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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Live by the sword, die by the sword

Against Leeds, Solskjaer took Bielsa’s preferred style of play and turned it against him

Manchester United v Leeds United - Premier League Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are a counter-attacking side who’s biggest strength is their ability to adapt how they want to play.

While this adaptability means that Solskjaer is frequently changing tactics and formations, this fluidity (in moderation) is actually a strength. I never understand fans who complain that they don’t know how United are going to play heading into a game. That’s a good thing, because teams with a trademark style are always going to play that way. And that makes them predictable.

Unless you’re 2011 Barcelona or the current iteration of Liverpool where you’re just better than everyone else, being predictable means it’s very easy to plan against you.

Solskjaer has shown time and time again the ability to concoct a game plan depending on United’s opponent. So when he’s set to square off against Marcelo Bielsa, a man who plays his way and only his way, the advantage was always going to be with Solskjaer. He was going to have a plan, the only question would be whether or not his players would execute it.

They did. They very much did.

Leeds play a very high energy up and down game. Defensively they press — a lot — but more importantly, their defense is based on everyone man-marking their opponent.

Knowing how they would play, Solskjaer knew exactly what he needed from his team. He knew where he could take risks, and where he wanted to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses. Leeds like to press high? Well, United would fight fire with fire.

Scott McTominay and Fred aren’t known for their passing, though ironically it was McTominay doing his very best Paul Pogba impression 10 seconds into the match — when he held off a Leeds presser and then sprung Luke Shaw down the left with a brilliant pass — that set the tone for the afternoon.

Shaw drives the ball forward and within a few seconds United are breaking in to Leeds’ box. When Shaw’s initial pass doesn’t come off United are relentless in trying to win the ball back, getting another chance to run at Leeds which only doesn’t become a chance because Marcus Rashford somehow doesn’t get a shot off.

What makes Bielsa Bielsa is his propensity for his midfielders to man-mark. Knowing that, Solskjaer is able to have his players take more risks. If McTominay, a defensive midfielder, is going to make a run into the box, you know a midfielder is going to track that run, and therefore there’s one fewer player you have to worry about coming back the other way. Right off the bat, McTominay was exploiting this.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Solskjaer’s plan to combat the man-marking was built around Bruno Fernandes.

Except instead of running through Bruno and having him facilitate for others on the ball, he was doing his facilitating off the ball. Kalvin Phillips is the lone holding midfielder in Leeds’ 4-1-4-1 system, making it his job to go wherever Fernandes went. If Bruno went right, Phillips went right, if he went left, so did Phillips. In response, Bruno simply went anywhere that wasn’t the middle, leaving that space wide open for United’s midfielders and even defenders to drive forward into.

Defensively, United don’t really like to press teams high up the pitch. It forces you to play a high line which exposes the defense’s lack of pace. Instead they usually opt for a mid block where they let you get to about midfield before condensing things and ramping up their press, which also gives them space to run in behind you.

Against Leeds, the front four would run around high up the pitch but actually pressure the Leeds defenders. They simply wanted to force them to move the ball up to the next level where United’s midfielders and fullbacks would then apply the pressure.

It didn’t take long for all these concepts to gel together. Less than a minute actually.

Here we see Marcus Rashford hustle to get in position, but not actually press the Leeds right-back. Once he passes the ball though, Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw swarm to create a turnover.

With United having allowed Leeds to get to the halfway line before pressing, when United do win the ball back, Leeds midfielders are all behind United’s midfielders, including crucially the two men tasked with marking McTominay and Fred.

That leaves one of McTominay or Fred plenty of space to run into, which McTominay takes full advantage of.

A minute later, same thing. Rashford closes down but doesn’t pressure. Once the ball is advanced Fred gets right up there leading to the ball going out for a throw in.

The ensuing throw was headed out by Leeds for another throw in. Off the next throw in, we see Bruno once again dragging Phillips out of the middle, leaving room for none other than McTominay... again.

Not even three minutes in and the contest was essentially over. And that’s the thing about Bielsa. There is no plan B. There is no “pack it up and limit the damage.” They play their way and only play their way. Because of that, United didn’t have to worry about seeing something new and adapting, and therefore the same things were just going to keep repeating throughout the match.

Leeds move the ball into the middle third. Fred immediately applies pressure. Dan James — selected today for his pace, defensive abilities, dribbling, and off the ball work rate — gets back to win the ball back.

As soon as that happens Bruno Fernandes makes a run towards the wing to drag Phillips out of the middle. He’s not expecting James to give him the ball and thus has to stop his run so he can back heel it to the middle, which is wide open for Fred to run into. United get a break, and even when Leeds defend it well it’s 3-0.

Bruno was relentless in creating space and it wasn’t just the midfielders who could run into it. If a defender won the ball and had space in front of him, then by all means, go for it.

