Manchester United are in year two of what is supposed to be a three year rebuild. Considering where the Reds finished last season, steady progress for this year could be easily defined as being firmly in the top four and possibly even on the outskirts of a title race.
The same way that third place on 66 points was a fortunate result of other team’s struggles last season, it’s that same happenstance that has United top of the table after 18 games despite playing at just a 78 point pace.
Prior to Sunday’s trip to Anfield, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described United’s league position thusly: “it’s like when you reach the summit of Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro, if you just sit down you’ll freeze. Now is the time to keep pushing on.”
Those are great words from Solskjaer, but actions speak louder than words. Liverpool’s back line was comprised of two central midfielders filling in for their three senior centerbacks who were all injured. They were there for the taking but United, or Solskjaer, didn’t go for it.
This was United’s third match of the season against the traditional big powers of the Premier League. It was their third 0-0 draw. Even taking into account United picking up four wins over Chelsea and Manchester City last season, those are fine results for a team looking to finish in the top four. But for a team that wants to win the title? You need to start winning those some of those games.
For a manager who’s developed a reputation for having great tactical plans against the biggest sides, Solskjaer’s plans in those games this season have all been the same. A suspension to Anthony Martial forced Daniel James into the XI against Chelsea but otherwise the plan was the same. Juan Mata played the ‘Mata role’ on the right wing, tucking into midfield to help the #McFred pivot with the ball progression duties. It was underwhelming.
Against Manchester City Mason Greenwood replaced Daniel James and Paul Pogba replaced Mata but otherwise it was more of the same. United put on a good defensive performance but only created a chance or two at the other end and didn’t take them. They ran back the same tactics in the League Cup semi-final a month later and while they only conceded on set-pieces, they never really threatened City’s goal either.
Solskjaer’s big changes for the trip to Anfield turned out to merely be a few little tweaks. Anthony Martial went out to the left, with Marcus Rashford getting a rare start up front. Paul Pogba moved from the left wing over to the right.
Like in the Chelsea match, United got better as the game went on. They created a few big chances but didn’t take advantage. That’s not a surprise — United aren’t a very clinical team and typically need three to five good chances before breaking through. It felt like a match United should have won as with eight minutes remaining a great chance fell to Paul Pogba.
“Pogba has to score” lamented Roy Keane on Sky Sports after the game. It’s hard to disagree with him, though the xG on Pogba’s chance was 0.38 and Pogba is (maybe not notoriously but certainly statistically) a pretty poor finisher.
At the end of the day Liverpool had 66 percent of the possession and turned that into 18 shots to United’s eight. United fans will lament Pogba’s and Bruno’s missed chances but Roberto Firmino missed just as big a chance as Pogba’s on the other end. And what if he had played in Andy Robertson here?
At the end the day — depending on who you ask — the xG for the match was in Liverpool’s favor by 1.2 - 1.13 (Opta), 1.20 - 1.19 (understat), 1.40 - 1.18 (infogol), or 1.5 - 0.9 (Statsbomb). In other words, if United deserved a goal from this, so did Liverpool but the end result was very fair.
A year ago — nearly to the day — when United left Anfield they were 30 points behind Liverpool. This time they are three points ahead. That in itself shows how much progress has been made and it is certainly a good thing that United and their fans are more upset they didn’t get more than a point at Anfield rather than counting their blessings.
Solskjaer would lament the performance after the match saying “we didn’t take advantage of the injuries,” but at a certain point he’s got to look in the mirror. When you keep playing the same system against the top teams, you can’t keep being surprised that you’re getting the same results and having the same issues.
It was no surprise that Solskjaer selected the Scott McTominay-Fred pivot for this match, despite the fact that the book on how to beat them has been written and is widely published. Manchester City showed us that keeping the ball wide and getting United’s defense to move from side to side will eventually open cracks in the middle and neutralize United’s ability to maintain possession when they do win it back.
United wanted to have Paul Pogba tucking inside off the right wing on Sunday to help out in the middle, especially in the ball progression area. This scenario is how it was drawn up, with United only failing to get a break because Marcus Rashford — who isn’t great with his back to goal — doesn’t realize he can turn on the ball.
The formation relies on Pogba being all over the pitch; when the ball goes out to the left he needs to cover a lot of ground and get out there.
Playing Pogba off the right (or left against City) allows him the ability to get forward and be a threatening part of the attack. In order for that to happen, the midfield has to be able to maintain possession. McTominay and Fred are not possession midfielders and United only average 47.14 percent possession when the two start together, compared to 56.7 percent with any other pair. Obviously those numbers are skewed by which teams these guys are playing against, with McFred being tasked with the biggest games, but United’s average of 49 percent possession against the likes of Newcastle, Leeds, Leicester City, and Aston Villa suggests they’re not exactly holding the ball against anyone.
Without possession United’s 4-2-3-1 formation quickly becomes a 4-4-2 and that is where all their problems in these matches start. Against City it was Bruno on the right wing and Pogba on the left. Sunday it was Martial on the left wing with Pogba on the right, with Bruno and Rashford up top.
Once again Bruno Fernandes was kept quiet in a big game. It’s easy to take that (true) statement and say he’s not a big game player. His stats in these games will back up that assessment, but the better thing to do is ask “why does Bruno Fernandes so often go quiet in these games?”
