Five weeks ago West Ham United and Manchester United played 120 dull minutes of football at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Given that West Ham selected a relatively strong XI and barely bothered United goalkeeper Dean Henderson that day, one could assume that this weekend’s game would play out in a similar fashion.
It should come as no surprise that it did. The Hammers came to Old Trafford with an insanely conservative game plan. They didn’t even attempt a shot until they were 1-0 down.
For United it was boring but predictable. Scott McTominay and Fred are dependable but uncreative midfielders. Daniel James is a defensive winger who’s good on the counter attack, not at breaking down low blocks. Mason Greenwood is a finisher, not a creator, and despite center forward being his natural position, he’s very inexperienced there at the senior level. Marcus Rashford is
definitely (for legal reasons we probably have to say “most likely”) hurt leaving the only two creative players in the team Bruno Fernandes — who badly needs a break — and Luke Shaw, the left-back.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants his attackers to play quickly, freely change shape, be intelligent enough to find goalscoring opportunities, and be courageous enough on the ball. He wants them to mix patterns with improvisation. That requires very smart and good individual players. Many of United’s current players just aren’t at the level required to make this work consistently, which is why if Bruno isn’t involved things tend to be risk-averse and boring.
Watch here, McTominay has the ball in a good position to play Rashford in over the top, but he doesn’t even consider making the run until Bruno gets the ball. Why wouldn’t he? McTominay simply never plays that pass, no need to waste your energy.
Without creative players, you need a good system to help you out.
This is where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s critics are the loudest: “He has no tactics. He doesn’t instill any patterns of play.”
People only tend to notice patterns of play when they work, and the thing about patterns is, A LOT needs to go right for them to work. Most patterns involve at least three people. You need the initial off the ball runner to initiate everything with the correct run, you need the ball carrier to make the right decision as to where he’s playing the ball, and you need that third person to make the correct run and time it correctly. On top of all that, you need the service to go exactly where you want it to, something that can easily go wrong from a simple block, defender mis-kick, or just not playing the pass as accurately as you’d like.
Just because any one of those things happen, doesn’t mean the pattern wasn’t there.
United have been displaying a few noticeable patterns as of late but one has become much more prevalent than the rest. A player drives deep towards the byline (typically Luke Shaw, but could be anyone) and fires a cut back across the six yard box. ‘The City goal’ — as The Athletic’s Carl Anka puts it — thanks to Manchester City scoring so often from this pattern.
We’ve seen United do this quite a few times recently. At Anfield they did everything right except finish.
Against Southampton they actually put the ball in the net from this pattern.
They’d do the same against West Brom.
On Sunday, right from the start we saw this pattern come into play. Shaw gets played in, fires a cutback to the six yard box, but Mason Greenwood gets his feet tied up and it doesn’t turn it into a chance.
Later we see the same thing, only this time the defender makes a play before Shaw can get the cutback off.
Here Greenwood turns to the byline and tries to square, but his cutback is too close to the goalkeeper. We also see another breakdown — only Dan James makes a run, while Bruno and McTominay both stay stationary. Lukasz Fabianski spills the ball, but even if it had been bigger, nothing would have come of it, because Bruno and McTominay weren’t running.
Solskjaer doesn’t want any of his players feeling bound by patterns, and instead wants them to be able to improvise when they see fit. That’s a really good quality that allows players like Bruno Fernandes to shine, but it can also be a disruption sometimes.
Here, Shaw gets the ball driving forward again. It runs on him so he doesn’t really have a chance to do much with it. His only thought is ‘ball at byline, cutback to six yard line,’ so that’s what he does. Bruno is the player in the middle who should be making the run to the six yard box. But Bruno sees that that area isn’t exactly open, and there’s loads of space near the penalty spot. So he halts his run there; he improvises.
If the ball comes to Bruno he’s really dangerous, but Shaw doesn’t know he’s improvising. Shaw’s not looking back towards the spot (from this angle he’d also need to take an extra touch to get it back to Bruno), so the pass goes to no one.
Is Shaw wrong here for not looking up? Is Bruno wrong for pulling up his run? It doesn’t really matter. All that matters is they weren’t on the same page. The pattern is there, but the execution is not.
That all brings us to the biggest area of all.
Ah, set pieces, the bane of everyone’s existence. For a team that used to have the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Ronaldo, and Rooney making them extremely dangerous every time they were fouled, it certainly feels like United are nowhere near as threatening from set pieces as they should be.
I’ve got good news for you. United are much improved on set pieces this season.
Last season United had 202 corner kicks in the Premier League and (according to understat) scored six goals from them (2.97%). This season they’ve attempted 150 corners in the league and have already scored on five of them (3.33%). They’ve also scored from corners in the FA Cup and Champions League.
Set piece rate is a little bit harder to gage, but last season United had just four ‘goal-creating actions’ (the last two actions before a goal is scored) from ‘dead ball passes.’ This season that number is already at seven. This obviously isn’t a perfect metric as sometimes set pieces have more than two actions before a goal, but there’s improvement. (That number includes corners but doesn’t include the actions of Nemanja Matić and Harry Maguire on the own goal against Brighton, nor does it include Bruno’s corner from Sunday.)
Set pieces are an undervalued area of the game that should be so easy to take advantage of. Maguire drove his transfer price through the roof thanks to his goals at the 2018 World Cup, but those weren’t the result of him just being bigger than everyone. He was wide open on both goals thanks to cleverly designed set piece plays.
