Up until the layoff, Manchester United’s starting XI virtually picked itself every week not on preference or form, but rather necessity. With most of the other players being either injured, too young, or too old to be able to start consistently, the only question Ole Gunnar Solskjaer really had was “has Andreas Pereira been bad enough to merit dropping him for the even worse Jesse Lingard?”
Coming out of the layoff with a fully fit squad, United’s starting XI options were now better than at any time this season, with only three question marks remaining. Who would play on the right wing, who would be the third midfielder along with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, and the concocted “can Paul Pogba even get back into this team” story.
After two games, those questions have been answered. United have depth and some nice interchangeable parts, but if they had a one-off game tomorrow, a clear first-choice XI has emerged.
On Friday against Spurs, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went with the team that had appeared most often in the first half of the season. Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield, with Dan James on the right. Just like the first half of the season, they struggled to break down a team that sat deep.
On Wednesday, Solskjaer made three changes. Fred, McTominay, and James dropped out and were replaced by Pogba, Nemanja Matić, and Mason Greenwood. The result was a thoroughly dominant 3-0 win over a tired Sheffield United team.
Perhaps no one was happier to see Pogba return to the starting XI than striker Anthony Martial — who netted United’s first Premier League hat-trick since 2013. Despite Pogba not having directly assisted any of Martial’s goals this year, six of the Frenchman’s 13 (46%) Premier League goals have come when Pogba is on the pitch. This despite only being on the pitch for 459 minutes together (a 1.18 goals per 90 pace).
The difference in the two matches started in midfield. Paul Pogba was sensational in his return, pulling the strings from a deep midfield role. It was quickly apparent what United had been missing in his absence. Pogba is not an incredible midfielder because of the spectacular things he’s capable of doing — he’s an incredible midfielder because of the sheer amount of really simple things he does in a game, many of which United had been missing.
What was most incredible was that for as well as Pogba played, he wasn’t United’s best midfielder on the night. That honor would go to Nemanja Matić.
Right from the opening kick, Matić was ready to break ankles.
Matić has not been the most popular player among the fan base this season. There are several reasons for that, but the biggest knocks on him have been the perception that his legs have gone and the claim that he’s too safe with the ball. While many preferred him to anchor a Bruno/Pogba midfield there was the fear that his lack of pace could be exposed.
In one game Matić showed us that those fears were overblown. He showed us what he brings to the table that United’s other midfielders don’t.
United’s struggles against deep sitting teams this year have come from not having someone looking to make line-breaking passes. The Fred/Scott McTominay pair has had too many games this season where the midfield and full-backs just ping around lateral passes — which happened against Spurs.
Right off the bat on Wednesday, Matić was looking to play the ball forward and between the lines.
This would become a theme on the night and was instrumental in United being able to launch attacks quickly.
Matić also provides good coverage for the full-backs. When they push up, he drops between the center backs to form a back three. From there, he still looks to push the ball forward.
Against Spurs, whenever United’s midfield won the ball back everything felt rushed. Either in terms of trying to safely secure possession, or if there was a forward pass, making it quickly even if it wasn’t the best option.
Matić brings an element of patience on the ball. If something isn’t there right away, he doesn’t panic. He may wait it out, or he may create something.
Early in the Sheffield game a United corner is cleared out. Pogba makes a short pass to Matić who has nothing on. He could play it safely out into space on the left where Luke Shaw will retrieve it. Instead, he drives forward with it, drawing Sheffield defenders towards him. This frees up Bruno who quickly tries to play in Martial.
He did this all day.
Here’s a much more subtle one. Matić gets the ball, doesn’t really have options, but no one closes him down either. Instead of rushing, he just pauses. Then he takes one touch to his left, and with that he opens up a passing lane right to Bruno. Fernandes gets the ball exactly where United want him to have it, and tries to pick out the runs of Martial and Marcus Rashford.
Matić was also decisive with the ball. As soon as he got it his first look was always how to drive forward. Here he intercepts a pass and immediately carries it forward. The initial pass isn’t there so he holds it even longer. The play breaks down when Rashford lets it run to Bruno.
Contrast that with Friday night where United get an interception, but no one is looking to get forward right away.
The biggest difference between Friday and Wednesday was the movement of the midfielders. McTominay and Fred operated almost like a pulley system. If one went up the other went back, but rarely did they criss cross. Too often they stayed in a flat line, and this video does a great job of describing how that prevented United from breaking down Tottenham.
Pogba and Matić’s movement throughout the Sheffield United match, on the other hand, was phenomenal. They broke apart, split up, changed shape, and did everything possible to keep creating new shapes and options to get themselves open.
Here they end up completely perpendicular to each other just to create a passing lane. They essentially create a diamond between the two of them and the full backs.
Okay, maybe it’s more of a rhombus.
