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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Professional Reds take care of business

United may have gotten back on track after a stumble, but they need to kick on now

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

If you’re a fan of old school ‘get the ball out wide and just whip a cross into the mixer’ football then Tuesday night’s match was for you. If you’re also a fan of how old school ‘whip in a cross’ tactics intersect with modern football tactics this was the match for you.

If you’re of the belief that Manchester United ‘don’t have any patterns’ well then, this wasn’t the match for you.

A red card inside of 90 seconds completely changed the scope of this match. Manchester United were expecting to deal with Southampton’s high intensity, high pressing style, but with the Saints reduced to 10 men less than two minutes in, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men immediately dropped into a low block and challenged United to break them down.

Or was that the plan in the first place?

On paper, this didn’t look like an XI that would be adept at breaking down a low block. You don’t need me to tell you that the midfield pair of Scott McTominay and Fred are far more adept at hitting teams in transitions than providing creativity — and yet United pivoted to a plan that stripped the midfield of their creative responsibility so quickly you have to think that was the plan all along. That may be a hint that Paul Pogba wasn’t just being rested, but rather his absence was tactical, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t looking for creativity from his midfield.

Beating a low block requires width and moving the ball quickly. Gone are the days where that width comes from your midfielders or wingers whipping in crosses a la David Beckham. Even Kevin de Bruyne’s crosses per 90 have dropped from 4.61 last season to 2.76 this year. These days, that width comes from your full-backs, whether it’s banging in crosses or providing quick switches of play. This is something United started implementing last season and we’re now seeing a year of work and development pay off on that end.

United entered the match averaging just under 10 and a half crosses from open play per game. Tuesday night they launched 10 in the first half alone, lead by Luke Shaw providing six of them. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was second with five over the full 90 minutes.

Shaw also lead the team with three switches of play (did I mention he only played half the game?) and it was exactly this kind of full-back play that created United’s first goal.

Getting on the end of crosses is fun, so United kept doing it.

Somehow Wan-Bissaka wasn’t credited with an assist on this goal. To round out the first half, Edinson Cavani got on the end of a(nother) cross from Shaw to give the Red Devils a 4-0 lead, though it wasn’t the cross or finish that it most notable.

Instead it’s Marcus Rashford. Too often Rashford tends to stagnate on the edge of the box. Here he passes and immediately moves, not only creating space but giving Southampton’s defenders in the box more to think about. With an extra player to worry about, you increase the likelihood of someone getting lost in shuffle. In this case it was Cavani.

It’s reminiscent of Rashford’s off the ball movement causing enough havoc for Bruno Fernandes to score his second goal against Everton. Good things happen when you don’t stand in place.

Tactically, after going 1-0 up United made a subtle change, swapping Mason Greenwood to the left wing and Rashford coming over to the right. The change lead to United’s next two goals, with both coming from familiar patterns.

On the third goal, Rashford gets the ball on the edge of the box near the byline and whips in a low hard cross. The key is the height — it’s off the ground but low enough that when it reaches the back half of the goal it’s low enough to make it a tap in.

Low crosses are the preference of Solskjaer and we saw this plenty of times last season.

We’ve also seen it earlier this season.

Since these crosses don’t have height, if a defender is in place it will rarely beat the first man, but too often we’ve seen that cross come in and United don’t even have runners heading towards the back post.

On Tuesday night that was different. Rashford’s cross didn’t beat the first man, but he got lucky as Jan Bednarek put it into his own net. And if he didn’t, United had both Fred and Greenwood right on that back post to likely (hopefully) tap it in.

The second goal was one we’ve seen United working on for quite some time. As The Athletic’s Carl Anka calls it, ‘The City goal’ aptly named after United’s cross town rivals who score so many goals using this play. Get wide towards the touch line and then cut it back towards the penalty spot. United have been doing a lot of this recently, they just had yet to find the back of the net.

They were going after this right off the bat, with Rashford passing up a low percentage left-footed shot three minutes into the game to attempt a cut back for Bruno Fernandes.

A few minutes later it’s more of the same. Fred switches for Shaw, who looks for Greenwood at the penalty spot.

Eventually it all clicked.

When United perfect this play it will make them even more dangerous. According to Statsbomb, 39 percent of cutbacks inside the box are completed and 17 percent of completed cut backs turn into goals. That’s far more efficient than the two to three percent of crosses from outside the box turning into goals.

Donny van de Beek Watch

With a 4-0 lead at halftime Solskjaer took the opportunity to rest some players, namely Luke Shaw. You’d be forgiven for thinking United would simply see this out at 4-0, especially since their biggest creator was coming off the pitch (At the end of the match Shaw lead the team with seven shot-creating actions, two assists, and the second highest expected assists. Oh yea, he only played half the game).

Replacing Shaw was Donny van de Beek, dropping in next to McTominay with Fred moving to left-back (what does this say about Alex Telles?). Van de Beek was in the pivot per se but as soon as United got possession of the ball he’d immediately push forward right up next to the center forward.

