There’s a reason the job of “fire investigator” exists. When a building burns down you don’t want to just look at it and say “the fire did this.” You want to find out what caused the fire.
Remarkably, football is the same way. It’s easy to look at Manchester United’s loss to RB Leipzig in the Champions League this week and say “they lost because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his tactics wrong,” or “ Aaron Wan-Bissaka was playing far too narrow.” Those are surface claims and while they might be true, we don’t actually learn anything from them.
The questions we should be asking are, “Why did Solskjaer get it wrong?” and “Was there something else he could have done?”
The answers to those questions involve a lot more nuance.
There are two elements to any football match. Tactics and execution. You can have a match where you get the tactics right and the players go out and execute the plan and that’s why you win (like United did away to Paris Saint-Germain). You can have a match where you don’t do anything great tactically and you win simply because your players are better (Newcastle, Everton). You can also have a match where you get your tactics right but your players don’t execute and you lose (home to PSG). What you can’t have is a day where you get the tactics wrong and your players don’t execute anything.
Let’s start with the formation.
When United suffered the 2-1 loss to Istanbul Basaksehir, we had an inkling it could be fatal. As we said on The Busby Babe podcast, when you’re in the Group of Death, it’s always the team that drops points to the #4 team that doesn’t go through. Some have dismissed that as very simplistic, especially as United had more than enough time and opportunities to go through but ultimately it’s true. You always want to take care of business early, because you don’t know what cards you’re going to be dealt for the next hand.
In Solskjaer’s case it was injuries to Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, leaving him with just two fit forwards. A red card to Fred (which Solskjaer shares his portion of the blame for) severely limited what his options were.
Let’s operate under the assumption that bringing Dan James into the team wasn’t an option.
That essentially left him with two options. He could play a diamond in midfield, as he did for the reverse fixture, or he could go with a back three. Both options have their drawbacks especially given the available personnel.
Both formations would require Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood to operate as split strikers which is not ideal. A midfield diamond would require McTominay to come in for Fred and play on the right side of the figure. This is a role he’s struggled to play in the past, both last season against Everton, and this season against Arsenal. A back three, on the other hand, would leave United short in midfield and attack, but also probably necessitate a midfield pair of McTominay and Nemanja Matić.
Solskjaer chose to play a back three, which given his available options, probably wasn’t the best idea. United have had success with a back three in the past, but take a look at the midfield pairs from those games and notice what they all had in common.
Matić isn’t mobile enough to cover for McTominay’s propensity to get sucked out of position. Neither of them have the passing repertoire to quickly get the ball to United’s attacking players. Statistically, last season, they were United’s worst midfield pair.
This season they’ve played as a pair for 29 minutes (against Arsenal). United mustered four shots for a total of 0.08 xG. Not great.
When the fire investigator is looking for the cause of the problem, this is what he would find. The midfield. As always, it all starts from the midfield.
There are many different ways to play with a back three with differing roles for differing players. Solskjaer typically prefers a 3-4-1-2 with his forwards remaining very high to spring counters and Bruno Fernandes operating as the number 10. This allows United to have a third man in midfield, connecting the midfield to the attack and giving Bruno the freedom to move all around the pitch.
United played this way in their wins over Chelsea and Manchester City last year and PSG this season.
You can also play with Bruno pushing further up and acting as more of a false-9 dropping in to midfield, or just staying up there and playing as a more 3-4-3.
This was how United lined up last season against Sheffield United with a front line of Martial, Rashford, and James. As you probably remember, it was a disaster and United had to change at halftime. There was no bridge between the midfield and the attack and United quickly became outnumbered in midfield and struggled to maintain possession.
This was also how they lined up against Leipzig. Just look at the big gap between the midfield and forwards.
The goal behind playing like this is for Matić and McTominay to establish dominance in midfield, win the ball high up the pitch, and be able to get it to United’s attackers in dangerous positions while the wing backs fly forward to provide the width.
It’s supposed to look like this.
Allowing your forwards space to run at defenders (now, if they’d only learn to use their weaker feet).
But when the midfielders can’t establish that dominance and instead start fighting for the ball deeper on the pitch, guess what happens?
Your back three quickly becomes a back five, and if you’re leaving your forwards high to spring counters... it’s going to be awfully hard to get them the ball quickly.
In what can only be described as “totally predictable” Matić and McTominay failed to establish any sort of hold in midfield.
Not even a minute into the match, off a United throw in, Harry Maguire is forced to go long.
Long balls to Bruno, Greenwood, and Rashford. Not a recipe for success. And look at how quickly that midfield gets spaced out on the second ball.
McTominay and Matić are both in... places? They’re both in space but are neither open nor covering any Leipzig attackers. There are seven United players to the left of that red line compared to five Leipzig players and yet it feels like Leipzig are outnumbering United.
That was Julian Nagelsmann.
Just like Solskjaer has to prepare for this match, so does Nagelsmann. Leipzig are a team built on their wing-backs. They get an absurd amount of goals from those guys.
In the reverse fixture, United shut down Leipzig by packing the midfield with a diamond. This allowed the United full-backs to focus on picking up the wing-backs. When the ball went out wide the United fullbacks would also have help, leaving Leipzig without anywhere to go with it.
That match was also played heavily down United’s left side, leaving the opposite flank wide open. It was Solskjaer bringing on Marcus Rashford down the right to exploit this that blew the game wide open.
Nagelsmann now needed to come up with a way to counter that in Tuesday’s fixture. Given that he knows Fred is suspended plus that Cavani and Martial were injury doubts, he had a pretty good idea as to how United were going to play and how he could attack that.
His game plan wasn’t too different from the first leg. Overload the right hand side, only this time he wants to be the team that exploits the empty other side of the field.
