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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Reds get the job done against Copenhagen

Solskjaer failed to properly rotate his squad, but there are positives to take away from the quarterfinal win


I typically don’t write Manchester United Tactical Analyses after Europa League matches, but one of my few rules in life is “if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to (finally) let us see the Pogba-Fred midfield, then I’m definitely going to write about it.”

This was an interesting game to rewatch. It was a frustrating match. It was a dull match. You don’t need me to tell you that — you saw the thing too. But upon rewatching it a few things stood out to me.

The first is: it wasn’t that bad. There were questionable tactics from the manager, but overall they should have worked in 90 minutes — they just ran into a hot goalkeeper and bad luck. That happens sometimes.

The second thing is, at first I thought Fred was okay in central midfield, but that he really failed to grasp a chance to push Nemanja Matić for that defensive midfield spot. That was wrong. Upon rewatching the match, it’s clear: Fred wasn’t just okay, he was really good.

Tactically, this was the first time since the season restart that even one change to United’s starting XI didn’t mean having to change any tactics. It was a like-for-like change.

We saw against Crystal Palace how replacing Matić with Scott McTominay changes the entire dynamic of United’s midfield.

The key to United’s good post-lockdown form has been the role of Matić. He splits the centerbacks to form a back three, allowing the fullbacks to push forward and leaving Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes plenty of space in the midfield.

When McTominay comes in, we’ve seen in substitution cameos and against Palace that he often forgets to do this until someone like Harry Maguire reminds him.

He wouldn’t do this consistently until speaking with the coaches in the first half water break.

But Fred needed no coaching. Right from the get go he was dropping back to let the fullbacks push up. With the fullbacks pushing high, Maguire had the freedom to try and find Marcus Rashford on some deep runs.

Fred was very positionally astute, even if this pass is a little too safe for my liking.

This role is a very minimalist one. You’re dropping deeper to give Pogba more freedom to roam around and make it easier to get him the ball. When you get the ball, the job is simple: look to get it forward as quickly as possible. Keep it very simple. Just quickly get the ball forward so you can get it to your dangerous players in dangerous positions.

That’s the reason that United’s attacking numbers rise when Matić — who isn’t by any means an attacking player — is in the XI. He just gets the ball to the actual attacking players and gets out of the way.

Fred did this from the start Monday, and he did it throughout the match. The hiccup was that the dangerous players were playing uncharacteristically poorly.

Right away Fred jumps to intercept a pass and quickly gets the ball to Anthony Martial to start a break. It’s ruined by a miscommunication between Martial and Marcus Rashford.

A few minutes later we saw how much of an asset Fred’s quickness was when he jumped in to win the ball and quickly start a break. There’s just no finish.

He passes through the lines,

And also displays his muscle, refusing to get bullied off the ball and still getting it up to Martial.

Or here, where he finds a pocket of space, turns and quickly plays a brilliant ball to a wide open Fernandes. But then it’s just a slightly poor touch from Martial, and that’s all Copenhagen need to hound him.

These are great things to see. Fred’s positional awareness was excellent. Defensively he was feisty and involved. He has much better defensive positioning than people give him credit for (he only runs around like a mad man when he plays as the no. 8 — a position that gives him that flexibility).

This was the story of the entire regular period of the match. With the role of the Matić/Fred position being to simply progress the ball, they had little direct effect on the ball actually going — or not going — into the net. That’s on the front four, none of whom were particularly sharp on Monday.

Like Martial just overhitting this pass to Greenwood.

Or Williams putting this ball just behind Rashford, and then Pogba just not putting enough on his layoff to Fernandes.

Or here where United spread out beautifully creating a very good break, but the through ball is just slightly overhit.

And don’t forget Fernandes who loves nothing more than to fire away from outside the box (whether it’s a good shot or not), getting into a great shooting position at the top of the box and... not getting a shot off?

These are all little things. Really little things, but they add up over the course of a game and when the margins are this thin, these mistakes will see you struggle for goals.

There are a few plays in particular I wanted to highlight with Fred.

The first is obviously that mistake. That’s what everyone will remember so we might as well address it.

It’s easy to say this now — especially since it didn’t lead to a goal — but this error didn’t bother me. It’s a simple mental mistake. He doesn’t mishit this pass, he’s not out of position, he looks up and tries to force a ball to Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He shouldn’t have. He should have just played it over to Eric Bailly.

The other two are far more positive.

The first is this ball off a set piece. Copenhagen clear out the initial delivery but only as far as Fred. Fred plays it right back in, just missing the run of Marcus Rashford.

The pass misses its mark but there are a lot of positive to take from this. For starters, Fred immediately looks up and looks forward but he’s not just playing this ball back in willy-nilly. He spots the run of Rashford and is deliberately going for him. Matić doesn’t play passes like this, nor does McTominay. The weight of the ball is off, and that could be from not playing regularly, but everything else is what you want to see from a midfielder in his position.

The second is this little through ball in the second half when Fred tries to pick a tight pass through the defense.

Yes, you’re the defensive midfielder and your primary job is to actually stay back, but sometimes you end up further forward and need to actually contribute to the attack. Since Pogba has returned, teams have made a habit of sitting on both Pogba and Bruno and just letting Matić or McTominay freely have the ball.

Don’t let Pogba or Bruno beat you. Let Matić or McTominay try.

United don’t just need a backup to Matić (or a Matić replacement), they need a defensive midfielder who can make teams pay if they leave them wide open. Fred has more key passes per 90 than both Matić and McTominay, he has higher xA, and has way more shot-creating actions. The other two just don’t look to play balls like that.