Like most issues United have, the answer to that question starts in midfield. Bruno is at his best playing as a number 10, playing off the striker but with freedom to move around and find space. When playing up top in what becomes a 4-4-2 (or if United play a back three and he’s up top in what becomes a 3-4-3) that removes his ability to play in between the lines and it becomes much easier for defenses to mark him.
If he wants to come in between the lines, you need your midfielders to be able to play quick incisive, line-breaking passes to him so he can be dangerous.
The ‘big game’ McFred pivot simply isn’t good enough to do that.
Simple things like not controlling passes easily, or taking an extra touch to get it under control, means that Fernandes goes from trying to receive a line-breaking pass to dropping deeper to help out his midfield, often leaving him with nowhere to go.
That’s the crux of everything. When McTominay and Fred play together — especially in these big games — Bruno’s touches on the ball take place further and further away from goal. Just look at the difference with them compared to playing with any other pair.
The amount of touches should go down due to less possession but the number to focus on is what percentage of United’s touches are taken by Bruno. The drop doesn’t look big in this chart, but his average against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Leicester, and Liverpool is 10.43 percent. Nearly a percent and a half drop, and his touches are noticeably coming far deeper on the pitch. (There’s also a drop when Nemanja Matić is paired with Fred — as there was last season. In other words, United need the passing of Donny van de Beek or Pogba in that midfield).
You can’t expect your best player to be at his best if you can’t get him the ball in his most dangerous positions. Furthermore, when Bruno doesn’t get on the ball he gets frustrated and tries to do too much himself. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but also could simply be avoided by getting the ball up the pitch.
When United do get the ball up the pitch, they’re almost attacking short handed, as their midfielders don’t provide them with an outlet. McTominay and Fred also tend to be way too close to each other which just brings extra defenders and takes them out of the play.
And when they do get space and time on the ball they’re just, you know.
Once you’re not maintaining possession, the 4-4-2 becomes an almost self-fulfilling prophecy to keep it that way. Because the same way that Bruno can’t play in between the lines, it leaves acres of space for Thiago to do exactly that.
Thiago doesn’t even get the ball in this sequence but you can see how much space he has to operate in between United’s forward lines.
Once you have Thiago between the the lines then it becomes a simple modification of City’s “use McTominay and Fred’s strengths against you” tactics. Just like City, Liverpool sought to spread United out, to then create cracks in the middle.
Here Jordan Henderson gets the ball and United don’t press him in the slightest.
Despite Gini Wijnaldum moving closer to Rashford (and taking himself out of the play) McTominay still pushes up with him. That creates a lot of space between United’s back line and McTominay-Fred.
That makes it way too easy for Henderson to launch a long ball and for Liverpool to win that second ball.
A minute later it happened again. Liverpool use the wings to stretch United, long ball, all the space in the world to win that second ball.
Once they got the ball deeper, with United in a 4-4-2 it was too easy for Liverpool to find space between the midfield and forwards and use that to create space between McTominay and Fred and go through them.
Often times in the second half United would straight up swap Pogba and McTominay, with the former coming inside next to Fred and the latter handling the duties on the flanks.
If you’re going to do that, it really begs the question: why not just play Pogba next to Fred along with an actual right winger? (A question for another post.)
In a vacuum, this is a fantastic result. You should never take a point — or a clean sheet — at Anfield for granted. Even when United were winning titles and Liverpool were mediocre the Red Devils weren’t winning regularly at Anfield.
In the grand scheme of things, this game highlighted how badly United need a defensive midfielder. They’re a completely different team when Nemanja Matić is on the pitch, but they don’t have a rotational option for him. When he can’t play they need to call upon two midfielders to do the work of one. McTominay and Fred seem to do everything as a unit, moving together, staying level with each other (which has its benefits and drawbacks), yet somehow also being too easy to cut through. United need a midfielder who can protect the back four and allow for a more attacking partner next to him.
Even in “the big games” their record is a bit overrated. United haven’t won a match against a top six club with the McFred pivot in over a year. They’ve only won two total. If you add in all competitions and the PSG matches, it’s still just four from 12.
The run of clean sheets speaks for itself and before the game everyone would have signed on for a draw at Anfield. But this is now three times Solskjaer has opted to play this way and three times the games have played out for the most part the same way. If United are going to win these games — and sacrifice creativity in midfield for the McFred pivot — they need to be clinical.
But United aren’t a very clinical team. They’re not great on set pieces. They need to create more than one or two good chances in a game otherwise they’re going to keep playing on the finest of margins. They’ll probably continue to pull out results while leaving a feeling of “we should have won that.”
That’s fine, but that’s United’s current level: Play not to lose against the big boys and beat everyone else. Do that you’ll finish well inside the Champions League places.
If you actually want to push for the t****, you’re going to have to start winning some of those games, and in order to do that you’re going to have to start pushing forward more in these types of games.
Maybe then you lose. Perhaps the “McFred” is keeping these games as draws rather than losses. But it’s certainly hard to take the next step when all your opponents know exactly how to neutralize you.
Maybe deep down Solskjaer knows that United aren’t ready to take that step and he’s just not saying it publicly. He is however blessed with a rare opportunity of getting a chance to get right back at it just a week later when the two clubs meet in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Solskjaer needs to change things up in that one. He didn’t do that for the League Cup semi-final against City but he’s got nothing to lose here. Change things up and win, maybe you’ve got a new way of playing going forward. Change things up and lose, and it’s unfortunate to be out of the cup but given the logjam of games this season that’s not the worst thing in the world.
After all, it’s only year two of a rebuild. They’re not supposed to be this far along.
Just remember that.