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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Forwards need to carry more weight

Without Pogba, United lack creativity in midfield, and they need their forwards to pick up the slack

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

If you don’t like metaphors or analogies comparing Manchester United to American sports then I apologize, but this is not going to be the post for you.

The best way to fully explain this United team and their flaws is to look over at the NFL. In the NFL, you can have a great defense, a great running game, great special teams, but success really boil down to your quarterback.

You need a good quarterback in today’s NFL. That’s the be all and end all. After that, your quarterback needs people to throw to, i.e., playmakers. (You also need an offensive line to protect your QB, but that’s an analogy for another post.)

Your wide receivers are your playmakers. They’re the ones who change the game when the ball is in their hands and who can turn ordinary plays into big plays. NFL coaches stay up all night trying to figure out ways to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands as often as possible.

The best way to do that is to have a good quarterback. If you have a quarterback who can throw the ball all over the field and into tight windows, this job becomes much easier. The quarterback’s job is to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers in dangerous areas so they can use their talent to turn a 15 yard pass into a 50 yard gain. The more big plays you have, the more likely you are to win.

Thus, the importance of the QB.

What does this have to do with Manchester United?

In football, your midfield is your quarterback. It’s their job to get the ball to the attacking players (the receivers) in dangerous areas so they can make big plays and be at their most dangerous.

In the NFL if your star quarterback gets hurt, everything changes. You need to accommodate for the fact that the backup usually can’t do what the starter can. Whether it’s less arm strength, less accuracy, worse decision making, etc. You can make adjustments, but ultimately you’re going to struggle to get your playmakers the ball in dangerous areas. You then need your playmakers to raise their games, and really take advantage of the few opportunities they’re going to get, in order to have a chance to win. If they don’t, you have no chance.

Football works the same way. United have a star QB who can make all the throws and make plays with his feet (Paul Pogba). Their other two QBs (Scott McTominay and Fred) are great when they’re being blitzed (pressed) and just need to make quick passes to the playmakers who can take advantage of having fewer defenders in front of them. They’re accurate for safe passes across short distances, but when it comes to just standing in the pocket and slinging it all over the field, that’s not their game. In turn, if a defense just packs the middle against them, it’s going to be hard for them to spring big plays.

With Pogba injured, United didn’t have much of a choice other than to start Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield. Donny van de Beek doesn’t pass forward (even when playing in the pivot) or hold his position, so he was a non-starter. A pair of Fred and Nemanja Matić was an option but when the two played last Tuesday against West Ham, United were drab and devoid of energy. McTominay and Matić have played less than 900 minutes together in midfield in the last four seasons. If both José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were going out of their way to avoid playing the two together, that tells you they’re not an option.

Since you know the strengths and limitations of the McFred pair are going in, you know you need your forwards to help out to make things happen and to take advantage of their chances. United needed their playmakers to accommodate for the fact that they were forced to play their backup QB.

The forwards didn’t do that on Sunday. At all.

It starts with Marcus Rashford getting played in, and somehow not getting a shot off.

When playing on the left this year Rashford has predominantly scored by running in behind the defense. Against West Brom there wasn’t going to be space to run in behind, and when you play against a deep block it’s important to play quick and try and run at defenders. Thus Solskjaer opted for his dribblers, starting Martial out on the left and moving Rashford to the right, where he’s actually been most productive this season.

Running at defenders is the best way to get things moving. It’s much harder to defend someone who’s running right at you. If you beat a defender off the dribble, someone has to cover for him, which creates a chain reaction of movement and increases the chances of something in the chain breaking down and leaving someone open. It also leads to an increase in fouls. That’s important considering that set pieces are usually the best way to break down a low block.

Hold up play and quick turns are crucial in creating opportunities to run at defenders in games like this, and United’s forwards didn’t seem interested in any of it.

Here Rashford gets it in a tight space on the line. If he takes a slight turn and plays it down the line, Bruno Fernandes can run onto it. Instead he pulls it back to the inside, lays it off for Victor Lindelöf and United have to start advancing the ball all over again.

Within 15 minutes Bruno was already dropping deeper to try and advance the ball. Here, Martial drops to show for the ball, but he doesn’t take a touch or even try to turn. Instead he passes it first time straight back to Bruno.

What does that do? Now Bruno has the ball in the same spot except two other things have happened. West Brom had time to drop more players back, and two of United’s front four are now deep rather than up the pitch. Bruno has no options.

Later in the first half, it’s nearly a carbon copy. Lindelöf finds Martial, who first touches it straight back to Lindelöf, who then launches a hopeful long ball to a well-covered Edinson Cavani.

Second half, Cavani gets in on the action. Don’t bother trying to turn the defender, just straight back to Lindelöf.

United would pass it around for a few seconds before trying again through Martial, only this time Bruno makes it clear as soon as he plays the ball he’s looking for a 1-2, but nope. Straight back to Fred.

