After deploying a back three in two consecutive games Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reverted to his tried and trusted (?) 4-2-3-1 against Watford on Sunday. Right from the start it was clear United were going to play the same way they’ve been playing over the past two months against teams that like to sit deep on them.
Since Boxing Day, Solskjaer has moved Daniel James off the right wing, in favor of players that like to cut inside on their left. With the attackers getting narrow, it opens up space on the flanks for the fullbacks to push up. With United lacking a midfield creator, the onus of creativity falls on the fullbacks.
It’s worked pretty well.
Just sometimes the creativity is there but the finish isn’t.
This was the plan against Watford when Solskjaer sent out this lineup.
Mason Greenwood and James would tuck inside and get narrow, creating space for Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw to get up the pitch. Fred would fall in either behind Wan-Bissaka, or in between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf to form a back three and (ideally) prevent counter attacks.
Here it is in action. Maguire carries the ball out from the back, and Greenwood immediately cuts inside leaving the flank for Wan-Bissaka.
United’s fullbacks got forward regularly, with Wan-Bissaka even getting a half decent chance in the box.
Shaw got in on the action too as United were able to get virtually everyone forward.
This is Solskjaer’s plan to combat teams that sit deep; have your goal scorers tuck inside and get them closer to goal scoring areas.
In the first half on Sunday it wasn’t working. United looked completely disjointed and there were massive gaps between the midfield and back line that Watford were exposing. What was going wrong?
When United made these tactical tweaks back in December, it’s because they painfully lacked a creative number 10. Now, in Bruno Fernandes, they have one.
Creative players like to have space to create, but with the forwards all tucking inside, Fernandes didn’t have space to do anything.
Just look at this situation early in the first half. Bruno, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood are all right on top of each other. This makes it really easy for Watford to defend them.
That was the thing about the first half. Greenwood seemed hellbent on getting to the middle whenever he could.
Bruno wins the ball back and looks to start the break. When it’s clear he’s going to get the ball Greenwood could go wide and give him a quick outlet. Instead, he makes a run towards the middle, which doesn’t really leave him open for Bruno, but does open space for Wan-Bissaka. Once Wan-Bissaka has the ball, Greenwood is between four Watford players. The right-back does play a fantastic ball to Martial — showing why Solskjaer trusts his team to play this way — but the attack dies down. Remember this play, because it’s going to come up again later.
United were playing like a team trying to break down an opponent that’s sitting deep. But there was just one problem: Watford weren’t sitting deep.
This was the root of all of United’s problems. You can’t blame Solskjaer for setting them up like this — each and every one of us assumed Watford would come to Old Trafford and sit deep — but a change needed to be made.
Watford were playing very compact and very narrow. At times they were pressing United high and at times they were sitting back. They pushed their fullbacks high to try and take advantage of Greenwood and James playing centrally. There were plenty of spaces for United to attack, but with United also playing narrow, those space weren’t where any of their players were.
What United needed to do was create space for their players. They did that with one tactical tweak.
Straight after halftime we knew what that tweak was. Solskjaer had instructed his wide players, Greenwood and James, to stay wide.
Two minutes into the second half Maguire plays a cross field ball to Wan-Bissaka. Notice how Greenwood doesn’t stay in the middle to leave the flank open. Instead, he pulls closer to the touch line, opening up the middle.
Along with the wide players staying wide, the midfielders were just going to sit a teeny bit further back. Here’s what that looked like.
The midfielders dropping just a bit further would help close the gap between them and the center backs that Watford were exposing, but it also created space for Fernandes.
Not only space, but freedom. Bruno could now move around the pitch to make things happen. Right away he comes over to the left to pick up the ball. With James already wide, it’s easy to get him right in behind the fullback.
With James and Shaw linking up wide on the left, United gave plenty of space for Bruno to roam free down the middle. Loads of space.
Here’s what they did with it.
The buildup to this should have resulted in a goal. Instead it was capped off by a piece of individual brilliance from United’s number 9.
Just because you’re wide, it doesn’t mean you have to stay wide. In fact, you become a lot more dangerous when you stay wide and make a late run towards the goal.
