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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Missing first-choice fullbacks prove costly

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Brandon Williams and Timothy Fosu-Mensah fail to provide the same width and attacking threat as their first-choice counterparts

Manchester United v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In the end it’s all going to come down to Luke Shaw.

Imagine in October hearing Manchester United’s top four hopes could come down to whether Luke Shaw is fit on the final day of the season.”

United fans have a pretty meh-hate relationship with Luke Shaw. Not many really love the guy, a substantial larger number think he’s terrible, and the rest are just kinda lukewarm about him.

His absence in the early part of the season paved the way for the emergence of Brandon Williams. The plucky academy kid made such an impression, that when Shaw was ready to return in early December many thought that Williams should be first choice over him.

Even with Shaw showing his best form in a United shirt over the second half of the season there are still many who would rate Williams over him. That has turned out to be premature.

United have played three games since Shaw rolled his ankle against Southampton. In those three games they learned two things.

  1. How much they currently rely on Shaw.
  2. In its current iteration, Brandon Williams cannot play left-back in this system.

That’s not to say that Williams is bad. He’s a very good player. When it comes to his defensive abilities and positioning, he’s right up there with anyone.

When it comes to the physicality of the Premier League, that’s not a worry either.

Williams’ biggest issue is that he’s right-footed, and with the way United currently play, they need a left-footed left-back.

United’s current system relies heavily on the fullbacks pushing up to attack. The fullbacks themselves don’t need to be spectacular — they’re merely cogs in United’s attacking machine. But when you take out those cogs, nothing else works right.

United looked dull and completely void of ideas Wednesday against a well organized West Ham team that were sitting deep. It was eerily reminiscent of the first half of the season when United struggled in exactly these types of games.

Which was notable because United haven’t been struggling in these types of games recently. Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth, and Aston Villa all sat deep against United and all were brushed aside relatively easily.

Then Shaw went down and things started getting tricky. United were able to dispatch Crystal Palace, but that was more thanks to some great individual play from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. United didn’t look good doing it.

At this point we’ve exhausted the amount of times we can talk about how to break down teams that sit deep. You need to move the ball quickly. You need to be decisive as soon as you win the ball back. You need to use your width.

That width isn’t just for the final third, it’s also necessary to use it in the buildup, and that’s where United have struggled without their first choice fullbacks.

This is where Williams really struggles. Often in the buildup, Williams takes the ball on his right foot, causing him to turn inside. It slows everything down.

This has been the story of Williams when he plays at left-back. There’s a reason that when United were 2-0 down to Burnley one of the ‘attacking’ subs Solskjaer made was Shaw for Williams.

Too often Williams doesn’t even try to progress the ball. Here he gets the ball twice in a matter of seconds and never even tries to look up field.

Here Williams gets the ball after West Ham break their shape to press Bruno Fernandes. This is the exact time where you want to hit them with a quick forward pass to take advantage of space. Williams goes square.

Again after West Ham break their shape to try and clear the ball, it’s an ideal time to try and pick them out. No attempt is even made.

Williams’ play is very similar to Scott McTominay. He’s not making mistakes or being bad with the ball. But when he’s out there it’s clear there are limitations that prevent the machine from running at full capacity.

Here, he gets himself into a good position to receive the ball. Once he does all he has to do is swing his left boot through it to get Rashford into space. He doesn’t even try.

What is the point of even getting yourself into that position if you’re just going to go backwards with it?

In the short term, United need Shaw back simply because he knows the role inside and out. On Wednesday, Williams’ struggled with that.

Right at the start of the game Nemanja Matić did what he always does — split the center backs to form a back three as United moved to progress the ball. Except this time, United’s fullbacks didn’t push on, effectively creating a back five.

With Williams being right-footed, United also lose the ability to have an overlap down that left side. That is, if Williams even overlaps.

Early on Williams overlapped a Rashford run and made such little effort to attack you wonder why he even bothered.

And that was when he did come on the overlap. Just look at how long Martial is out on the left side of the box here before Williams comes into the picture.

Williams has attacking ability but from the left side, he wasn’t too eager to show it.

By the second half, Williams was such a non-threat that West Ham didn’t even bother picking him up. Watch here as Bruno gets the ball out wide. Williams makes the correct overlapping run which should pull a defender off of Fernandes. That is, if the defenders were worried about Williams getting the ball.

