edinson Cavani hadn’t played since March, you weren’t going to get 90 minutes from him.

As such, Solskjaer reverted to his back tried and true back four. With the pace of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to account for, he also played his fullbacks more conservatively, and opted for that defensive and industrious midfield of McTominay and Fred.

The pair were sensational last Tuesday night because their job was simple — run around and help your teammates defend. Do stuff like this.

When they won the ball the instructions were simple as well: get the ball to Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford or any of the good players and let them do their thing.

A good coach is always looking to put his players in positions that play to their strengths to best guarantee success. That’s exactly what Solskjaer did against PSG with his midfield. He only gave them half a job (win the ball)! That’s the half they’re good at. The other half (progress the ball) was delegated elsewhere. It was exactly the same role he gave them last season when United drew Liverpool at home. The onus of progression was taken away from the midfield and put onto the wing backs and center backs.

Just look at where all of United’s progressive passes came from on Tuesday.

That front three has three times as many progressive passes as the midfield! That’s a lot of dropping deep to handle the progression duties. Their instructions were clear, win the ball back and make the very simple pass. Forward, backwards, or wide. McTominay only completed 73.2 percent of his passes (well below his average), but he didn’t need to be accurate, just hit it out into space!

This suits McTominay’s and Fred’s games perfectly as it takes away their biggest weakness, expansive passing. For as much heat as I got on The Busby Babe podcast last week, I took even more on a different podcast when I said I was more surprised that McTominay played well against Newcastle than I was that he played well against PSG. Of course he and Fred played well. This was the kind of game that they thrive in.

Back to Saturday. On paper, the logic checks out. Contain Chelsea’s potent front three, and try to hit them on the counter — hence why the pace of Dan James was brought back into the team.

United would play very compact. They weren’t going to press much because that would stretch them out and leave Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf exposed at the back.

They would let Chelsea carry the ball to the halfway line. They wanted Chelsea to push their defenders up so there’d be space in behind them. Once Chelsea got over the halfway line, they’d aggressively trap them.

This is a fantastic way of containing your opponent’s biggest strength, and protecting your biggest weakness. In theory it should have worked really well.

Except Chelsea didn’t play ball. As scared as United were of Havertz, Christian Pulisic, and Werner, Chelsea were afraid of James, Bruno, and Rashford exposing their own vulnerabilities on the break.

As such, Chelsea would only ever push one of their wing backs up the pitch at a time, ensuring they still had four players back. Midfielders Jorginho and N’Golo Kante didn’t venture forward at all. They played extremely conservatively. They did the exact same thing to United that United did to them — tried to draw their defenders up the pitch so they could be dangerous behind them.

As soon as United’s defenders started pushing up...

...Chelsea were ready to break.

No one could have seen that coming from Chelsea. It’s so unlike anything they ever did under Lampard. But the fact that they did it instantly made United’s team selection look completely wrong.

They didn’t press United’s midfield to allow them to make quick passes into space. No, they sat back and let McTominay and Fred have the ball. They wanted the two of them to have the ball. Because McTominay and Fred struggle in games where they have the ball.

They knew that if you give McTominay and Fred time and space, and cut off their options, United will beat themselves. You’ll get them doing things like this.

This is McTominay in a nutshell. His interceptions are praised by fans and pundits alike (he lead the game with three), even though this interception comes from giving the ball away himself. And what does he do with the second chance? Sends another errant pass out.

Later on United win the ball back and Bruno lays it off to McTominay. Watch the bottom of the screen, as soon as Bruno makes that pass Rashford makes a run down the touch line. This isn’t a difficult pass, you don’t have to be accurate, all you have to do is hit it into space! Instead it’s back to David De Gea (and nowhere near him either).

When I first saw the team sheets there was obviously a little disappointment in Ole’s selections. Mostly because he didn’t go with the XI that I would have went with. I did take solace in the fact that Solskjaer clearly had a plan though, and even if it didn’t work, he had several different options to change the game.

That’s where Solskjaer failed.

Part of Solskjaer’s plan were specific substitutions. That part could have been changed and it wasn’t.

That’s preventable by not changing your tactics. Keep your fullbacks back. But United could have taken one of their defensive midfielders off for a more two way player, giving them five attackers rather than four.

Instead the substitutions were like for like changes. Two attackers came on to replace two other attackers. Pogba went to the #10 role with Bruno moving out to the right wing to play in the ‘the Mata role.’

It kinda worked. United had an xG of 0.24 over the first 57 minutes and put up a 0.18 over the next 25. Better but not great — mostly because for some reason Bruno stopped playing like Bruno (dropping into midfield to get the ball) and played more like a right winger. Thus United’s midfield continued to struggle to get the ball to him and Pogba in dangerous areas.

In the 71st minute Werner and Havertz were taken off, seriously negating Chelsea’s counter attacking threat. It still took Solskjaer another 12 minutes to bring on another attacking player in Mason Greenwood.

His substitution of Greenwood was a weird one. Perhaps Solskjaer was hesitant to bring him on due to his poor defensive play this season. In that case you wait for the final 10 minutes when the risk is less and say to him, have at it. You’re bringing him on because of his finishing ability and yet this time around, Greenwood stayed pinned to the touchline. He did create a great chance for Cavani...

...but you’re bringing on Greenwood to get on the end of chances, not create them.

Nevertheless United put up another 0.23 xG in the eight minutes plus stoppage time that Greenwood was on the pitch, making you wonder how things could have fared had he been given 15-20 minutes.

Obviously Solskjaer was going to err on the side of caution. You’re only a few weeks removed from losing 6-1 and you need to bolster the defense first. By all accounts he did. United held Chelsea to six shots and a minuscule 0.22 xG.

That is simply phenomenal. Had United won the game would we be calling it a tactical masterclass though? For sure not.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t all Solskjaer. Chelsea playing uber conservative greatly contributed to Chelsea not creating any chances. But that doesn’t change the fact for some reason we tend to save that “tactical masterclass” phrase only for games that are stolen. United didn’t completely shut PSG down, they still gave them opportunities (1.2 xG) but when they did, David de Gea was there.

How we label it is entirely down to the end result. It’s outcome bias, and it’s why pundits and analysts should be looking beyond the result at the actual performance.

Against PSG, United had a NPxG of 0.84, just a bit higher than the 0.65 they managed against Chelsea. Together that’s just under one and a half goals. Over the two games United could have just as easily scored two non-penalty goals as one. That’s how thin the margin is when you’re going to play ultra defensively.

That’s the risk you take when playing this way. You’re going to create fewer chances, and you just have to make sure when you get a chance to create chances you... actually create them.

Don’t be afraid to use your weak foot or your teammates.

Or even using your stronger foot and taking it yourself.

While these performances felt very different, they were ultimately very similar. United went extra defensive for good reason, and relied on their not very efficient forwards to be clinical with their chances. Ultimately it all came down to this.

This one went in.

And this one didn’t.

If the results of those two shots were flipped around would we be flipping around which game we called a tactical masterclass? Would we be throwing that label onto either of them?

Beware of outcome bias.