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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: What the hell is going on?

United are using the same tactics with the same players as last season, but nothing is going right

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It was really hard to garner anything from Manchester United’s 1-6 loss to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The match was drunk from the start (or at least United’s defense was) with three goals inside the first 10 minutes. United got their customary penalty followed by a comical equalizer.

Harry Maguire is getting all the blame, and (disgustingly) abuse, following this match. He wasn’t good by any means. This Mykonos thing is clearly weighing on him and affecting his play. He should have withdrawn from the England squad to give himself a break but that’s not happening.

Maguire was very poor on that first goal, but there’s blame to go all around. Count the errors!

This is poor from Paul Pogba. Then Maguire heads it straight into Eric Bailly. At this point things are bad but still under control. Maguire does the right thing and turns around to head it back to David de Gea, only he gets nothing on that header. Then Luke Shaw tries to body off Erik Lamela so De Gea can claim it but De Gea doesn’t move. Maguire tries to turn Shaw around to keep him upright but Shaw goes down making this look even more comical.

As bad as Maguire is on this, his teammates should have bailed him out. Once we got to this moment right here...

Luke Shaw should have put his laces through it and blasted this over the crossbar.

Before the match even had a chance to settle down it was turned into a joke with the comical sending off of Anthony Martial.

I don’t know how you watch this and come up with any explanation other than “it’s either both of them or neither of them.” If Lamela doesn’t hit the deck is a red card even given? How is an elbow to the chest/chin when both players are stationary not considered violent conduct? Or was Lamela given a yellow for embellishment? If that’s the case, then how is it violent from Martial?

Joke of a decision aside, it’s equally as poor from Martial. You cannot do that. Whether what you did was vicious or not you cannot raise your hands that high and even give the referee an opportunity to give you a red card. You just can’t.

The match was over as soon as that happened but perhaps we can take some solace in in the fact the result was only 2-1 when it was 11 v 11?

Well, as much as that is true, I can tell you this. After watching this match back a second time, taking all the emotion out of it, even at 2-1 this game was never close.

And that’s because José Mourinho had a plan.

José Mourinho has never liked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Probably because Solskjaer is far more beloved by United fans than Mourinho ever was. Mourinho’s first two matches against his former club didn’t exactly go well. He lost the first to an ‘on-the-hot-seat’ Solskjaer and the draw in the first game back from Project Restart was much more a match that Solskjaer failed to win rather than one in which Mourinho earned a result.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. After trading barbs in the media all week, Mourinho didn’t just want to win, he wanted to embarrass Solskjaer, and he devised a plan to do exactly that.

This wasn’t the typical ‘Mourinho Masterclass.’ Those are all the same. Cagey, tight, defensive performances where you hope to nick one on the break while overall being a general nuisance to play against.

No. This was perhaps Mourinho’s best performance since the Europa League final against Ajax — meticulously planned to go right after United’s biggest weakness in a way we haven’t seen anyone do since Pep Guardiola in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal last January.

Where were United’s weak points?

Maguire lacks pace (something United last season were very good at hiding) while Marcus Rashford and especially Mason Greenwood can have the tendency to not track back. So how did Mourinho look to exploit this?

Last season he put Harry Kane on top of Victor Lindelöf, hoping to exploit Lindelöf’s weakness in the air, but the Swede kept Kane in his back pocket over two matches. On Sunday, he put him right on top of Harry Maguire but played him as a false 9 dropping into midfield.

This had the intended effect of dragging Maguire along with him, allowing Lamela and Son to run into the space behind. If this sounds familiar, it should — Solskjaer does the same thing with Martial and Rashford.

It took merely minutes for this to turn into a goal.

Kane drops into space, Maguire fouls him, Son makes a run into space, Kane takes the free kick quickly and there you go.

Now, Maguire shouldn’t let Kane take this free kick quickly. You have to stand over the ball and give your teammates time to get back. I learned that in high school, it should be second nature to professionals.

But Eric Bailly, what you doing man? After finally getting ahead of Lindelöf in the pecking order it took Bailly less than 10 minutes to remind Solskjaer why he’s been hesitant to turn to him. As soon as that whistle blows Bailly switches off.