This is how United created their first goal. In the first half, with Bruno starved for space he started drifting out towards the vacated left wing. Then when the time was right he’d burst inwards.
Fred gets it to the number 10 who turns and finds the wide forward cutting inward. The irony here is that James was filling Bruno’s role while Bruno was playing James’ role.
Those runs were something that Greenwood picked up on very quickly. Less than five minutes into the second half, Fred gains possession for United. Greenwood immediately begins a run from the right flank as Fred sends the ball up to Bruno.
Bruno comes inches away from playing in Greenwood. The ball is stopped by Craig Cathcart, who at first looked to be stepping up to stop Bruno. Once Fernandes turned his entire back to Cathcart, the defender backed off. Bruno is in acres of space, but you can hardly blame him — he knew he was going to be playing that ball as soon as he got it before he even got the ball.
Greenwood’s wide runs would come up big once again just a few minutes later. By staying wide he’s able to help out Wan-Bissaka and make a great defensive play to win the ball back. A nice little chip to Bruno and suddenly the break is on.
Bruno leads the break from the middle, eventually finding Dan James, but look who comes all the way from that right flank to make a late run and play a very dangerous ball right across the goal...
If only Martial had continued his run...
Now, remember how I said to remember that break in the first half where Greenwood doesn’t break wide?
Check out what Bruno does to start the break that leads to Greenwood’s goal.
Right when Greenwood wins the ball back, Bruno breaks wide, opening up the middle for Greenwood. Greenwood now can lead the break, eventually laying it wide to Bruno who gave it right back to him for the finish.
Solskjaer’s one tactical change at halftime, instructing the wide players to stay wide, unlocked the doors for United and they ran rampant in the second half.
In the first half, United took nine shots from open play. Six of those came from outside the box, and another came from their right-back. At half time their non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) was just 0.41.
With the halftime switch United exploded. They took 11 shots in the second half, all of which came from inside Watford’s box. Their NPxG in the second half was 1.47.
1.47 may not seem that high, but if they had created 1.47 NPxG worth of chances in every half this year, they’d have a NPxG of 79.38. That’s 12.91 more than Manchester City, who currently lead the league in NPxG.
Solskjaer has had this tactical nous all season. It’s just been tough to see for a variety of reasons. Within five games United’s top player had gone down injured, along with their center forward. That caused the coach to have to restructure how his team were going to attack. It seemed like every time they got going, another injury came to force them to start again.
There’s also the fact that this is the youngest team in the league. Many of the players in this team have never had the responsibilities that they’ve been given this season. With every setback that came in September, October, or November, we had to remind ourselves that this is a process and it takes time. They’re not going to just get it overnight.
With each passing week, there’s more evidence that this team is getting it.
United have now played 27 games, just over 71 percent of the season. Slice that number in half and you get 13.5. Here’s what the table looked like after 14 games.
Here’s what it looks like over the 13 games since then.
23 points in 13 games may not yet be up to the standard of Manchester United, but it’s a mighty big difference. Especially considering that it’s better than what almost everyone else in the league is doing. It clearly shows that this is a team that struggled at first, but is starting to get it.
United are just three points behind Chelsea in fourth place, and a possible CAS ruling away from already being in a Champions League spot. Both United and Chelsea have had injuries this season, but unlike United, Chelsea got off to a hot start but have now been sputtering for months. If United can avoid picking up any more crippling injuries the rest of the way, you’d have to fancy them to eventually reel Chelsea in right?
Things are picking up for this team, and that’s thanks to the instant impact Bruno Fernandes has had, as well as the coaches putting him in the best position to succeed.
Lastly, I’m sure you all remember that just before the deadline I wrote a piece urging caution about Bruno. I said he would be a good player, but not a savior. I also said this,
This isn’t something I want to be right about. I would love nothing more than for someone to show me this article at the end of the season, or at the end of next season and laugh about how wrong I was.
It’s only been four games now, but with every passing game it’s looking more and more like I may have been wrong.
... I couldn’t be happier about that.