Just under three months ago Manchester United lost 6-1 to Tottenham Hotspur at home. That loss left United heading into an international break in 16th with a goal difference of -6, and a lot of questions about the club and their manager.
It’s a testament to how well they responded that just under three months later a 2-2 draw away to the second placed team in the Premier League table feels far more like two points dropped than a point gained. After all, United themselves entered the weekend third in the table and had a chance to close the gap at the top to just two points — with a game in hand.
There is some vindication to those who said United were struggling due to a lack of preseason and that given a few games to settle in they’d figure it out. No team has won more points than United since the Spurs match.
United responded to that loss in a very pragmatic away. Shoring up the defense became Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s number one priority, and the attack was left to figure itself out later.
Dropped from the team were the out of form midfield pair of Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba in favor of the energy of Scott McTominay and Fred. For the most part, this worked. Over the following four games United only conceded three goals, one of which was a penalty and another an own goal.
The downside of course was that United couldn’t score goals. In November, Solskjaer began mixing up his midfield combinations which coincided with United no longer being able to keep the ball out of their own net, but for the most part they were able to score enough goals to pull out wins.
But what if the thing that helped fix your problem was the very thing preventing you from consistently getting to the next level?
The loss to RB Leipzig in the Champions League was another moment that rattled Solskjaer, and with Manchester City coming the next weekend it was clear he would turn to his McFred pivot to shore things up again.
Since that match he’s alternated between McFred and Matić-Pogba in midfield but it’s certainly starting to seem like the former have become Solskjaer’s first choice midfield pair.
Over the last two Premier League seasons no two midfielders have started in a pair (the base of a 4-2-3-1 — not a diamond or midfield three) together more than Fred and Scott McTominay (17). United have only won eight of those matches (47.06%) for 1.76 points per match. That’s a 68.88 point pace over a 38 game season. A little better than last season but not where you want Manchester United to be.
There is the element of match difficulty. McTominay and Fred have become Solskjaer’s first choice pair for big matches against the league’s top sides. That stretches back to last season when the pair were immense in consecutive wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, as well as United’s big win over PSG earlier this season.
The pair work well in these matches because United tend to not have a lot of the ball. Their job is simplified — they just need to be disruptors in midfield. In possession the ball progression duties are taken away from them and put more onto the center backs and wide players (the fullbacks mostly). When done properly, it looks pretty nice.
The McFred pivot brings energy to United’s midfield but the tactic is starting to wear thin as other managers pick up on their deficiencies. We started to see this last season in United’s first game after the lockdown. José Mourinho’s Tottenham sat incredibly deep allowing United to dominate possession of the ball. United struggled to create anything until Paul Pogba replaced Fred after an hour.
This season we’ve seen it even more. Picked to help combat Chelsea’s threatening attack, Frank Lampard had his team play incredibly conservatively, letting McTominay and Fred see a lot of the ball. United struggled to create anything going forward. Pep Guardiola also played conservatively at Old Trafford — essentially turning the match into two teams letting their front fours attack the opposing team’s back six. City still had the majority of the ball, but United’s 46 percent possession was a sharp increase over the 28 percent they had in both derbies last season.
In each game the opposition’s tactics were clear: cut off the forward options, press out wide, and let McTominay and Fred have the ball.
Leicester City are a far more conservative team to begin with — preferring to play without the ball and hit Jamie Vardy running in behind — but Brendan Rodgers had a plan for United as well.
Rodgers looked to press the wide areas and cut off the deep passes, but right away he also set out to deny the ball to... Scott McTominay?
Right off the bat Jamie Vardy sat on McTominay when United had the ball at the back. McTominay responded to this by doing a horrible job of getting open. He basically marks Vardy when it should be the other way around.
Later on, McTominay was still poor at freeing himself up and providing an outlet for United’s centerbacks.
These tactics probably weren’t put in place for McTominay and Fred specifically. If you’re anticipating Paul Pogba starting in midfield you would have seen the same thing, with Leicester trying to funnel the ball to his partner. Because Pogba wasn’t starting they just chose to funnel the ball to Fred.
That’s not a bad idea. Fred is good at making really quick passes and keeping the ball safe. He’s not good at quarterbacking the team from deep. That’s not his game. When he tries to open up and be more expansive, we see his limitations.
Fred only completed 78 percent of his passes, a pretty big dip from his season average of 87.1. Only 59.72 percent of his attempted passes were forwards. Scott McTominay only attempted 21 passes! That’s not a recipe for creating much of an attack.
And that’s what happens when you play McTominay and Fred as a pair. They help you out defensively but there’s a drop-off in your attacking output.
And these numbers are obviously skewed because Untied put six past Leeds last week. If we take the Leeds game out we get a more accurate look at the breakdown.