Pogba’s and Matić’s positioning is is on fully display in the following stat. The pair of them were targeted 162 passes on Wednesday — all of them complete. Last Friday, McTominay and Fred were targeted 93 times — 85 of them were successful. That doesn’t seem like a big discrepancy, but central midfielders are typically targeted with very low risk passes and a 91 percent receiving percentage is actually quite low for the position. Part of that is poor positioning from the midfielders — not showing great options for their teammates.
The other position of interest was out on the right wing. The work rate and off the ball ability of Daniel James has been sensational this season. It’s been of great value to United and has been influential in several of United’s biggest wins this season.
But you know what it means when you talk about an attacking player’s workrate? We wouldn’t be talking about that if they were producing on the attacking end.
Mason Greenwood is always a goal threat but he’d only started four Premier League matches prior to Wednesday. Despite his potency, there were a few things keeping Greenwood out of the XI (besides his age). He wasn’t particularly great on the break, his positioning could be suspect at times, and he was a bit of a liability defensively.
On Wednesday, Greenwood showed just how much he’s developed on all those things.
Greenwood’s development on the defensive end was particularly noticeable. Sheffield United may not be the most potent attacking team, but it was all the little things that Greenwood did that showed how much he’s developed.
Not even three minutes in we see Greenwood tracking back and staying on top of his defensive responsibilities.
This particular sequence isn’t much, but notice how Greenwood doesn’t go crazy chasing the ball. He stays home, always aware of where his man is. He never switches off — which wasn’t something you could say back in November.
Greenwood was impressive when he did win the ball back. He doesn’t just win the ball back and boot it away. He holds off the Sheffield player and looks to settle it down, so that United can play out from the back as they prefer to do.
But the biggest sign of growth from the teenager was his positioning when United won the ball back. Solskjaer wants United to attack quickly when they get it back, and this hasn’t been a strong suit in Greenwood’s game.
Early in the game, as soon as United win it back, Greenwood goes, giving an outlet for Bruno Fernandes to launch a break. When Greenwood receives the ball, he even pulls it inside to create a better passing lane to play in Martial.
Greenwood’s positioning is a big deal because his role is not easy. As a natural center forward and a great finisher, United want him getting into the middle and getting near the goal. With Anthony Martial playing as a false-9 and creating space to run in behind, Greenwood should thrive playing off the right wing. But with that comes right wing responsibilities.
Those responsibilities aren’t simple. When playing teams that sit back, Solskjaer likes to put the onus of creativity on his full-backs. That means Greenwood needs to tuck inside, as the flank becomes Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s territory.
This was something Greenwood struggled with against Watford. If he goes to the middle too soon he cuts off the space for Bruno Fernandes to operate. However, if he stays wide hugging the touch line, he doesn’t become a useful outlet for United to generate creativity — as Dan James showed us on Friday. It’s just too easy for defenders to trap you.
There’s a balance that needs to be found. When United are on the break, Greenwood needs to stay wide to create space for United’s playmakers. If they’re not on the break though, he needs to get off the touchline to create passing options. Watch how he just finds a little bit of space here that nearly leads to playing Anthony Martial in behind.
Two sequences in the second half summed this up perfectly. In the first one, Wan-Bissaka is under pressure with the ball. Greenwood gets to the wing to provide an outlet, and when the ball comes he plays it first time to Matić so that United could settle down. Because United have played it back to retain possession, there’s no break on, and thus Greenwood immediately begin jogging towards the middle of the pitch to take up a position there.
The second sequence exemplifies exactly what the two players this post has highlighted (Matić and Greenwood) brought to the table on Wednesday.
United win the ball back and get it to Matić. He doesn’t have many options. Greenwood is hugging the touchline on the right, but that’s a far pass. Bruno Fernandes is open in the middle, but he’s not really open — there are three players ready to close him down.
But Matić knows that if he gives Bruno the ball those defenders will close him down. If he plays a simple 1-2 with Bruno, he’ll have the ball again, but the field will look different.
Now that pass to Greenwood is wide open. And with Greenwood staying wide, he leaves Bruno with plenty of space to make a run. What happens?
It’s clear that Mason Greenwood has put his time in lockdown to good use. Besides the noticeable increase in his physical side, he’s significantly developed his all around game.
On the attacking end he’s still trying to figure out where he fits among the Rashford, Martial, Bruno, Pogba axis, but that’ll come with time. For a natural goalscorer like Greenwood, we shouldn’t be worried. As awkward as it looked at times, he still had five shots on Wednesday. It’s a testament to how lethal Greenwood is that your reaction to reading that was “wow, he got five shots and didn’t score?”
If Greenwood gets five shots in a game, we’d all expect him to score two!
Matić and Greenwood are still going to have their minutes limited over the coming weeks. There are a lot of games and you don’t want to burn either of them out. That’s especially true for Matić. He’s burned out a few times over the last few years and his form is significantly worse when that happens.
United have plenty of depth to help limit their minutes, but these two have proven something. When United need to put out their best team, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is anymore. They have an XI.