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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Shades of Guardiola as “Ole Ball” takes shape

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A clear style and system, and players that understand what’s expected of them

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had to rebuild his Manchester United team too many times this season. When Paul Pogba, the original creative centerpiece, went down in August, Solskjaer rebuilt the side as a counter attacking team around Marcus Rashford. When the black hole of the number 10 position left a creative void in the team and caused them to struggle to break down defenses, he learned from Jurgen Klopp to shift the onus of creativity onto his full-backs.

Now Solskjaer has a fully fit squad. His creative centerpiece is back, Marcus Rashford is fit, and in Bruno Fernandes he has a real number 10. So how does he mold it into one cohesive unit?

He looks across town to Pep Guardiola of course.

Guardiola’s teams are famous for their pressing and movement. He likes to overwhelm defenders and get players forward.

At Manchester City — especially in 2018 and 2019 — Guardiola would typically line his team up in a 4-3-3 formation. But the 4-3-3 was really just a base formation. In possession City would shift to more of a 3-2-5 with certain players pushing up depending on who was on the field.

When playing with two holding midfielders, such as Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, Guardiola would typically have his full-back bomb forward to be the 5th attacker.

Guardiola doesn’t always like to have two holding midfielders on the pitch. He likes to get as many of his plethora of attacking players out there as he can. So sometimes he’d replace one of his more defensive midfielders with a more creative player like David Silva. When he did this, he’d then bring in a less traditional full-back at left-back like Fabian Delph or Alexandr Zinchenko.

When City were set up this way, in possession the attacking midfielders like De Bruyne and Silva would push up to form the front five. The defense would still shift the same way, with Kyle Walker tucking inside to play right center-back, but now the left-back would step up into midfield and serve as the second holding midfielder.

This was a major reason why Gareth Southgate took Fabian Delph to the 2018 World Cup as a midfielder and played Kyle Walker at right center-back. Those were basically the positions they were playing for their club.

Solskjaer has always preferred to line his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but against Brighton he took a page right out of Pep’s playbook and shifted to a 3-2-5 when in possession.

It wasn’t exactly the same as Guardiola’s set up. Where Pep created a back three with three of his defenders, United would have Nemanja Matić drop between the two center-backs to form their back three.

From there, Aaron Wan-Bissaka would push forward and Luke Shaw would do one of two things. He’d either tuck inside and be second midfielder next to Paul Pogba...

Or — more commonly — he’d push up the left wing, with Bruno Fernandes dropping next to Pogba, turning Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood into inside forwards.

Shaw was quite literally flying in this role as he got up and down the pitch. Just look at him haul ass to get forward when it looked like United had a break.

Obviously whenever you mention Shaw getting forward there will always be fans who still think this is the José Mourinho era Shaw, and will be skeptical about the left-back ending up out of position when United lose the ball. Given Matić is dropping back to form a back three, Shaw’s wing is a bit more covered, but even then it’s not much of an issue.

There were elements of this last week against Sheffield United but it was on full display on Tuesday. Running down the left wing, it was often Shaw getting out in front of Marcus Rashford. The two players inverse positioning was exemplified by the number of progressive passes each had. Shaw finished the match with 1, while Rashford lead the team with 10.

That’s really weird. Typically midfielders and fullbacks will have the most progressive passes (Pogba was second with eight — no one else had more than four) because they’re the ones who progress the ball the most. Attacking players typically don’t have many because by the time they get the ball, there isn’t much more space to progress it. (For context, Rashford averages 4.01 progressive passes per 90. Shaw averages 7.12.)

This whole system was best on display over the following sequence. Shaw passes the ball to Rashford who had already cut inside and dropped back. As soon as Shaw passes it, he begins pushing up the left wing until he drops off the screen.

United would eventually attack from the right side, with Victor Lindelöf going on a run and moving into the front five when he lost the ball. When we last saw Shaw, we knew he was moving up the pitch on the left and that’s where you’d expect him to be, but when Brighton clear we find out otherwise. He’s already dropped back to cover for Lindelöf’s run, ensuring United still have a back three.

And then as soon as Lindelöf got back to his position, Shaw immediately starts pushing up the field and out wide once again.

Shaw’s attack-minded runs were constant throughout the match, and was the catalyst to United’s second goal. When he lays the ball off to Rashford, Shaw doesn’t just run to the corner to create space for Rashford — he runs sharply towards the box, catching the defenders off guard and getting into a dangerous area. His cutback is pretty awful, but it ends up going right to Pogba who sets up Bruno.

