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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Finding the balance between freedom and structure

United got the balance in midfield wrong in Istanbul, but got it right on Merseyside

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League - Goodison Park Photo by Paul Ellis/PA Images via Getty Images

Ask any manager and they’ll tell you that football is a game of balance.

It’s not just attacking and defending — there needs to be balance to everything. For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the balance in question is how much freedom should he give his players to move about the pitch vs. how structured does he need their shape to be?

Louis van Gaal was all about rigidity. While managing Manchester United, all he would work on were patterns of play. There was no deviation from those patterns. There was no leaving your position, and the players basically played like robots. As a result United were really boring and easy to defend.

José Mourinho’s system allowed for one player to have some freedom but he was also pretty rigid and in turn United struggled to be an attacking side.

All attacking sides need a certain level of freedom, and you don’t get creativity without being able to deviate from the structure. Pep Guardiola’s title-winning Manchester City sides were built around the idea of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva playing as ‘free eights.’ On paper they were lined up as number 8s, but they quite literally had the freedom to venture all over the pitch.

One of the first moments that showed there was a new sheriff — with a new way of playing — at Manchester United came eight games into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial tenure, when Jesse Lingard scored this goal at the Emirates in the FA Cup.

What’s impressive about this goal isn’t the goal. There’s nothing there. The big thing was how this goal started.

That’s left-back Luke Shaw going on a long run that takes him all the way to the right side of the pitch before springing Romelu Lukaku. Shaw would have never been allowed to get that far out of position under Mourinho.

That’s where balance comes in. In 2020 you can’t just tell all your players “go out there and play.” You’ll get killed. You need to be structured defensively, so that if one player vacates their position, someone needs to fill in.

United played their best football last year post-lockdown when Nemanja Matić was providing cover and balance to the defense, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba were operating as dual 8s, and the fullbacks were able to bomb forward to provide width.

This year, for one reason or another (okay, it’s mostly that Matić has been a horror show) United haven’t been able to play that way. When they’ve tried to open things up, they’ve been shipping goals at the other end. In response, Solskjaer has continually opted to bolster his midfield by using the pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred.

Every action has a reaction. McTominay and Fred don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. The two of them have a tendency to struggle to progress the ball to the creative players and get it to them in areas where they can be dangerous. That forces Bruno to often drop deep to get the ball, meaning there’s one fewer player up the pitch for him to pass to.

This is solved in one of two ways. The first is Juan Mata playing ‘the Mata role.’ The second is having one of your midfielders push up when Bruno is hanging back.

The problem with this is pretty obvious. At the end of the play you end up like this.

This isn’t where you want Fred. This isn’t where you want Bruno!

United need someone that can pass the ball forward from the midfield. Paul Pogba’s form this season has been poor so on Wednesday it was Donny van de Beek’s turn to try.

The starting XI that Solskjaer named against Istanbul Basaksehir featured a lot of players who fans really wanted to see. Up until now, Solskjaer had only used Van de Beek as an advanced midfielder. Even though Van de Beek has played deeper in his days with Ajax, Solskjaer has yet to trust him there.

It didn’t take long against Istanbul to see why, and it didn’t take long to see some big potential problems in United’s set up.

The thing that makes Van de Beek, Fernandes, and Mata so special is their high football IQ. They see the game at a level far beyond what their teammates do. When two of them play together you can see the connection they have on the pitch. But as we saw last Wednesday, three of them together may be too much.

What all three of these players have in common is, they all need to play with freedom. They can’t stand in one position. They like to be, and excel at, finding spaces to receive passes. That’s what turns United from mundane to dangerous — but remember, every time someone vacates their position someone else needs to cover it. It’s easy for Bruno and Mata to swap around, or for Mata to cut inside and have Aaron Wan-Bissaka push up. But when three players are all moving around, things get messy really quickly.

It also makes United really easy to defend.

We can see almost everything that was wrong on one play.

Bruno drops deep (he doesn’t need to if VDB is on the pitch but VDB replaces him higher up), but Mata comes to the middle to fill in for... who exactly?

Mata moves to the middle way too early and it’s unclear why.

Mata basically takes himself out of the play and he cuts out the entire right side from a potential attack.

The play turns United far too narrow and Bruno has no choice but to go long down the left (he makes a very good pass) but it’s too easy for Istanbul to just shift over and defend.

The reason Mata is given this freedom from the right — the Mata role, so to speak — is to help Wan-Bissaka get forward. Wan-Bissaka struggles in the middle third of the pitch, and when Mata drops deep it allows him to handle those responsibilities for him.

