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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Necessary squad rotation creates inconsistency

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United’s topsy-turvy form is a byproduct of Solskjaer trying to keep key players fit and fresh

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

There are two phrases that are being thrown around about Manchester United this season. The first is more specific to this season. The second is something you’ve heard all the time.

The first statement is that the only consistent thing about this United side is their inconsistency. The second is the idea that smaller clubs raise their game for United as it’s like a cup final to them.

That second statement is bollocks — not because there’s no truth to it, but because it’s not as simple as that and it’s also a very United-centric worldview. Clubs don’t just raise their game for Manchester United, they do it for Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City too. Everyone wants to perform against the big boys.

Those reasons also help explain the first statement.

It’s not as simple as just ‘raising their game,’ but rather smaller clubs are able to come into the match far more prepared than their opponent. Manchester United defeated Southampton last Sunday, they came into Carrington on Monday for a recovery day, before training on Tuesday. Those sessions were geared towards facing Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday. On Thursday, it was another lighter day before they could start preparing for West Ham on Friday.

The Hammers meanwhile played Aston Villa on Monday and spent the rest of the week focusing on how to thwart Manchester United.

In old days this didn’t matter. Outside of José Mourinho’s Chelsea and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, everyone in the Premier League played some variation of a 4-4-2. Prep work wasn’t needed. These days the quality of manager at the middle and lower end of the table is far better, and there’s a lot more variance in style.

Those extra three days of preparation are a big deal, especially when you have a good manager, and it makes life much more difficult for the teams playing in Europe. The fact that it’s still the same teams going to Europe year after year just speaks to how well they handle this burden.

West Ham showed up on Saturday with a plan. It started in midfield, where they weren’t going to let Paul Pogba beat them.

Just look at how they collapse around Pogba when he gets the ball.

They’re happy to leave Scott McTominay open and challenge him to beat them. If he does? So be it, but the odds of that happening are much smaller than the odds of Pogba beating you.

Even when Pogba looks like he’s in space, Sebastian Haller breaks from the forward line to put him under pressure.

Furthermore, Declan Rice sat and man-marked Donny van de Beek the entire game. Van de Beek is very good at finding spaces to receive passes, but with Rice on top of him that often meant drifting out to wider areas.

Look at his touch map from the first half. He’s everywhere but right in front of the box! This isn’t where you want your number 10 to be on the ball.

At times West Ham pressed United hard in the attacking third, and at times they didn’t. Varying their approach keeps United on their toes so they don’t know what to expect. Backing off also allows the Hammers to pack the middle, making it very hard for United’s playmakers to get anything going.

As Pogba carries the ball forward look at how everyone is on top of each other. There’s no space, and it’s very easy for West Ham to defend this.

Moyes’ level of planning and preparation ties back to United’s inconsistency.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t get to manage for the West Ham match. He also has to have his eye on RB Leipzig on Tuesday, and a Manchester Derby after that. He has to rotate the squad to keep all his players fresh, especially the ones needed in those matches. He’s not picking his best XI to face West Ham.

On the surface, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, and Donny van de Beek are all top quality players. They’re better than anything West Ham have to offer and they each bring their own quality. But together, maybe not a perfect match.

Martial and Greenwood are players who like to come inside. Van de Beek isn’t the direct passer that Bruno Fernandes is. In fact, he’s not someone that passes forward much at all, and his pass map showed this.

That’s a shockingly little amount of trying to get the ball in or towards the box. It’s one thing when you’re the furthest man up the pitch, but even when Donny plays deeper he hasn’t been a daring passer. In the recent two games where he started in United’s midfield pivot (vs Istanbul Basaksehir and Southampton) only 53.13 and 43.48 percent respectively of his attempted passes were forward. That is the lowest amount from any United midfielder by a country mile.

That was the root of all United’s problems. When you’re playing against a pressing team, your forwards need to hold play up, turn on the ball, and push it up the pitch. When you’re playing against a team that’s sitting deep you need to be direct. In other words, play forward.

That’s where United failed. Once again on Saturday they were all too eager to go backwards.

Even when they had time, it was still backwards backwards backwards.

This plague affected everyone. Here United work the ball forwards, and get to the edge of the attacking third when the ball comes to Alex Telles. United are moving around and van de Beek is making a good run to get in behind but... backwards.

Notice how Martial and van de Beek stop their runs when Telles takes a step back and makes it clear he’s not going to play in that ball.

The one time in the first half United did turn on the ball you’ll never guess what happens.

Turn, run at defenders, pass and move, pass and move, and suddenly, you’ve got a shot.

This was the story of the first 30 minutes. Other than a chance in the first minute of the match it was a stalemate. United had 67.6 percent of the possession, and West Ham didn’t get a shot. But United only turned all that possession into one shot of their own. Riveting it was not.

United’s touch map from the first half tells the story. United had no problem getting to the final third, but once they were there they couldn’t get anywhere near the goal or the middle.

The first half pass maps of their forward line is more of the same. No one wants to go take any risks. No one wants to go forward.

And that’s where David Moyes made an adjustment.

To understand that adjustment, we have to fully understand United’s buildup play. Typically when Nemanja Matić (and to a less extent Fred) are in midfield they’ll drop in with the center backs to create a back three.

We know that Scott McTominay isn’t as positionally astute as Matić and when he plays he tends to stay much more in line with his midfield partner.

This happens pretty much regardless of opponent or formation Untied are supposed to be in.

This makes it much harder for Pogba to have space in midfield, harder for United to maintain possession, and much harder to progress the ball up the pitch.

As we said before, this was a starting XI that was maybe better on paper than it was in practice. Martial and Greenwood love to come in off the wings and get into the middle of the pitch. That’s fine — they’re most dangerous in the middle and United typically use their fullbacks to provide the width, but the timing of that is important.