You’re a centerback who’s been sucked out over to the right (correctly). By the time that whistle blows your opponent’s left winger is already further inside than you so there’s no reason for you to stay wide. While you should be paying attention to Son even after the whistle, at the very least when you hear the whistle you should be trying to reset your position.

You see what Maguire does when the whistle blows? How he backs off and does that half-assed jog to get back into position. Bailly needs to do at least that. If he does, this entire play is prevented. If he’s one step closer he makes a challenge at the top of the box. One step! That’s how close the margins are at this level. You can’t afford to switch off like that.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Bailly was quick to dash any hopes United may have had after Martial was sent off. It’s often been said that Lindelöf is preferred to Bailly more for his abilities on the ball than his defensive qualities, and well...

Obviously this game went off the rails after this, but even when it was 11 v 11 it wasn’t even close. That’s because United were a complete mess in every aspect. Even worse, Mourinho was prepared for that exact mess.

As I mentioned earlier, Mourinho looked to take advantage of the fact that Rashford and Greenwood don’t track back. It turns out it’s basically anyone on that forward line.

Many fans complained about how narrow Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw played, but this was mostly facilitated by Mourinho. Let’s look at this sequence, which surprisingly didn’t end in a goal.

To break this down, we need to rewind to a couple seconds before this. United are actually very well organized.

They’re essentially in two banks of four. This is for the most part how they play. Contrary to popular conception, United aren’t really a pressing team. They were middle of the pack in presses per 90 last season and middle of the pack in percent of presses in the attacking third.

United only pressed Tottenham 135 times on Sunday, well below their season average from last year, in a game where they only had 38% of the ball. They very much were not pressing. Overall their strategy is really stay organized and every so often press you in quick organized bursts, a tactic they used to great effect against Manchester City in March.

Of course that only works if everyone goes together. If only one or two people move in to press it can be broken easily. That’s what happens here as Mason Greenwood decides to try his luck.

Eric Dier isn’t in a dangerous position and Mason Greenwood isn’t anywhere close to him. Closing him down accomplishes nothing except to set off a chain reaction of everything else.

Wan-Bissaka now needs to push up on left-back Sergio Reguilon. Eric Bailly has to slot over to pick up Son. Harry Kane is dropping in to space so Maguire has to follow him. Shaw stays with his man Erik Lamela.

United manage to simultaneously not cover this well at all (Nemanja Matić was out of position, Bruno Fernandes has to move in to trap and makes no effort to) while also doing a pretty good job covering this. Everyone is still covering their man, except Serge Aurier at the top of the screen.

Martial is on the left wing here after switching with Rashford. That’s fine. Solskjaer wants a dynamic front three with players freely interchanging. That only works though if everyone still knows their defensive responsibilities in their new position. Martial spent three years on the left wing so that shouldn’t be a problem right?

Except he moves in to pick up Moussa Sissoko, Pogba’s man, leaving Aurier running completely free. He does pretty well to recover, but this is basic stuff — a winger has to track the runs of the fullback. This rightfully set off alarm bells and Solskjaer was quick to get on the touchline barking instructions to his players.

Those instructions obviously didn’t help because less than a minute later here we are again...

Matić and Pogba are chasing the ball (with Matić cutting off the angle of a cut back). Bailly and Maguire are marking Kane, Lamela, and the the near post, AWB is picking up Son, and Greenwood — the right winger — is nowhere near the late run of left-back Reguilon. He’s not even making an attempt to get there.

This was the story of the whole match. Spurs players wide open down the flanks. After the sending off it got a bit more confusing. United were either in a 4-4-1 or a 4-3-2. I don’t know which one it was, and to make matters worse the players didn’t seem to know either. One thing was clear though — the forwards still had no interest in defending.

That all lead to this.

Two players ahead of the ball and no one on the left side. Shaw has to pick up Lamela as he comes inside, no one is picking up Aurier, and more importantly LOOK AT ALL THAT SPACE THAT THEY JUST GIVE HARRY KANE. I mean, even Scott McTominay can make this pass with all that time and space. You’re hanging Luke Shaw out to dry here.

And then of course there’s that goal.