Just watch how when Shaw intercepts a pass, once again Bruno makes a run to drag Phillips out of the middle, allowing Shaw to carry the ball about 60 yards up the pitch.

Shaw’s attempt to play Anthony Martial in is cleared out for a corner. The ensuing corner...

Hm. That pattern off the corner looks awfully similar to the one that nearly ended with McTominay putting the ball in the back of the net a week ago?

With United 4-0 up after just over a half hour, the Reds were able to, if not totally take their foot off the gas, at least start driving about 25 mph slower. They scaled back their pressing, focusing instead on sitting back and springing attacks from interceptions and driving runs from the back.

United never let up with this. Just look at Harry Maguire still driving forward in the 85th minute to help launch an attack from Martial.

United’s attack was entirely built around movement and creating space for others. Dan James, whose inclusion in the starting XI certainly raised eyebrows, was sensational on the day. Starting on the right wing, James popped up all over the pitch, sometimes switching with Rashford or ending up as a center forward.

That was all by design. Solskjaer typically prefers a fluid front four with players constantly inter changing positions. There’s good reason for that. When you swap positions, defenders have to be aware and make sure they’re on the same page with their teammates in regards to passing men off and picking up new ones. The more you do it, the more likely the defense is to eventually make a mistake and leave a man unmarked.

If you’re man-marking, however, you don’t have to worry about that because you’re not passing men off, you’re staying with your men at all time. And that can quickly be turned into an advantage by the attacking team.

When United move around and interchange positions, you drag defenders out of their natural positions. If Martial drops in to midfield to get the ball the center-back has to follow him into midfield. If Bruno then runs to the wing the midfielder has to follow him there. If Dan James fills in down the middle the full-back is coming with him.

Suddenly you have a center-back playing in midfield, your holding midfielder is playing full-back, and your full-back is playing center-back.

Do this often enough and you could take advantage of a player being out of position. Or, when things get wonky, perhaps after you have a set-piece in the attacking end, things can get confusing and players can get lost.

That’s exactly what happened when Leeds had a corner in the second half. As United are defending it, Aaron Wan-Bissaka ends up on the left side of the pitch. No one’s had a chance to reset yet when Wan-Bissaka springs McTominay for a break.

McTominay ends up on the left side of the pitch with Dan James playing in the center forward spot. But James isn’t the responsibility of either of the Leeds center backs, something they fail to grasp — as you can see, neither of them ever end up picking him up.

While James’ contributions were rightly rewarded with a goal, there might not have been anyone better than Anthony Martial on the day. United’s number 9 spent the whole game making runs to free up others and will feel unfortunate to not have ended up on the score sheet.

Though that’s not for lack of chances (again, Fred press in the middle 1/3, driving run forward).

Martial finished with four shots for a cumulative xG of 1.0. It’s truly impressive that he didn’t score, especially for a player of his talent. There’s no doubt he’s in a cold spell, but at some point this season he’s going to start coming back to his averages and when that happens the rest of the league better look out.

This was by no means a perfect match for United. Their propensity to concede from corners is becoming more and more of a concern every week. As well as McTominay played, he also showed us the risks that McFred pivot brings, like their habit of letting teams come right up the middle far too often.

Sometimes it seems like these guys have never played with each other.

That’s the thing though. Leeds are a team that averages 15.50 shots a game with an xG per shot of 0.11 (not bad!), but they’re underperforming their non-penalty xG by 2.2! They’re bad finishers! These are risks that you can take when you play against Leeds as the positives of opening up and attacking far outweigh the risks of Leeds coming back at you.

United ran over Leeds by taking their game and throwing it right back at them. That matchup was always going to benefit United simply because they have better players.

Bielsa may be admired for sticking with his style but if you live by the sword, you’re going to die by it too. It’s probably not a good sign that in the past 15 days Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard — two managers who are closer to ‘mediocre’ than ‘great’ — completely exposed Bielsa’s tactics. Just ask Chris Wilder what happens when the rest of the league catches on to your ‘style’ and ‘identity.’

For Solskjaer, this was the third straight match where United played a 4-2-3-1 and yet they played it differently in each match. Against Manchester City they were compact, often falling into a 4-4-2 out of possession, with Pogba and Bruno on the wings. Against Sheffield United, Nemanja Matić dropped in between the center back pair to create a back three and push the full-backs forward. Against Leeds they were much more open and had their ‘central’ players Martial and Fernandes spending far more time on the wings while Rashford and James came inside.

Just because the formation is the same doesn’t mean the players’ roles are. United changed things up three games in a row and in each one the players knew exactly what they were supposed to do. This isn’t the first time that’s happened either. Last season they played two different variations of a 4-2-3-1 in their two wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in a three day span.

United head into Christmas third in the table with a game in hand (though not actually comparable to previous Christmases as we’ve played a month less). They’re not perfect by any means — they’re still a very flawed team — but what the table tells us is that every other team has big flaws too.

Tactical flexibility. It’s a good thing.