The fact that he did this every time United had the ball makes you think it had to be how he was told to play, which is interesting to say the least. United don’t do this with any of their other midfielders — one of whom who would be pretty good at this comes to mind — and some of them get criticized the second they leave their position.

With Cavani no longer in the match, United shifted away from crossing and looked much more like the team they looked like post-lockdown playing a 3-2-5 in possession. However with Van de Beek pushing forward to the front line, it often became a 2-1-7 with Van de Beek limiting his effectiveness as he often ended up on top of Anthony Martial.

When it wasn’t a 2-1-7, it was often a 3-7 with the same sort of bunching.

Van de Beek pushing forward essentially took him out of the game. He only touched the ball 18 times, the least among all outfield players. He didn’t take a shot or have a single shot-creating action. For a creative player (even if the tactics didn’t ask the midfield to create much) that’s concerning (Fred had five SCA’s in the first half, McTominay two).

That left Scott McTominay as the lone player in midfield quarterbacking the team. Van de Beek’s forward runs are a weapon provided you have players who can find him with a pass. McTominay is not that player, which makes the tactical instructions all the more curious because Van de Beek very much could be that player.

Playing that deep-lying role (though maybe not from a deep-lying position) requires passing ability that McTominay doesn’t have. To McTominay’s credit, rather than playing the safe passes as he does too often, he tried to pick out those passes. You’re not going to improve in this area if you don’t try, and when he did pull it off, it sure was pretty.

This was the dullest part of the match for United. With that front seven the box was a little crowded making it hard to create from the wings. The one time they did create from the middle, it came from, surprise surprise, Bruno Fernandes dropping into midfield to add that creativity.

United struggled a bit in the second half, “requiring” sensational goals to break through Southampton’s low block until a second red card saw the Saints reduced to nine men. From there, United further ran rampant putting two more past them in the final seven minutes.

It was a professional display from the Reds. They were gifted a match against 10 men and they took it and ran with it. They should be commended for that but beyond that it’s hard to take too much stock from this game.

There was a lot of talk about mentality in this one. Going into halftime with a 4-0 lead Harry Maguire and Solskjaer preached about not letting up. They had to build on their lead. Solskjaer put his money where his mouth was. With a great chance to give Bruno 45 minutes of rest, he left him on as a sign to his team that he didn’t want them to let up.

Not that anyone is expecting them to score nine, or six (or four) in their next match but the positive takeaways from this match only mean as much as your next performances.

United were in a similar situation earlier this season. They could have easily seen out a 1-0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League, but instead Solskjaer brought on Bruno and Rashford and United ran away 5-0 winners. They followed that up with a dull 1-0 loss to Arsenal and an even duller 2-1 loss in Istanbul. They followed the 6-2 win over Leeds by not putting Everton away early in the League Cup, waiting until the 87th minute to get a breakthrough. Then they dropped points against Leicester thanks to missed chances and two extremely preventable goals. That can’t happen again.

Or this could be one of those weird calendar quirk things. In baseball, so often we see players who are red hot suddenly go ice cold as soon as a new month begins or vice versa. There’s no logical reason for this, but for United fans you’re certainly hoping that’s the case for Fernandes and Rashford.

The two combined for three goals and one assist in January (only one goal from open play and only in the league — Bruno had no open play goals or assists). It’s good to see them each getting back at it with a goal, a penalty, two assists for Bruno, and Rashford essentially assisting the own goal in the first game of February.

The same goes for Anthony Martial. Last season his two worst games were the home matches against Burnley and Wolves (Burnley was the last league game of January and the Wolves game was February 1st). He wasn’t just poor, he was invisible, and just like this past week his effort was called into question. Yet once February came around he started producing again and finished the season really strongly.

There’s precedent here. And perhaps Martial’s two goals is a sign of him rediscovering his ‘mojo’ (as Solskjaer said before the game) and going on a good run of form. Then again, we’ve said that after every one of his goals this year. ‘He just needs one to get going,’ and he’s never gotten going.

This was United’s first comprehensive win in the league since the Leeds match. The month of January was a grind, but then again, it was a grind last year too.

The month of February got better. They won three and drew two, advanced to the next round of the Europa League and found their scoring boots again. Plain and simple, January is probably the most difficult part of the season (especially if you’re in the League Cup semi-finals), and United are now past that.

The schedule doesn’t let up, but the Europa League will allow United to use their squad a bit more. More minutes for Dan James, Alex Telles, Brandon Williams, and Amad Diallo. Fewer minutes for that front three, Shaw, Wan-Bissaka, and Bruno Fernandes. Maybe we’ll even get a Tuanzebe-Bailly partnership so Maguire can catch a break (don’t hold your breath). That’ll help United a lot more than the January slog of midweek Premier League games.

There’s an argument to be made that United have turned the corner. There’s also an argument to be made that maybe that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

United didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth on Tuesday. Now it’s time for the hard part. They need to make sure it’s not just a blip.