This one has been making the rounds on Twitter now that video has come out of De Gea yelling at Shaw to mark the run of Son.

It’s a pretty unfair video on Shaw that will only serve to worsen the popularity of an already unpopular player but there’s a lot more going on here that isn’t shown in this video.

It starts with United having to push players high due to just having possession. Kane is deep, and Maguire follows him. Lamela runs into the space vacated by Kane, and Shaw needs to stay on that run.

Spurs settle it down but Shaw never gets a chance to pass Lamela off to a centerback, therefore he’s still covering him. Somehow (again!) Moussa Sissoko finds himself in ages of space between Bruno, Matić, and Pogba. I’m not exactly sure what United’s midfielders are doing. What we do know is that Greenwood, now on the left wing, isn’t tracking back, leaving Serge Aurier wide open...again.

Sissoko plays the long ball to Aurier, and Maguire needs to come out wide to cover for Shaw. At first Shaw stays with the run of Lamela, but then Maguire sees Kane at the top of the box and shouts for Shaw to pick him up.

As soon as Shaw looks and sees it’s Kane he breaks towards him. You still have Eric Bailly in the middle who should see this and move over to Lamela — if he does this he’d be in position to mark the near post run of Son. He doesn’t do that.

Who’s fault is all this? I don’t know. The way Maguire and Shaw react to seeing an open Kane leads you to think there were instructions from the coaching staff to not let Kane roam free.

That puts Shaw between a rock and a hard place. Maguire is telling him to go pick up Kane, and De Gea is telling him to watch a run that’s behind him which he never sees (and watch it closely, Son doesn’t really start his run until Shaw vacates that space). Obviously De Gea is mad at him, Shaw was originally there. When I played in goal I didn’t give a shit what my coaches’ instructions were, if I saw danger I yelled at my defenders to pick it up whether it was their man or not.

United may have only conceded goals from individual mistakes when they had 11 men but this was always coming. They were heavily outplayed over the first half hour of the game (outshot 9-4 with a NP xG of 1.18 - 0.09) but when they went down to 10 men, Solskjaer completely embarrassed himself.

He tried to maintain his game plan, whatever that was, with just 10 men. That’s understandable. You’re only down one goal, it’ll be tough but you can still salvage this game. It quickly became 3-1 because of another individual mistake. Okay, fine. But shortly after that it was clear this plan wasn’t working. You didn’t need to wait to go 4-1 down to know that it was time to cut your losses. Close up shop and try to get out of here with as little damage as possible.

Solskjaer kinda sorta did this in the second half, bringing on Fred and McTominay and moving Pogba out to the left wing. Guess how that went?

Pogba’s not a natural left winger and gets caught out here but that’s not an excuse. If you’re the furthest forward left sided player on the pitch your job is to mark the run of the fullback. It’s not complicated! This is day one stuff.

Eventually Greenwood would come off for Donny van de Beek and United would switch to a much simpler to grasp 4-3-2 with Rashford and Pogba up top.

Or is it a 4-4-1 with a diamond midfield? Because as soon as this ball heads out wide to the left Pogba comes further over to the right than Rashford.

How am I supposed to know? Do the players know? Just look at United’s average positions from Sunday.

What the hell is going on here??

And that’s the biggest concern. This is the second week in a row where United’s players don’t seem to know where they’re playing or what their responsibilities are. Two weeks in a row where they’re making schoolboy level mistakes. Two weeks in a row that Nemanja Matić is pushing high up the pitch on the press.

Why? Is he doing this on his own or is this tactical? If it’s the latter, who in their right mind thought that was a good idea? That’s not his game.

You can clearly see that this team is lacking time spent on the pitch going over tactics that you’d get in the preseason, but for the most part these are the exact same tactics as last year WITH THE EXACT SAME PLAYERS. How have they suddenly forgot how to play?

In the four weeks between losing in the Europa League semi-final and the season kicking off anything that could have gone wrong for United’s preparations for this season did. This is now three weeks in a row that the players have been terrible at an individual level. Is that the coaches fault? I don’t know but ultimately the buck stops with them.

For now, United need to recoup during the international break, accept that José Mourinho embarrassed them, figure out how to fix it, and make sure it never happens again.