That’s an element that Fred brings that United previously didn’t have. The more he plays that ball, eventually it’ll start working. When that happens teams will have to start respecting him, which will just open things up for Pogba and Fernandes more.

When I rewatched the match I thought bringing on Matić was going to be a turning point. It wasn’t. United only managed two shots over the final 20 minutes of the match. One was Rashford shooting from the moon.

And the other was Martial firing away from a similar distance — albeit coming much closer to a worldy.

The game didn’t change when Matić came on — it changed when Juan Mata came on in extra time.

Mata may not have legs anymore, but his football brain is still invaluable, especially against a team that also no longer had any legs under them. He provided United with another playmaking outlet who could drop deep to receive the ball and then make something happen.

He then got himself in to a good position to set up the penalty.

From there, the only thing between this game finishing 1-0 or 4-0 was Karl Johnsson, who finished with 13 saves and a PSxG (post-shot expected goals) +/- of +2.5!

In the 70 minutes the starting XI was on the pitch, United took 14 shots for an xG of 1.3 (according to Fbref via Statsbomb) and had a NPxG against of 0.5. Extrapolate that to a per 90 level and it’s 18 shots with 1.67 NPxG for and 0.64 against. The 18 shots are right in line with what United averaged per 90 in the 69 minutes Fred and Pogba played as a pair this year (19.57) while the xG numbers are right in line with United’s recent matches against West Ham and Leicester.

That makes complete sense as those games also featured Brandon Williams at fullback. We saw against West Ham and Leicester how the absence of Luke Shaw, or not having a left-footed left-back, really hurts United in their buildup play.

United got nothing from their fullbacks on Monday. On the right side Mason Greenwood wasn’t giving an exhausted Aaron Wan-Bissaka any help. Greenwood needs to stay wide until Wan-Bissaka comes on the overlap.

Over the last few games Greenwood has had more freedom to roam around the pitch, but someone needs to fill in that space. On Monday, Greenwood was roaming but no one was filling. When the ball finally came to Wan-Bissaka, he had no options as there were three defenders on him and no one to pass to.

This was very similar to the first half against Watford, where Greenwood was also drifting to the middle before a tactical adjustment was made at halftime, opening up the game for United.

On the left side it was the same old story with Brandon Williams. He was either cutting in on his right foot too much — slowing everything down — or being slow on the overlap. Just look at how Rashford waits for what feels like an eternity for Williams to make an overlapping run.

When he finally does get there, no Copenhagen defender even bothers to pick him up. They just don’t see him as a threat, the same way West Ham didn’t.

Despite all that, United were in pretty comfortable control of this one. Their goal was never really threatened and they really should have taken a lead earlier. They didn’t, because they really didn’t show up early on.

I mean, they literally weren’t moving at times.

This appeared to be by design as United starting the match very much sitting back and not pressing.

Opting to play Mourinho-ball was a very curious tactical decision and it’s fair to question the manager here. I understand it was hot and humid in Cologne — brutally hot and humid — and pressing these guys for 90 minutes was never going to work.

But then, why did Solskjaer pick the team he picked? Why pick Rashford, Martial, Bruno, and Pogba if not pressing a team that was going to park the bus for 90 minutes? Obviously the strategy was try to blitz them, get a 3 or 4-0 lead and be able to make five changes, but the tactics chosen completely goes against that strategy.

Why not just play guys like Odion Ighalo and Jesse Lingard/Andreas Pereira to run around and press the Copenhagen defenders for 60 minutes, and then bring on Rashford and Martial to run at tired legs.

I get that the backups have proven time and time again that they aren’t good enough, but that’s always come when Solskjaer has played them all as a unit. There’s a difference between putting out a team of backups and relying on them to win vs. playing them alongside the likes of Pogba and Fernandes and just asking them to play a role. It’s a lot different when the pressure isn’t on you. If Juan Mata was able to make a difference in this game, imagine what Rashford and Martial could have done off the bench. Martial hardly even got involved in this game until the 80th minute.

Instead, Solskjaer played it in between. He played 10 of his best 11 players but tried to get away with them only playing at about 60 percent. As a result United had to play an extra 30 minutes with a squad that was visibly exhausted midway through the second half.

The lack of changes in the second half was a painful reminder that United hardly possess any game changers off the bench. The fact that Solskjaer recalled nearly his entire first XI shows how little he trusts the backups.

The big winner of that was Aston Villa who can now cling even tighter to their £80 million valuation of Jack Grealish now that they see how desperately United need him. Imagine if United had someone of his quality who could start this game, just to get Rashford some rest. And obviously the spotlight is even brighter on the need for Jadon Sancho.

This was a dull and frustrating match but there are positives. Fred may not have displaced Matić in the starting XI but he certainly showed you can call on him and not have a drop-off in quality.

At the start of the season this was exactly the type of match that wouldn’t go United’s way. Earlier in the season the longer United would go without turning their dominance into a goal the more likely they’d start pressing too hard, and probably make a mistake and see it go the other way.

On Monday they didn’t let that frustration settle in. They kept playing their game waiting for a chance to come. It finally came and they took it. That in and of itself is very good experience for this young side.

They ran into a hot goalkeeper. They hit the woodwork three times. In short, they were unlucky. It happens in football but what ultimately matters is that they’re going to the next round.

Let’s just hope those extra 30 minutes don’t come back to hurt them in the long run.