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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Preseason matters!

A lack of sharpness cost United dearly against Crystal Palace

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.

In a normal year Manchester United would have roared to a third place finish back in May. Most of the squad would then have about a week off before meeting up with their national teams for the better part of a month as they competed in Euro 2020.

About a week after the final, the rest of United’s squad would set off for the United States — or the Far East, or anywhere across the globe — for a glorified marketing tour that masquerades as preseason training. They’d play some high profile International Champions Cup matches and we’d all need to remind ourselves not to put much stock in a 3-1 win over AC Milan.

The press would moan about the travel and the quality of the games. They’d yearn for the better times, as these games were nothing but a cheap money grab.

But this last season was not normal. Instead of finishing in May, United finished in July — only then they still had to play the Europa League. That meant finishing their 2019-20 campaign at the end of August. Two weeks later, the players were meeting up with their international teams for the September international break.

For Manchester United, they needed to balance an international break with the ability to give their players a break. Think what you want, but footballers need that mental break after the season to just switch off for a week or two and not think about football. Even though they had the duration of a regular off-season with no football back in March, they didn’t get that mental break. They need it.

For Manchester United, they had to balance all of this with their preparations for the new season. That was an impossible task and something had to give. What gave ended up being the preseason.

It turns out those pesky little things like ‘match fitness’ and sharpness that you develop during preseason matter. Not having them manifests itself in little things throughout the match that end up costing you.

That can be not putting enough power on your header.

Or just not having your timing down, taking an extra second to make a pass and having it blocked.

Or not spotting the run of your wide open teammate down the middle, and instead choosing to try and play in a tightly covered Dan James who wouldn’t be in a shooting position anyway.

There’s obviously been an overwhelming uproar from the fans about the lack of signings to arrive at Old Trafford. Let me be clear: only one signing is unacceptable and United certainly need more, but they didn’t lose this game because of lack of signings.

Victor Lindelöf had a disaster of a day, there’s no sugarcoating that. Jadon Sancho may have helped, but probably not. Because United lost this game for the same reason they dropped points against inferior teams last season. The midfield.

Once again United’s midfield struggled to progress the ball up the field (Sancho can only be so dangerous if you can’t get him the ball in dangerous areas).

It started right off the bat, when Scott McTominay struggled to make himself an option for United’s center backs against Palace’s press.

This caused United to just pass the ball across the back. It’s time consuming, it’s boring, and it’s very easy to defend. But they had no options up the middle.

Now, perhaps right here,

Harry Maguire could have slid a pass through to McTominay and broken that line, but it never even occurs to be an option for him. Why not?

Last season McTominay was United’s least targeted midfielder with passes. There were times where it looked like the team was actively avoiding passing to him. Was this because the team doesn’t trust him, or because he doesn’t get himself open?

I can’t definitively provide an answer on the former but the latter definitely plays a role. McTominay would have had to take this ball on the half turn on his left foot. He’s one of the most one footed midfielders in the league, with a poor first touch, and he greatly struggles on the half turn. If Maguire makes that pass, the next pass is probably going to David De Gea.

A minute later we see exactly that!

Even after Palace’s goal, when they stopped pressing completely and just sat back, McTominay couldn’t figure out how to make himself available.

When they did go through him, it was slow. As if United were playing an extra pass. It was no different than just playing it across the back line, as by the time he got the ball out wide the defense was set again.

Now, this isn’t all on McTominay. Where is Paul Pogba? Isn’t he also playing the base of midfield? Shouldn’t he also be helping out the centerbacks so United could progress the ball?

At the end of that first sequence we get our answer. Eventually Bruno Fernandes is going to come drop into midfield, allowing Luke Shaw to push up a bit. That allows Maguire to go long to Shaw (his first touch lets him down and negates any progression, by the way —match fitness!), but look at where Paul Pogba is when this all happens.

And there’s your answer. United have made a tweak to their system. They weren’t playing the same 4-2-3-1 they played last year. They were playing more of a 4-3-3, with Fernandes dropping deeper and Pogba not just having the freedom, but being told to push much further forward.

There are valid reasons to do this. We know United like to push up to a front five when in possession. But McTominay doesn’t split the center backs the way Nemanja Matić or Fred do, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah doesn’t provide the width on the ball that Aaron Wan-Bissaka does. To compensate for this, United had Dan James hugging the touch line on the right, allowing Fosu-Mensah to stay home and form the back three. Fernandes would still drop into midfield but someone had to be the fifth man.

That would be Pogba. Pushing him up has its advantages. We know how dynamic he can be when he plays there. It also comes with risks: if the midfield can’t get him the ball then he fails to affect the game. When he’s failing to affect the game, he tends to try and do too much when he does get the ball. Guess what happened Saturday...

If you want a dynamic Pogba pass it would help if anyone tried to make a run

This also requires Bruno to do a ton of running. He’s the highest midfielder up the pitch when defending, drops deep into midfield in attack and often could find himself as the deepest midfielder. It’s no wonder on Palace’s third goal, he was only able to half ass closing down players before the goal.

He was exhausted. Can you blame him?

Fans have been asking for a 4-3-3 with Pogba and Bruno in midfield for quite some time. To play that way it requires a very good defensive midfielder who will sit in front of the back four. Matić has proven to be adept at this but some fans and pundits have suggested that long term this could be the spot for McTominay.

Solskjaer has rarely played McTominay as the deepest midfielder. His passing and positional skills are concerns, but he was given the chance Saturday and he promptly showed us he cannot play there.

The formation tweak — and everyone’s adjusted roles — were evident right from the start.

Just five minutes into the game Pogba aggressively pushes up into the front four to press Crystal Palace, something he didn’t do at all last year (by design). We then see exactly why you need a midfielder who holds his position well.