They improve your defense but take away from the attack. That’s fine if United can grab goals, but United are no longer keeping clean sheets with these two on the pitch.
With the exception of Bruno Fernandes and Eric Bailly filling in for the injured Aaron Wan-Bissaka (pushing Victor Lindelöf to right-back) the starting XI on Sunday looked exactly like the United team from the first half of last season. Coincidentally (or not) this game played out just like many of those games did.
United did enough to win the game but enough to win doesn’t account for randomness or individual mistakes — which this team is very prone to making.
They created a few good chances,
But not enough to account for not finishing all those chances.
Marcus Rashford could have had a hat trick if not for two big misses. But that’s who Rashford is. He’s a player that typically underperforms his xG. His 16.67 percent conversion rate (which is bad compared to the top forwards in England/Europe) and which is the best rate of his career, tells us he’s going to need five or six chances to score a goal.
Again, this is all enough to win but that’s provided you don’t make mistakes on the other end. Defensive mistakes, though, is what United excel at.
It started with Luke Shaw playing this horrible ball back to David de Gea, completely tying him up and turning a simple back pass into an almost disaster. Luckily Fred comes in to clean up and this doesn’t hurt United.
Later we had multiple mistakes on the same play. It starts with Harry Maguire slipping and falling. Maguire slips, falls, and looks like a buffoon, but still makes a very simple pass to Bruno. Just because he looked like an idiot while doing his job doesn’t mean he didn’t do his job.
Bruno gets the ball in plenty of space.
He’s looking up at this.
There’s not much in front of him. Anthony Martial is at the center circle and Rashford is also pretty far central. If you want a quick forward pass, there is none. If you want to start a break your best bet is to take it left and try to beat your man. If you don’t, you at least open a passing angle to Rashford. Worst comes to worst you’ve taken the ball out of danger.
But no, Bruno decides to try and pass to Rashford, despite the fact that there is a man directly in between them. The only way to get it to him is to go between the defender’s legs so I’ll try that even though I’m right outside my own box.
Once this fire is started McTominay does a horrible job of trying to put it out. Instead of closing down Barnes he... shows him onto his left foot.
Barnes is a right footed player but he’s scored more goals with his left this year than with his right. Close him down.
McTominay fails to put out the fire, but Bruno playing with matches near the open gas line starts the fire in the first place.
If that was all that happened, it’d be fine, but when the Eric Bailly roller coaster is featuring in a match, you usually have to factor another mistake in. Bailly is a great defender (when fit) but he also has the propensity to switch off for a second (see Tottenham’s second goal in the 6-1 match).
Bailly was tasked with going one on one with Vardy over the course of the match and did a great job for about 94 minutes and 55 seconds, but switching off for five seconds against Vardy is all he needs to hurt you. Watch as Bailly loses Vardy in the buildup, allowing Vardy to exploit his recovery pace to find space in the box.
Bailly losing Vardy in the box. Marcos Rojo switching off for a second to lose Adam Lallana on his equalizer last season. A mix-up in the box against Bournemouth allowing Josh King to get free. Alex Telles letting his man go unmarked at the back post against West Ham. Dean Henderson slipping up against Sheffield United.
These are the things that keep happening to United. It goes without saying they need to cut them out, but given that McTominay and Fred play on such fine margins, when these mistakes happen when they’re on the field they almost always cost United points.
In the second half United’s midfield weren’t closing down their opponents, they weren’t trying to win the ball back. In the time between Bruno’s goal and Axel Tuanzebe’s own goal, Leicester had 80 percent of the possession.
If you’re not doing the thing you’re in the team to do, you’re asking for trouble to find you.
In Fred and McTominay’s seven games (as a pair) against top six opposition (Sunday’s match against Leicester included) United have won 11 points compared to an expected points (xPTS) total of 11.45 — not bad, but you’d like it to be better.
In the nine games against non-top six opposition (does not include Newcastle for the reasons mentioned above) they’ve won 16 points compared to an xPTS of 18.63. Again, not bad, but not up to the standard Manchester United should be at.
This is the next step that Solskjaer needs to figure out. Scott McTominay is miles better this season than he was last season. Fred is an invaluable member of this squad. They both have roles to play for this team.
Solskjaer has been hesitant to let Fred pair Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek in the Premier League — so far only trying that out in Europe, but perhaps it’s worth a try. Nemanja Matić can’t play every game either, so Solskjaer needs to start mixing things up because Fred and McTominay as a pair only works when it’s done sporadically. They’re too average to be considered a regular option.
A year ago a point away against the second placed team would have been a good point. This year it’s two points dropped. That’s a major step forward, but if United want to keep making strides Solskjaer has to keep looking for ways to improve. If there’s something holding you back, you need to address it before it drags you down even further.