Last season it didn’t seem like United had any plan other than ‘just aim for Maguire’s forehead and hope for the best.’ This worked one time...
...and didn’t work about 196 other times.
At the start of this season, it looked like that was more or less the plan again.
However, if we take a closer look at this goal we can start to see the emergence of a bit of a pattern. For starters, it’s an outswinging corner, which is clearly a tactical choice to have the left footed Juan Mata take this given Bruno is so good at corners. Then notice how when the kick is taken, Rashford breaks straight across the six towards the near post, and Bruno tries to fill in where Rashford left.
At the back, Maguire, Victor Lindelöf and McTominay start bunched up. When the ball is kicked, McTominay goes to the near post, while Lindelöf sneaks around unmarked to the back post. Maguire stays in a sort of free safety role where he can make a read on the ball and attack it, but he’s the only one whose run changes based on the flight of the ball.
Ok, so that’s what happened on this play. By definition it’s not a pattern unless it’s happening over and over again.
Fast forward to December. United get a corner against City.
Here we are again with United having two players on the six yard box, as well as Paul Pogba, Maguire, and McTominay lined up in a bunch at the back.
This time it’s an inswinging corner. Mason Greenwood holds his ground while Lindelöf makes a run to the near post. Pogba makes a near post run from the back while Maguire goes straight. Amidst all the confusion McTominay peels off and runs unmarked to the back post.
Lindelöf wins the header at the near post and flicks to the back post towards McTominay. He just doesn’t get there in time.
A week later against Leeds.
We only have one player on the six (Anthony Martial) but four players in a bunch. When Shaw runs up Martial breaks across to the near post. McTominay moves around the middle to make a near post run, while Maguire goes straight for the spot vacated by Martial. Meanwhile Lindelöf sneaks around for that back post run.
Martial wins the header, flicks it on to the back post, and Lindelöf finally converts.
And fast forward to last week.
Four players in a bunch.
Inswinging corner, Bruno darts across the six, Matić darts to where Bruno was, Eric Bailly holds his ground, while McTominay just drops back. This time, it’s Harry Maguire who peels off for that back post run, and when Bruno wins the header and flicks it on, Maguire is able to do what only about eight percent of players in that situation do. Not score.
How about another variation? Look at the goal against Sheffield United.
They still have two men in the six yard box with Martial on the six yard line. This time United’s three big guys (Matić, Maguire, Bailly) are stacked horizontally as opposed to vertically.
Timing is everything on these routines. You can’t all move at the same time but when you’re stacked vertically the runs have to be almost instantaneous. In the horizontal stack they need to be spread out a bit more. The order of who goes when is important.
On this one, neither Martial nor Greenwood make that near post run. They both hold their ground. Instead, it’s Matić coming from the back of the stack who darts across towards the near post. That run creates space between Maguire and his man and opens up the middle of the box. Once the run is made Maguire then attacks the middle. Bailly has to hold his ground because he’s essentially setting a pick for Maguire, helping to keep the space between Maguire and his man. Once Maguire passes him, Bailly peels off towards the back post.
It’s not random. It’s all planned.
You need to change up a few things here and there. You have to change your looks so teams don’t know what’s coming. You also have to change up your runs from the same looks so when you line up it doesn’t tip off your opponents as to what you’re going to do. Changing up who makes which run is also good, but sometimes it’s as simple as just changing where you’re delivering the ball.
Here’s Fulham. Two men on the six yard line again. Four players bunched up high. Edinson Cavani will make the run across the near post. Bailly will run to the near post. Pogba will fake inside and then go to the back post.
Lost in all the confusion is Maguire who ends up wide open for a point blank header.
Sometimes that’s just what happens. The patterns cause enough chaos that the right person gets forgotten and ends up wide open. And then, the player just doesn’t execute.
Amid all the chaos going on in the box, there’s one more thing that needs to happen for this all to work. The delivery needs to be good! If it’s not, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a play on or not.
On Sunday United set up in pretty familiar manners but there were slight differences. After all, you can’t be doing the same thing every time.
United win a corner and line up with two men in the six and three stacked together at the back.
When Shaw breaks for the ball, Lindelöf makes a near post run, while McTominay starts peeling towards the back post. Maguire is the one who holds his ground and reacts to where the ball is kicked.
This time the delivery goes over Lindelöf’s head to no one.
Fourth corner of the half. Same basic formation. Bruno and James (why it’s Dan James and not Rashford or Greenwood in there, I don’t know), in the six with three players bunched at the top of the box.
This time McTominay goes near post, Lindelöf goes straight, and Maguire ghosts towards the back post. Only one problem: Shaw’s delivery is terrible.
Just because the delivery is bad doesn’t mean the pattern (or play) wasn’t there.
United took four corners in the first half. They all started with three men stacked at the back. They never had that player making the near post run at the six yard box (perhaps because James was there). None of them were effective and they were all for the most part undone by poor delivery.
For the second half they changed things up. They won a corner about eight minutes into the half. This time, Bruno came over to provide an inswinging corner. Instead of McTominay, Lindelöf, and Maguire bunching at the top of the box, they go into the six, while Greenwood, James, Rashford and Fred hang out at the top of the box.
There’s really no designed play here. Rashford, James, and Fred don’t move when the ball is kicked. Greenwood drops further back towards the box. It’s as if they’re playing for the second ball after the initial ball gets cleared because, there’s eight West Ham players and a goalie in the six going against three United players. You can’t possibly like your odds there.
And yet, sometimes this happens.
Patterns be damned. That’s football for you.