That midfielder is not McTominay, a player who has a tendency to be over-eager on the press and as a result get dragged out of position. It happens to him right here, when he comes all the way over to try and trap the ball. This isn’t his man. Lindelöf has Wilf Zaha covered, while Dan James is supposed to apply pressure. In theory this would force Zaha to either go straight back, where Pogba is, or turn towards the middle where McTominay should be.

McTominay is not there and Lindelöf wisely commits a foul, because if he didn’t, Palace would have had a hell of a lot of space right up the middle...

This was the story of the match. It didn’t matter who gave the ball away (everyone gave the ball away), with no positional discipline from the deepest midfielder United were able to be carved open right through the middle.

It happened over and over again.

If you’re the holding midfielder, you can’t commit to a duel unless you know you’re going to win. That’s why McTominay wins a lot of duels and Matić doesn’t. McTominay engages so many because he typically has another man back with him. Even then, many are ill-advised because if he doesn’t win them, he’s leaving his partner exposed. Matić on the other hand doesn’t engage as often and instead keeps the defense organized.

I’ll stop after this one because three breakaways is more than enough — in fact it’s entirely too many — but just know I could have pulled more from this match. A lot more.

Now this one actually ended with McTominay making a sensational slide tackle outside the box. The exact kind of slide tackle that endears you to English football fans. Even the commentator praised it saying “that slide tackle shows you why McTominay was picked over Fred, because he just offers you that area of his game that Fred doesn’t.

Of course, everyone ignores that McTominay had to make that tackle only because McTominay allowed it to get to that point in the first place.

This breakaway should have been stopped right here.

Right here McTominay has a chance to make an almossst 50-50 challenge. You know, the type that’ll definitely achieve your objective of having a foul called (allowing your defense to reset) while also not getting booked. The type of foul Fernandinho, Rodri, Jordan Henderson, Thomas Partey, and so many other good defensive midfielders shine at making.

Watch the GIF again: McTominay jumps back instead of committing the foul. Victor Lindelöf may have been incredibly poor, but it doesn’t matter how good your centerbacks are in this case. If your midfield is constantly letting your opponents freely run right at your centerbacks you don’t have a chance.

(In fairness, Fred also needs to learn to make that foul. He had many chances to foul Bergwijn before his goal in the Spurs match but never engaged).

Solskjaer’s tactical change was reflected in the numbers as well. 35 percent of Pogba’s touches came in the attacking third, a 48 percent increase from the 24.36% he averaged last year. His 17 presses extrapolate to 23.18 per 90, a hefty rise over the 12.26 per 90 he had last season. Fernandes only had 17 presses over the full 90 minutes, a sign that their roles were reversed for much of the game. Bruno also had a whopping 123 touches. He was simply all over the field and it’s no wonder he had no energy by the end.

In the second half, Solskjaer tweaked things back to how United played last season. Right away we saw McTominay split the center backs, and as a result he’s able to progress the ball!

As always, McTominay would quickly stop splitting the centerbacks, but now he wasn’t the only midfielder sitting deep. Paul Pogba was also there to help out.

This breaks down either because of a poor touch from Marcus Rashford or a miscommunication between Rashford and Bruno. You know; no preseason, lack of match sharpness, etc., etc.

Minutes later, McTominay splitting the centerbacks again...

...which allows Harry Maguire to carry the ball forward and make something happen. It’s the best chance United got before their goal.

It’s amazing how much better United’s attack flows when one of their midfielders split the centerbacks and it continues to baffle my mind how McTominay hasn’t grasped this very simple concept and done it consistently.

Perhaps that’s why Solskjaer opted to change the tactics in the first half — because he knows McTominay isn’t going to perform the role that he’s been asked to. But putting him in an even more defensive role that suits him even less is even more baffling.

At the end of the day, the team selection likely came down to who was match fit. Fred is also a player with exceptional fitness levels. Despite only returning to training on Monday it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be fit to play about 60 minutes. If he truly wasn’t, then the manager certainly needs to be questioned for changing his tactics despite them not suiting his available players and not having any preseason to work on them.

The manager made some questionable decisions but this isn’t entirely on him. The preseason matters, but not having one isn’t an excuse (see City, Manchester). Everyone was bad. James and Rashford were invisible. Pogba failed to make an impact. Bruno was on the ball more than anyone else but never felt threatening.

Sure, Shaw hasn’t played in two months and Rashford isn’t fully fit so it’s understandable if it takes them a few minutes to get a feel their first touch, but often times it looked like this was the first time these guys were playing with each other. That’s on the players and is simply inexcusable.

The match slipped away in the second half. A soft penalty and even softer re-take seemed to put it out of reach. Solskjaer went for broke by playing McTominay at right-back, Martial as the 10, and a midfield of Bruno and Donny van de Beek, and United conceded exactly the type of goal you’d expect a team gambling that much to concede.

On the one hand, the three goals against seemed a little harsh. On the other, it didn’t — not when you give Palace multiple free runs at your back line. No one would argue that at 1-0 United deserved even a point from this match. When your midfield can’t progress the ball (McTominay had four progressive passes - bested by both Maguire (5) and Lindelöf (6) - Bruno dropping deep into midfield had 20), or protect your back four you’re not going to win.

It was a bad game, no way to sugar coat it. Chalk it up to questionable tactics, bad individual performances, and lack of match fitness. But it’s only one game (this team did in fact lose to Palace at home last season, and that was with their first choice XI at the time). Put it in the rearview and move on. If the first XI has a run of games and is still performing this poorly, then I’ll be concerned.

Until then, it’s a long season.

And oh yea, sign some players, Ed.