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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Necessary rotation brings about predictable result

Solskjaer couldn’t afford to rest key players before, and when he was forced to, the back-ups weren’t up to it


Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Let’s look all the way back to...December 2020.

Manchester United were still settling in to a hectic season. There was inconsistency all over the place, the result of a lack of preseason and as many put it, too much inconsistency in the starting XI.

At that point of the season, United didn’t really have a first choice starting XI. Paul Pogba battled COVID, played a month in a super sub role, then picked up an injury on international duty. Anthony Martial was sent off against Tottenham, banning him from three Premier League games, but he kept popping back in during the midweek Champions League matches. Alex Telles was a late arrival, then immediately got COVID. Edinson Cavani had to get his match fitness up. Donny van de Beek started three of United’s first four Champions League matches. Sometimes in place of Bruno Fernandes, sometimes as a deeper midfielder.

The result was wild inconsistency. United played a diamond that didn’t suit them against Arsenal, putting out one of their worst performances of the season. They lost away to Istanbul, a match that would ultimately doom them to the Europa League. They went on a winning run in the league, but put out disaster first halves against Southampton and West Ham forcing halftime changes and second half comebacks. Injuries came back up against RB Leipzig (as did Mino Raiola), forcing United into a back three and sending them out of the Champions League.

The heavy squad rotation wasn’t working and by mid December Solskjaer scaled it back. He settled on rotating his midfield between the ‘McFred’ pivot along with a Pogba-Nemanja Matić pivot. If McFred was playing Pogba would shift out to one of the wings. Martial and Marcus Rashford would start up top, with Edinson Cavani occasionally coming in. In the cups, Alex Telles would come in for Luke Shaw.

Factoring in form, and especially injuries, Solskjaer has had to spend the bulk of 2021 relying on players that were performing and — more importantly — available. That meant a heavy dose of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.

It looked like February would finally give Solskjaer a chance to rest the two. Switching from the grind of English football twice a week to now having Europa League matches would be a great opportunity to re-integrate the likes of Juan Mata and Donny van de Beek into the team. Plus rotate that front three a bit so Rashford could get a break.

Of course, as soon as United were set to travel to face Real Sociedad, it was revealed that Van de Beek and Cavani had picked up injuries and wouldn’t be travelling. Juan Mata played a few minutes in the first leg only to mysteriously disappear again. Within a few games, Martial picked up another injury.

For those keeping score at home, that left United with Bruno, Rashford, Mason Greenwood, and Dan James as their only fit senior forwards. Amad Diallo, a 19-year-old who arrived at Old Trafford with all of 64 minutes of senior football under his belt has clearly been deemed not ready to start matches yet.

Simply put, despite Rashford carrying an injury, Solskjaer didn’t feel like he could afford to rest him or Bruno. When Solskjaer pulled Fernandes off the pitch in the first leg against AC Milan, United ended up with Fred playing as the no. 10!

In United’s two matches last week, Solskjaer made all of one total substitution as he tried to see out a pair of 1-0 wins. That’s not because he doesn’t know when to make subs, or that he should, in fact, his substitution patterns are no different than the other managers of top six clubs (as well as Brendan Rodgers at Leicester City and Carlo Ancelotti at Everton). He wasn’t making changes because he simply had no other options.

On Sunday, Solskjaer finally had options. Paul Pogba had returned three days earlier. Anthony Martial was fit again. Donny van de Beek was ready to play and Edinson Cavani was fit to come off the bench. When presented with the chance to rest his players and get some others involved, he was going to take it.

Even if it meant not giving himself the best chance to win.

There was no way this was going to work. A starting XI isn’t as simple as picking 11 players. You have to make sure those 11 players are compatible with each other. Each one has a role to play and certain players impact that role in one way or another. Some aren’t capable of accommodating for changes like that.

For Solskjaer, he knew he had to pick certain players and rest others. The question was: how to line them up?

You can play your regular 4-2-3-1 but that brings about a whole slew of problems. We already know a Matić-Fred base struggles to move the ball forward. That means you either need Pogba to drop in and help out — taking away your left winger — or you need the left-back to take a big chunk of that responsibility. Luke Shaw does that very well, but Alex Telles isn’t that kind of player. He doesn’t typically get involved in build up play; he doesn’t drive forward with the ball, which is what United need their left-back to do.

Telles is a “get him the ball in the final third” player. Not one who helps you get the ball into the final third. And once he does get the ball there, he’s not as diverse as Shaw — he’s more of a “I’m just going to put a cross in” guy. That’s not too helpful when you’re crossing to Martial and Greenwood, two players who have combined for 10 shots from headers this season.

When Telles did play like Shaw, guess what happened?

Underlapping run, open things up, cut back towards the penalty spot. It’s all very familiar.

Up front, Martial is at his best in a 4-2-3-1 when he’s playing with his back to goal, dropping a bit deeper to receive the ball and then having the wingers run in behind him. But neither Pogba nor Greenwood are two players who really run in behind. The pieces to the jigsaw puzzle don’t really fit.

Pogba on the wing has been a bit of a false high. United won with the tactic against Aston Villa, and the Frenchman scored the winner against AC Milan, but all together United have only scored three goals from open play when Pogba is playing on the wing. It’s not as attacking as one might think.

You could have avoided this by playing Pogba in the pivot, but then who plays on the left wing? Rashford is hurt. Martial has been terrible on the wing this season. Dan James had some good games, but he stopped being productive a month ago for the same reason he did last year. He’s not supposed to be playing every game and he needs a break.

