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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Set piece and immaturity problems rear their ugly heads again

United are once again giving away dumb free kicks, and paying for it

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Manchester United v Everton - Premier League Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Manchester United threw another one away.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men should have walked out of Old Trafford with three points Saturday night but instead found themselves with only one. United weren’t lucky to get a draw, they weren’t dealing with a siege in front of their own goal. They weren’t tactically outclassed. On the contrary, if anything Everton were tactically naive. Over the course of 90 minutes United were the better side only to be completely undone by individual mistakes.

It’s becoming a theme for United. Just over a month ago they threw away a win at Leicester. At the start of the season they were lucky they didn’t throw away the match against Brighton and in the past month they came awfully close to throwing away matches against Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Burnley, and Fulham.

The media and fans are reactionary. No one likes to blame everyone so the blame gets thrown onto specific players. Naturally that typically falls to David de Gea — the highest paid goalkeeper in the world — and Harry Maguire, thanks to his hefty price tag. That’s the way it’s always going to be.

Maguire and De Gea were both extremely guilty on two occasions Saturday. Regardless of their wages or price tags, just based on the ability we have seen from these players (even when De Gea is off form) both should have done better.

But there is a reason that they say you have to ‘defend as a team.’ The goalkeeper is the last line of defense. He’s there to clean up the mess when mistakes happen in front of him. The defenders clean up mistakes from the midfield and so on and so forth.

On Saturday, Maguire and De Gea failed to clean up those messes, but that doesn’t absolve the rest of United’s players for the fact that those messes were made to begin with.

The first goal starts out innocently enough. Everton work the ball around the back and United begin to press high up the pitch. Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushes up high, which means Victor Lindelöf has to come all the way over to the touchline to stay with Richarlison, and Maguire has to come over to essentially play right center-back.

Fred is sticking with the run of James Rodriguez, and Scott McTominay just kind of ends up in space. That leaves the whole middle of the pitch open for Tom Davies to run into.

Mason Greenwood’s initial job is to cut off the pass to Andre Gomes, which he does. But because there’s so much space in the middle of the pitch, Everton can break the press fairly easily.

Once Davies has the ball, McTominay makes the mistake of engaging, rather than delaying, the ball carrier. It’s a high risk/high reward decision. If he wins the ball back a quick pass to Bruno Fernandes gets United on a break. If he doesn’t...

Everton are now running at United’s back line and Dominic Calvert-Lewin is isolated on Harry Maguire. That’s not what you want when your backline is devoid of pace (playing Bailly over Lindelöf wouldn’t have avoided this, as Bailly would have been on the right touchline where Lindelöf was).

It’s not a secret that Maguire is sloowww but United, and Maguire, do a good job hiding that lack of pace so it doesn’t typically lead to the ball ending up in the back of the net. What Maguire lacks in pace, he usually makes up for in brains. Instead of chasing things, he just runs to where he needs to be (the same can be said about Nemanja Matić).

That doesn’t happen here. Davies plays the ball through and Maguire begins running towards it, only to realize he won’t get there and straightens himself out. That moment of hesitation is enough for Calvert-Lewin to have a step on him.

He does well to not give Calvert-Lewin anything — and De Gea doesn’t help him out at all — but should it have even gotten to that point?

Davies plays this ball with the inside of his right foot. It’s either going to go to Maguire or tail away from him. For some reason, Maguire runs towards the ball when a straight line probably would have suited him better. If he runs straight, he’s in position as soon as Calvert-Lewin gets the ball, or, it’s possible that his trajectory blocks the run of Calvert Lewin in the first place.

The second goal starts at the front as well. Edinson Cavani tries to push the ball up the pitch and give chase. Joining him, for absolutely no reason, is Bruno Fernandes.

United’s pressing often looks disjointed for this reason. As a team, United are pressing less this season — as is nearly everyone in the league. Individually, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s pressing numbers have expectedly gone down, but Bruno’s haven’t. Too often Bruno seems to go rogue with the press, initiating it without the backing of his teammates. When it works, great. But too often it doesn’t and leaves the rest of the team disjointed.

That’s what happens here, leaving a massive gap between United’s midfield and very advanced front two for Everton to operate.

Fred and McTominay have no choice but to stick back and allow Everton to advance the ball to them. With Cavani and Bruno caught all the way up field, United are essentially in a 4-4———-2. McTominay and Fred are forced to hold their line and remain compact. That leaves space for Gomes to come in between the lines and offer Everton a quick — and frankly far too easy — path to moving the ball into the final third.

Just like that Everton have the ball in a dangerous area. United deal with the initial cross but don’t get it out of danger. Suddenly we’re in a situation that seems all too familiar.

After the initial header it seems like United have this well covered. Luke Shaw is going to pick up the ball. McTominay and Fred have the middle of the box covered. Maguire’s momentum from the initial cross takes him towards the near post. He can either pick up Richarlison or there’s plenty of time for him to pick up Calvert-Lewin and switch with Lindelöf.

He chooses option B. As he does this, McTominay drops in to pick up Richarlison. Maguire tries to let Lindelöf know that he’s back in position and that Lindelöf should return to his man (Richarlison). Fred spots the danger of Mason Holgate lurking at the edge of the box and waves Rashford over to him. Meanwhile, no one seems to be aware of James Rodriguez lurking at the top of the box.

And suddenly United were in the exact same baffling position that they astonishingly had found themselves in less than two weeks prior.