Right from the start, Shaw was looking to get into dangerous areas. In the first minute of the game he found himself right in the middle of the Brighton box.

A minute later, he was getting ahead of Rashford again and firing a brilliant low cross in to Anthony Martial.

This was basically the last we would see of Martial all game — and that’s a testament to how far United have come this season.

Martial was invisible all game. He had 25 touches in a game where United had 62 percent of the possession. He didn’t just have the fewest touches of all United starting players, but two players who came off the bench had just as many or more touches than him.

Then there was Marcus Rashford. Rashford wasn’t bad per se, but he’s still just a shell of the player he was before his injury.

Despite getting next to nothing from Rashford and Martial, United won 3-0! Think back to the first half of the season — if even one of Rashford or Martial wasn’t on top form, United’s chances of winning were almost none.

Last week Bruno Fernandes wasn’t at his best against Sheffield, but he was picked up by Pogba, Rashford, and Martial. This week Martial and Rashford went missing only for Bruno and Mason Greenwood to carry the load. It’s a sign of United’s progress that they now have other players who can pick up the slack. It’s nice!

With a front five, Guardiola’s City presses relentlessly, especially in the final third. This was something prevalent in Solskjaer’s side at the start of this season, but really tailed off around December. That’s likely due to having a thin squad and too many matches.

That press was back on Tuesday. United didn’t press much against Tottenham or Sheffield. They were credited with just 201 pressures in those two games combined, with only 54 of them coming in the final third. Against Brighton, United’s front five lead them to 158 pressures, with 53 of them coming in the attacking third.

They pressed relentlessly and often successfully.

For as well as Bruno Fernandes played, no player benefited more from the shift in formation than Mason Greenwood. Fresh off of playing his best game in a United shirt last week, Greenwood was even better this week.

Let’s start with his goal. We already knew about his left foot and his finishing. We knew about his ability to run at defenders (at the youth level at least). What really stood out about Greenwood’s goal, however, was his movement before he even got the ball.

Watch how he just makes a subtle run to get himself free for a pass from Wan-Bissaka. Then as the ball is coming to him he drops his shoulder. That subtle move freezes the defender just enough to give him space to run once the ball arrives.

More than the tricks, more than the finish, that little fake and movement to free himself up and make himself dangerous shows a player who is getting it. A player who is developing. A player who will be a star.

Greenwood’s position as the inside right forward allowed him the freedom to move all about the pitch. He was constantly popping up in the middle, on the right, or down on the left hand side.

Here he is in the second half moving over to the number 10 role. This play starts with him playing in the hole and showing for the ball. Once he has it, he turns and shows his creative side.

Of course, the standout play from Greenwood on the night was United’s third goal. As a whole, it showed how Solskjaer’s calls for being assertive on the ball aren’t just being heard by United’s players — they’re being developed into a habit.

In Mourinho’s final game against Liverpool last season there was a particular play that really stood out. Nemanja Matić won the ball back and Jesse Lingard was wide open down the wing for a break. Matić never looked in Lingard’s direction, instead choosing to play a safe square pass. United did nothing with the possession.

Under Solskjaer, Matić has become more assertive and United’s third goal on Tuesday was a testament to how the whole team is now heeding the manager’s calls. Matić has often been criticized for playing too safe, while earlier this year Greenwood struggled on the break for United.

Tuesday night, they got it. Brighton launched a hopeful ball towards United’s box, and Harry Maguire won the header that then fell to Matić. As soon as that ball went to Matić, Greenwood broke. For Matić, it’s now his first instinct not to just look up, but to look forward. He sees Greenwood breaking and launches a perfect pass into space.

The rest is just great players making great plays.

For all the criticism Matić gets about his mobility or his passing, just watch the tactical cam of this goal and it’s incredible how much ground he covered before playing this pass.

This is the brand of football that Solskjaer has been building all season, and it’s clear he now has complete buy in from all the players. He’s taken elements of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jurgen Klopp, Gareth Southgate, Pep Guardiola, and others and molded it into a cohesive system that fits the personnel at his disposal. It didn’t happen overnight, because it couldn’t. The players needed to develop and improve, and they needed to understand his demands, and learn his system. They also just needed to be fit.

Now it’s all clicking, and it’s a beautiful sight.