The other option would be to play a 4-3-3/4-4-2 diamond.

This formation presents its own bit of problems. These days, Matić isn’t really mobile enough to be the lone holding midfielder. Again you need Telles to progress the ball which isn’t his game. Up top you’re now playing Martial and Greenwood as split strikers, something they both struggle with.

When Martial was able to turn on the ball and run at defenders, he lacked support. This isn’t how you’re going to get the best out of him.

Solskjaer opted for the latter formation. At least I think he did. The first two minutes of the match didn’t exactly give off the impression that the midfielders knew where to be.

They literally look like they’re in a diagonal line across the pitch.

You can blame the manager and his tactics for this, but frankly that’s letting Donny van de Beek off the hook and he no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. The man did nothing but vacate his position against Istanbul. He couldn’t hold his position against Watford, and his interpretation of “playing in the pivot” against both Southampton and West Brom was playing next to, or even ahead of, the number 9.

It’s hard to believe that Solskjaer — whose teams have always been very well organized — is giving completely different instructions to van de Beek. It seems like either van de Beek either isn’t understanding the coaches’ instructions or he’s just straight up ignoring them.

Van de Beek’s interpretation of the number 10 position differs drastically to Bruno’s, which makes it much harder for Bruno to ever be rested. United want to always push forward, and when there’s an opportunity to break, break. Van de Beek... doesn’t do that.

Van de Beek barely held his position — he spent most of the match drifting off towards the right side and his touch map shows it.

Defensively this would cause issues as well. Let’s look at the buildup to Leicester’s second goal.

It starts with United’s front three being incredibly narrow and on top of each other.

Not only that, but they’re hardly marking anyone. As such, Youri Tielemans finds it incredibly easy to find space to receive a pass.

Somehow United have three people on the edge of the center circle, not marking anyone. Two weeks ago against City, United were exceptional at cutting off the passes to City’s central midfielders. This week they’re leaving them free.

When Tielemans receives the ball, Matić is left all alone and makes the horrible choice to run at the ball carrier. With Matić vacating his spot, Harry Maguire has to follow Kelechi Iheanacho as he drops into space, which allows a simple 1-2 to take them both out of the play. Fred, wary of blocking the passing lane out wide to Albrighton, is late to close him down. Dean Henderson gets his angle wrong. It’s a whole cacophony of errors.

United had a million chances to prevent this — and they should have — but it started with the forwards taking up lazy positions.

Van de Beek drifting around prevented him from really getting involved or making an impact on the game. In the 63 minutes he was on the pitch, Van de Beek had just 33 touches, which was 6.46 percent of United’s total amount of touches. Bruno averages 11.81 percent. When van de Beek did get the ball, he wasn’t exactly pushing the pace with it.

Van de Beek is trained in the Ajax school of valuing possession. Short, quick one touch passes. That works for Ajax, but it’s not going to work when Matić, Fred, and Greenwood (at the very least) can’t play with the ball at their feet. That style requires everyone to be on the same page. It’s not going to work unless the other 10 players adapt to him (unlikely and also ridiculous) or van de Beek adapts to them (hasn’t happened yet).

This whole thing was entirely predictable. Mostly because it’s happened in almost every one of United’s cup matches the past two years when Solskjaer has rotated his squad. When you take out the key players it all falls apart, because the drop off in quality from the top players to the backups is so steep.

Solskjaer has kept relatively the same strategy in all United’s domestic cup matches this year. He lets his reserve players start, challenging them to show him why they deserve more chances. When they didn’t do that, he’d bring on his starters to try and get the win.

But he didn’t manage this game that way. In a way, you can say that Solskjaer threw this one.

I don’t mean he tried to lose on purpose, but he didn’t manage this game like he wanted to win at all costs. When Solskjaer made a quadruple substitution just after 60 minutes, it wasn’t a tactical sub. It was a pre-planned rotation/rest sub even though some of those players were still needed. That’s how you ended up with Fred staying on the pitch despite being awful all match. This was simply one group of mismatched puzzle pieces coming on for another group of mismatched puzzle pieces.

Solskjaer said before the game that Paul Pogba wouldn’t be fit enough to play 90 minutes. The same would be true for Donny van de Beek. If he was managing to ‘win at all costs’ certainly he would have tried pushing Pogba a little longer. If winning was the priority, perhaps it would have been better to just leave Pogba on the bench and introduce him at halftime.

But no, this was about getting minutes to players that needed them, and then not over-exposing them, even if it came at the expense of trying your hardest to get back into the match.

At the end of the day, the tactical failings and the island of misfit toys aren’t the full reason why United lost — individually they were utter shit.

Fred set up about three Leicester chances before they finally converted one.

Neither Fred nor Matić could complete a pass to a red shirt. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Matić struggles when he’s not playing next to an expansive passer like Pogba. Fred struggles when he’s playing in place of Pogba and has to be a more expansive passer.

United’s backups aren’t as good as their first choice players. They’ve proven that every time they’ve been given a chance to.

United are out of another cup. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s hardly the end of the world either. They’ve reached the quarterfinals of every competition they’ve been in since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over. None of his predecessors can say that. Their exits have all come away from home to teams fighting for European places. Those aren’t easy games.

United are good enough to consistently progress deep into cup competitions, but they simply don’t have the squad depth to do mount a challenge in the cup while also fighting in the league. Their backups just aren’t good enough.