Two weeks ago we tried to make sense of it. We tried to blame certain players highlighting some flaws in their game, but five of the players involved in that Sheffield United debacle weren’t even on the pitch here! This is a failure on everyone’s part.

Then there’s the free-kick.

The anger from the fans saw blame get passed around, whether it be Harry Maguire, David de Gea, or even how the team set up to defend it. It’s all understandable, especially because United are a) very vulnerable on set pieces and, b) have developed a habit of conceding really dumb set pieces at the end of matches.

Last month they conceded a late set piece/chance against Burnley when holding on to a 1-0 lead.

A week before that they conceded a few chances from back to back corners against Aston Villa. A week before that they threw away two points against Leicester, but came awfully close to throwing away all three.

I’m pretty sure Barnes is offside here but best not to leave these things to VAR

Those set pieces are often given away thanks to dumb, completely unnecessary fouls.

On Saturday, all those things came into play.

It starts with a David de Gea free kick (a lot is being made that there were four minutes added on and the clock read 94:08 when De Gea took it, but look at how much time was left when Bruno was fouled. United wasted time and the referee rightfully added on more).

United, who make it a point to always play out from the back, push all the way up the pitch to take this kick long. It’s eerily similar to situations against Brighton (earlier this year) and Sheffield United (last season) where United abandoned their usual approach in favor of “just hoof it down field and let them come back at us.” Guess what happened both times.

De Gea hoofs the ball down the pitch, United don’t win the first ball — which they rarely do, one of the reasons why they don’t typically play long to begin with — but they’re completely caught out by the second ball as well. Without even settling the ball down Everton have already by-passed United’s midfield. That’s when Axel Tuanzebe goes to ground — something he doesn’t typically do — completely unnecessarily and concedes a set piece.

This is where everything comes to a head, and where a lot of things can all be true. Namely:

  • Harry Maguire screwed up
  • David de Gea needed to do better
  • United might have botched their set up
  • Everton executed perfectly

Given the location of the free kick, and the left footed Lucas Digne standing over the ball, United have a good idea of where this ball is going to go, and therefore set up accordingly.

Given the likely trajectory of the ball, the space in front of the back post is going to be the most dangerous area. Everton put their two most dangerous players (Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison) near the back post. They also put centerback Ben Godfrey there, and goalkeeper Robin Olsen (who is 6 foot 5!) up there. This seemed like a classic “throw as many men forward and just get the ball into the box one last time and see what happens” situation. Makes sense.

To counter this, United line up in order of height and aerial defending ability are starting from the back post and getting worse as you move towards the near post (where there’s less threat).

It goes: Maguire (74.8% aerial duel win rate), Lindelöf (66.7%), Tuanzebe (66.7%), Cavani (22.2% - though skewed as he typically goes against his opponents best aerial man, and he’s good at defending set pieces), Rashford (43.3%), Shaw (56.4%), Wan-Bissaka (55.2%).

Scott McTominay brings up the rear to deal with Mason Holgate in case anything goes over Maguire’s head. [This is a questionable decision; McTominay should have probably been in the line with Rashford grabbing the back post. Also: going to Tuanzebe instead of Matić who is far better in the air.]

Only one team has scored more goals from dead-ball situations this season than Everton. That doesn’t happen by accident, and that doesn’t happen because they’re just whipping it in and hoping for the right head to get on it.

Leading the league in set piece goals is the result of meticulous planning and preparation. It’s not just about creating space for your own players, it’s about knowing which player on the opposition to target.

That’s why in the midst of all this Everton slyly line center back Michael Keane up on the near post. Keane is Everton’s best aerial defender (76.3%), and he’s now lined up amidst Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, and Rashford.

If he lines up at the back post he’s likely to get nullified out by Maguire. But on the near post against United’s fullbacks, you certainly fancy his chances. Everton aren’t playing for the first ball, they’re playing for the second. United aren’t set up to defend that.

United’s line is weird to begin with, in that, it’s not even remotely straight.

But then Maguire times his run terribly and ends up playing the entire Everton team onside.

I can’t tell you why he did this. I thought perhaps he realized Everton were playing for the second ball and he wanted to get in position to defend that but upon watching it back... nope, once that ball is played he just...stands there.

David de Gea’s lackluster effort was reminiscent of the last goal he conceded against RB Leipzig. He shouldn’t have been put into that situation, but he was, and he failed miserably.

We always talk about the relative inexperience of a United squad that needs to develop that winning mentality. Last season United only won twice when they conceded the first goal of a match. They also struggled with seeing games out. They threw points away with late winners or equalizers to Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Sheffield United, and Southampton. They had to hang on for dear life at the Etihad, and were only saved by VAR from throwing away a point at Goodison Park.

This season they’ve continued to have that immaturity when it comes to seeing games out but they’ve developed the never say die mentality that’s seen them win more points from losing positions than any team in the league. That’s progress, but there’s still more work to be done. They need to develop that maturity to see games out.

They also need to figure out how to defend a set piece (and stop conceding late ones in close games). United have conceded eight goals from set pieces this year, the fourth most in the league.

This was a problem that plagued them in the first half of last season as well, but they cut them out of their game in the second half, suggesting it can be done (and also making it perplexing why the issue is back).

They’ll need to figure it out quick. Their next match comes in the FA Cup against West Ham: the only team with more set piece goals than Everton.