You can’t hold this all against Williams. He’s 19 and still developing. Not playing every week certainly hasn’t helped him learn the role completely and all the instincts that come with it. And it’s certainly not an easy role to play. It requires a ton of running. Why do you think Aaron Wan-Bissaka has looked so tired recently? Why do you think he needed rest?

Williams being right-footed has its drawbacks on the left, but combining that with Wan-Bissaka’s absence on the right was deadly to United.

Solskjaer tried to give his first choice right-back a much needed rest, but that lasted all of 45 minutes. That wasn’t surprising given that his replacement, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, was playing his third game in 16 months, and isn’t an attacking fullback in the least bit. Maybe United could have gotten more out of Diogo Dalot, but Solskjaer has made his feelings on Dalot so clear we knew that would never happen.

Fosu-Mensah’s lack of attacking instinct made West Ham’s job much easier.

When he gets the ball on the right side here, he has acres of space in front of him. He doesn’t even attempt to take on the defender, and just plays it straight back to Paul Pogba. That identifies him to the defense as ‘not a threat’ and therefore they don’t have to worry about picking him up. That means West Ham can devote an extra man to the inside, and the left-back can pick up the run of Martial.

This was the match in a nutshell. The complete lack of a threat from the wings allowed West Ham to pack the middle of the pitch.

As many of us have been saying all year, when facing a team that’s packed in like that you need to move the ball quickly. That’s where United struggled this season without Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. They didn’t have someone that could play cross field switches. Going from one side to the other took three or four passes.

On Wednesday they had both those players but the passes still weren’t being made. Well, they were, but when they were being made it wasn’t the left-back Williams out on the left to receive them.

Pogba finds Bruno. Even Victor Lindelöf was finding Bruno.

Bruno is adept at roving around the pitch to find space, but all the way out on the left isn’t where you want him to have the ball. He’s not effective from out wide. You want him to have the ball in the middle of the field.

By this point, United’s players had seemingly lost faith in giving the ball to Williams. Not that he would turn it over, just that he’d probably give it right back to you. Watch here as Bruno points for Matić to make a simple pass to Williams but he doesn’t. He just waits for the direct pass to Bruno to open up instead.

United were never able to find pockets of space because their fullbacks weren’t providing anything in the buildup. At halftime, Solskjaer had no choice but to bring Wan-Bissaka in. You know how long it took for him to get involved in the buildup?

Less than 90 seconds.

It’s not a coincidence that within five minutes United had found the back of the net. But take a look at what happens in the buildup to Mason Greenwood’s goal. When Pogba gets the ball and Wan-Bissaka is pushed forward, Aaron Cresswell has a moment’s hesitation where he looks to his left and takes a step towards Wan-Bissaka.

Creswell’s hesitation is done purely because Wan-Bissaka is perceived as a threat. That moment of hesitation and step to his left opens up just a little bit more space for Greenwood to run into and start the play. He may have had enough space even if Creswell doesn’t hesitate, but maybe not.

Not surprisingly, with Wan-Bissaka on the pitch United started playing long balls out to the right-back. Just look at how much space opens up in the West Ham box once you get those defenders moving.

Two passes later United would get the ball into the box, but the chance fell apart.

Over on the left Williams had become such a non-factor in the second half that the attacking left-back duties started being split by Fernandes and Marcus Rashford.

This is obviously not the best use for either Rashford’s or Bruno’s skills.

None of this should be taken as a knock on Williams. As I said earlier, when it comes to his defensive duties and the required physicality for the league he’s very good. His attacking instincts also make him very good when playing down the right.

Williams’ success and ability to play as a left wing-back shouldn’t be confused with fitting in at left-back. When playing as a wing back this season he’s primarily had Luke Shaw or Marcos Rojo as the LCB. Both players are left-footed and their underlapping forward runs, specifically from Shaw, allowed United to maintain that left-footed/right-footed balance down the left side.

Williams will continue to develop at a good pace. The more he plays the better he’ll learn the role of a fullback in United’s current system. He’ll probably become a very good backup for Wan-Bissaka on the right (though he’ll have to watch out for Ethan Laird).

But unless he becomes (much) more left-footed, or United get a left-footed left-winger, he’s not going to be an effective left-back in this current system.

And for that, United need to hope Luke Shaw is fit to face Leicester.