One of United’s biggest issues is other than Bruno, no one seems to ever try and receive the ball on the half turn so they can quickly turn up field. Take this one from Rashford.

This one is particularly painful. Look at where everyone is when Rashford first receives the pass.

If Rashford just takes a touch with his left foot, he can turn and play the ball through to Aaron Wan-Bissaka. If he takes it on the half turn to his right there’s space for him to run up the middle, plus he can slip Cavani in between the center backs. More importantly, look at how many West Brom defenders are behind the ball when he first receives it (5).

But Rashford one touches it back to Bruno who can’t make a play right away. Bruno would play it over to Harry Maguire who carries it forward, but by the time he gets to the same level of the pitch where Rashford originally was, look how many West Brom defenders are now behind the ball (8).

It has to be quick(er). Just a minute earlier Cavani fell into a similar trap. In this case, he does take a touch, but not a controlling touch, a stopping touch.

Once he’s stopped the ball he plays it out wide for Bruno, giving the Baggies a chance to get men back. By the time Bruno puts this ball into the box there are four defenders back. Look at the situation when Cavani first takes a touch.

If he just turns towards goal it’s him and the CB with Rashford running in towards goal. He never even turns that way.

Here’s what happens when you actually take the ball on the half turn and keep things moving. You generate chances.

All game the decision making from the front four ranged from at worst awful to at best questionable. Here Bruno gets the ball where you want him to in the middle of the pitch, but he thinks he has all the time in the world (he doesn’t). He’s forced to drop it off to McTominay who threads the needle beautifully for Cavani, who isn’t strong enough to fight off the defender and control it.

You can’t have that in games like this.

Here Rashford gets a chance to run at the defense but instead plays a long, slow, ball out wide to Martial, giving the defenders ample opportunity to get back.

Despite West Brom getting numbers back, there’s still a breakdown. McTominay makes a heads up play to realize no one is covering the back post and makes a great run, but Cavani’s ball just misses him.

Cavani isn’t a passer but he’s better than this. Give him the same chance four or five times in a match and he’ll make it two or three times. But you’re not going to get four or five chances like this in this game, you’re only going to get one or two. You’ve got to be clinical.

Cavani doesn’t seem to want the ball at his feet. He wants to pass it and then get open. That may be his preferred way of playing but sometimes he has to change that up to help the team. Usually United offset the McFred pivot by Juan Mata playing ‘the Mata role’ or Paul Pogba playing on the left, but not on Sunday. With only one creator on the pitch, everyone needs to adapt to that and pick up some slack.

Not here. Instead of Cavani getting a chance to turn and run at defenders he passes right at Martial — slowing him down — who then have to give the ball to Fred. Break over.

Second half it continues to just be slow. Cavani goes wide to Mason Greenwood. Greenwood takes an extra touch on his left and then passes in to Cavani’s heels.

Despite all that, McTominay follows the play well and manages to get the ball out wide to Rashford to keep the break alive. But Rashford just... stops on it.

Solskjaer’s plan to use his dribblers didn’t work and Martial struggled to get involved in the game so it only made sense for him to make way for Mason Greenwood shortly after the hour mark. That moved Rashford back to his normal spot on the left wing.

On the right, Rashford had been United’s most dangerous player, but once moving to the left he fell into the same trap he tends to fall into against deep blocks. When he gets the ball, he either has tunnel vision for dribbling at too many defenders...

Or he just gets too passive and flat-footed. He loses all the creativity to his game.

With 15 minutes to go Solskjaer brought on Donny van de Beek to play alongside McTominay and it didn’t take the Dutchman long to show us why he couldn’t start this match. Just like the Southampton match, Van de Beek quickly left McTominay in midfield to take up a position along the forward line. Too often that left United in a 3-7 formation with no creative player in midfield.

I’m not sure what the point of this is, or if it’s the best use of Van de Beek. Van de Beek is a good passer but his biggest strength is finding pockets of space to receive passes (especially in the box). That’s all well and good but it requires someone to be able to make those passes (the quarterback). McTominay isn’t that guy. You don’t really want Bruno dropping deep either. But if you’re going to have seven guys on that line you probably want to get it wide and pump in a cross, in which case you’d want McTominay to be up there to get on the end of it. You’d certainly want McTominay to be the guy making late runs into the box.

The whole thing seems backwards, which was the crux of the whole game. Sure West Brom’s goal was a foul and it never should have stood, but United had 88 12 minutes to make up for that. United knew coming in exactly where their deficiencies were going to be. The engine room was missing a key component, and they didn’t have a like for like replacement. In order to make sure everything worked, they needed their forwards to step up, adapt their game, and take on more responsibility.

Their forwards didn’t pick up any of that extra slack. They created just 10 shots for an xG of 0.4. They didn’t deserve to win.