To do this, he deploys his team in their usual 3-4-2-1 formation, with that two being a crucial way of out numbering United in midfield and creating overloads. His tweak is that he pushed his left wing-back Angeliño high up the pitch. Extremely high. Like Marcos Alonso under Maurizio Sarri high, essentially creating a 3-3-2-2.
This covers Leipzig’s bases regardless of how United play. If United come out in a diamond, McTominay would get stretched wide allowing Leipzig to overload the midfield. If they play a back three, Angeliño is isolated on Wan-Bissaka.
When United play a back three it still operates mostly as a back four. That’s why they use Luke Shaw as the LCB. If the left wing-back pushes high, the other defenders just rotate over. If Shaw goes on an underlapping run forward, the wing-back could just fall in.
Nagelsmann wants to take advantage of this and force Wan-Bissaka into making choices. Less than a minute into the game he ends up in this situation. Alex Telles has somehow tucked inside to a weird midfield position. Everyone seems to be covered but Wan-Bissaka has two players he’s gotta keep an eye on. Again, even when United have numbers back they seem outnumbered.
A little bit of scouting from Nagelsmann would have told him that United’s back four plays very narrow. That’s by design. United want to defend the middle which is where a team is most dangerous. They’ll happily concede the flanks because the odds of getting burned there are so low.
Also, cross field switches take time to arrive at their destination giving your players time to get over. When you have a 22-year-old defensively superb right-back with great recovery pace, you expect him to be able to cover those switches. When you draw up the tactics, you’re expecting this:
What you’re not expecting is for your right-back to just completely forget that the opposing left-back is behind him.
When two back threes square off against each other the defensive responsibilities for the wing-backs are supposed to be simple: Wing-back vs wing-back. That’s it.
But of course, instead of looking at the fire, you have to look at where it starts. In this case — as basically was every case this game — that’s the midfield.
The play starts with Matić and McTominay defending space but somehow not defending anyone.
That helps create an overload on the right side, which sucks United’s defense as a unit over to the left. Wan-Bissaka sees a man break for the middle behind Victor Lindelöf, and he has to react in case that ball gets beyond Lindelöf. It’s probably the right play. Where he goes wrong is when that ball gets beyond the man in the middle he lets up for a split second, because he has no idea that there’s a man behind him. When you’re playing a back four you’re supposed to have a winger tracking back to help pick up that run, but because we’re in a back three and leaving our forwards high, he doesn’t have that help.
The second goal comes from much of the same. United’s midfield is outmanned (again). In order to make up the balance it’s not Bruno Fernandes dropping deep to play in midfield, but Luke Shaw stepping up to serve as the third midfielder.
This puts United into a 4-3-3 with a traditional back four.
United aren’t able to win the ball back with the three man midfield, but when Leipzig try to create an overload on the right side, United have it pretty well covered.
Luke Shaw is on the ball. Alex Telles is on his man. There are three United players covering two right in front. Wan-Bissaka has to stay in the middle of the box to guard against stray runners, but also if he comes out to Angeliño before the ball is played he opens the door for him to make a run off Wan-Bissaka’s inside shoulder.
The issue here is that Telles also spots the man between him and Matić (who Matić isn’t exactly covering). After playing the ball centrally, Leipzig right wing-back Amadou Haidara backs off a bit to create space between him and Telles. Rather than calling for Matić to pick up the man, Telles leaves his man to track the inside guy.
Once the ball is played out wide, Wan-Bissaka comes over to close Angeliño down. United still have the middle very well covered, but now Telles is picking up a man who doesn’t need to be picked up, leaving Shaw and Matić in no man’s land, and Haidara wide open.
Remember, wing-backs vs. wing-backs.
This was the third match in a row where Telles has just let his man run completely free on goal. That’s not on the coaches. Luke Shaw would be removed from the match after 60 minutes, likely for fitness reasons. The fact that Solskjaer removed Telles at halftime, despite knowing he’d only get 60 minutes from Shaw, is a massive indictment on the Brazilian.
And while United’s problems all started in the midfield, they unfortunately didn’t end there.
Case in point: the third goal. Some things just can’t be explained. This is one of them.
Harry Maguire just stops running as if David de Gea has called for it — which seems like a normal thing that would happen in this situation. But David de Gea is very much not acting like someone who has just called for the ball and therefore is late off his line and makes an awful attempt at a save. It’s really poor from De Gea who should have come out to gather this but why the hell is Maguire stopping if De Gea didn’t call him off?
The shambolic third goal United conceded was the most costly unforced error by United players, but it wasn’t at all the first one. Solskjaer wasn’t great tactically this match, but United’s players were all playing like shit (again). None of them had their heads on straight.
It started with Bruno Fernandes, who within four minutes was booked for dissent.
Just three minutes later the referee had to give him another talking to.
Now the referee on the day was horrible, but that’s not the point. You can see on Bruno’s face that he’s letting the referee get in his head. When that happens to Bruno, a leader on this team, it’s going to trickle down. Everyone was off their game.
Greenwood missing the obvious and simple ball to play in Rashford.
Later, Rashford had the chance to return the favor, by being selfish himself instead of playing the obvious ball to Greenwood.
A few minutes later Rashford refused to put this ball on his left foot, resulting in somehow not even getting a shot here.
We got to the point where just before half time the referee had to go over to Solskjaer and tell him to calm his players down. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
Now, this was a case of the referee trying to make himself the star of the show but it also tells us that United’s players had lost their heads. They were focused on the referee more than the match.
Solskjaer didn’t put the players in the best place to succeed. Greenwood and Rashford don’t work well as split forwards. Matić and McTominay don’t work as a midfield pair. A back three isolated the wing-backs against Leipzig’s wing-backs.
The tactics weren’t great, but you can overcome poor tactics. You can’t overcome poor tactics and poor execution.