You need to be on the flanks in the buildup to spread the defense out. You need to be able to hold play up there to give your fullback time to make an overlapping run. Only once that happens, and you’re in the final third, can you start creeping towards the middle.

Watch what happens when Pogba wins possession of the ball here. Watch how quickly Greenwood vacates the right wing and comes to the middle.

Martial is already in the middle so when he starts carrying the ball forwards...

Once again everyone is on top of each other making it easy for West Ham to defend. Things like this are why United’s average position in the first half ended up looking like this.

This is far less a 4-2-3-1 and far more a 3-3-2-2. When that happens, where’s your width going to come from? The fullbacks obviously.

United love to push their fullbacks forward, specifically the left-back. The right-back is taken more on a game by game basis. Some games Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushes all the way up, in others — typically when McTominay and Fred are playing — he plays more conservatively to make up that back three.

That’s the key: United always need to have three at the back. Without Matić to drop back and provide cover on Saturday, it had to be one of the fullbacks. That works until United also needed Wan-Bissaka to provide width on the right side.

In a situation like this, you need to be on a bit of a pulley system, if someone goes up someone’s gotta come back. If it’s not the midfielder it’s gotta be the other fullback.

That didn’t happen.

And that is where David Moyes attacked. Moyes deployed West Ham’s rising star Jarrod Bowen high up the pitch with the goal of breaking towards the flanks as soon as the team won possession.

With Bowen running against an exposed back two, he wreaked havoc on United. The 23-year-old was just offside early in the match

But after 30 minutes he was fully unleashed and drove United mad — even when Telles was back.

Time and time again West Ham were ready to hurt United for leaving that back line exposed.

Good teams will make you pay for this every time but when you’re playing West Ham... sometimes you get lucky.

Those last 15 minutes of the first half were a complete blitz from the Hammers. United’s possession fell to 57.1 percent but West Ham outshot them 9-2. When the halftime whistle blew the xG was 1.97-0.08 in favor of West Ham. To say United were lucky to only be down 1-0 is a massive understatement.

Now it was Solskjaer’s turn to make adjustments. and he did. The obvious was sending on Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to replace Edinson Cavani and the ineffective van de Beek.

Tactically there were more adjustments. Right away we saw McTominay now dropping in to a right center back position just like he did against Newcastle and the same position he plays for Scotland. This opened up the middle of the pitch to give Pogba more space.

Fifteen minutes later Juan Mata replaced Anthony Martial. That move allowed Mason Greenwood to move off the right wing and start playing as the number 9.

One of the issues United had in the first half was their build up play seemed to only have 10 men — if that. Greenwood isn’t a right winger and because of that he’s usually pretty useless in United’s build up play.

We haven’t gotten to see much of Greenwood as the number 9. He started up front against Tottenham last year where he didn’t do much (not that he was expected to). He’s played up front as part of a two but that’s still different from playing as the sole striker. Even last year in the Europa League Solskjaer would often shuffle him out to the wing around halftime.

On Saturday Greenwood showed us glimpses of the star he will become. By moving him inside he was freed of all the responsibilities United’s wingers need to carry. He was free to just play and let his tremendous instincts take over.

Nowhere was that more evident than United’s second goal, where Greenwood’s movement in the box to free himself would make Cavani smile, followed by an exquisite touch and finish.

From there, West Ham had to open the game up more. The Hammers immediately started bringing the game to United, taking over the majority of possession for the first time all afternoon (58.1%).

United absorbed this with better hold up play from Bruno, who turned on the ball and looked to go forward.

And with the Hammers pushing forward that left plenty of space for Marcus Rashford to run in behind.

This is the second week in a row where Solskjaer has gotten away with changing things up at halftime to rescue a victory. Is that problem? No. Is it living on the edge? Absolutely.

Solskjaer is trying to balance a very difficult situation. On the one hand he wants to find consistency in his squad. On the other he needs to constantly rotate the squad to keep them fresh. It’s a grueling season that’s only about to get worse. The teams that are fresh are going to have an advantage.

We can already see this at play. Even though West Ham and Southampton don’t have midweek matches to deal with, it was United who were the fresher team in the second half of both games. That’s what bringing firepower off the bench can do. If you can get the job done in 45 minutes, then only take 45 minutes.

United were able to get away with plenty of mistakes against West Ham that they wouldn’t be able to get away with against the likes of City or Liverpool. But it’s important to also remember, this isn’t the team that Solskjaer would pick against City or Liverpool. The rotation may lead to frustrating events on the pitch, but if this was a cup final he’d be approaching things differently.

Nothing about what Solskjaer is doing is new. In October he had generally the same strategy for every match. Keep it close for 65-70 minutes before bringing more firepower off the bench. It worked against Newcastle and PSG. Against Chelsea it looked like United simply ran out of time. The knock on him was that he didn’t make the changes sooner.

Now he’s making them sooner and United aren’t running out of time. That doesn’t mean you can keep playing like this, though. Eventually you won’t get lucky and have a team miss their chances, or you won’t finish the good chances you create (like what happened Wednesday).

United’s current performances are frustrating but not too concerning. Only Tottenham have picked up more points than United since the 6-1 loss. In that same time United are third in expected points (xPTS), suggesting that they’ve gotten a little lucky but overall their form is pretty sustainable.

For now, Solskjaer is going to keep rotating the squad because it’s his job to keep looking at the big picture. That may continue to lead to frustrating first halves as players aren’t used to playing with each other, and more scenes like this.

In the meantime, the more the players play with different combinations of teammates, the more chemistry will develop between them. Ole will keep rotating and the consistency will eventually come.