But you have to wait for right time. When Mata goes early it takes that whole play off the table and eliminates that whole half of the pitch.

A few minutes later we got this.

Everyone is on the left side of the pitch, and Van de Beek well out in front of, and in line with, Matić. United’s attack was impotent on Wednesday and part of that reason was too many players were playing with too much freedom. When too many players venture out of position it’s hard to develop any sort of patterns because players lose track of who’s covering for whom.

Take a look at Van de Beek’s heat map from the match.

That looks good for your left center midfielder. Except Van de Beek was playing on the right!

It’s not a coincidence that Istanbul were able to launch counter attack after counter attack. Despite players like Matić, Victor Lindelöf, and Harry Maguire not being the fastest players out there, United don’t concede a lot of counter attacks. The only other time United conceded this many counter attacks in a match was the opening day loss to Crystal Palace, a match where their midfielders didn’t stay in position. What did the two have in common?

This isn’t to say that any of these players aren’t good, there just needs to be a balance with how much freedom there is in the team. Perhaps playing three players who freely move around is one too many.

On Saturday Solskjaer seemed to concede as much and went back to the basics. McTominay and Fred came back in, Mata kept his place on the right wing, and Van de Beek was dropped.

The result was very positive. United had arguably their best performance of the season (certainly in the Premier League). Anthony Martial’s return played a significant role as it moved everyone back to their normal roles. As such, they all knew what they were doing.

Mata wasn’t moving early. He was waiting until the right time to find space and receive passes.

Even if his next pass doesn’t come off, the positive here is that he moves at the right time, and that Fred can pick him out with this pass.

Everything would come to a head on United’s two goals. It wasn’t just the two goals that were special but the buildup to them as well.

The first goal starts with Martial’s excellent hold up play with his back to goal. Not just that but his ability to find space, and an excellent pass from McTominay.

As soon as Martial gets the ball two players collapse on him, but he holds it. This is what United have been missing. Too often in recent matches we’ve seen United’s forward drop into space but they’re all too eager to go backwards with their first touch.

This does nothing. The ball is right back in its original location. When Martial holds that ball up United are able to establish a new point of attack further up the pitch.

But Bruno is still very deep, that’s not where you want him. So the next phase kicks in. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka up to provide width, Mata can vacate his position on the right. He comes running to the middle to allows Fernandes to push further up the pitch while still giving United a deep creator.

Now Mata is able to pass, move, another pass, cross, goal.

There’s that freedom, there’s that creativity. United could have just played wide to Shaw but that’s easy for Everton to defend. When Mata passes, and moves, it causes Everton’s defenders to keep moving around. As soon as that ball goes wide to Shaw THREE United players make runs in the box (finally). Bruno ends up wide open in the middle of the box (thanks to Martial spending the entire sequence occupying the center backs).

Second goal, same principles. This time it’s Rashford who starts with the hold up play.

Too often United’s forwards are painfully stagnant, chief among them Marcus Rashford. It starts with getting open. Before the pass is played Rashford does a half step dummy towards the middle which opens up acres of space Fred to find him with a pass.

Once he gets the ball, he doesn’t pass it backwards or square with his first touch as he so often does. He turns and runs at the defenders. That causes them to start moving around. As soon as he turns on the ball, Seamus Coleman has to take a half step back, which opens up Bruno on the left corner of the box.

Most importantly, after making that pass Rashford continues his run. Maybe Bruno’s ball was supposed to flick off Rashford’s head (probably)? Maybe it wasn’t. But if Rashford doesn’t make that run that ball doesn’t find the back of the net.

Because right here, when Rashford jumps for this ball...

That’s when Pickford stops following the flight of the ball and re-adjusts to Rashford being the shooter. He takes his eyes off the ball and squares himself to Rashford. That hesitation is all it took for Bruno’s “shot” to be beyond Pickford’s reach.

If I were Ole Gunnar Solskjaer I’d lock Rashford in a room and put this goal on repeat until he gets the point that good things happen when you do the simple things.

You need to keep your structure but you need to improvise too. Run at defenders, that makes them move around. If you rely on just passing it all the way around it’ll be far too slow and easy to defend.

Don’t be afraid to improvise. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Be bold on the ball. That’s literally what Solskjaer has been preaching since he got here. It’s ok if you lose the ball that far up the pitch because you can always go win it back!

United were far more balanced on Saturday. Juan Mata may not have seemed to make a big impact on the match but he didn’t have to. When your main job is occupy defenders and take up good positions all you need to do is be in the right place!

As for Solskjaer, it’s all about the balance. You want creativity, you want structure. You just can’t have too much of either.