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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Organization, Freedom, and Celebrations

The contrasts between Solskjaer’s United and Mourinho’s Spurs were on full display on Sunday

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Adrian Dennis - Pool/Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t talk about tactics all that much. Managers typically aren’t asked about their tactics too often, but Solskjaer is, and when that happens he’s usually pretty quick to deflect and talk about how he wants his players to be bold, take risks, and be able to express themselves on the pitch.

That last part is key because players who are happy are typically more willing to do the job when the time calls for it. Solskjaer is a pretty pragmatic manager, and the tactics he deployed in Manchester United’s 2019 trip to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur were downright Mourinho-esque. That game was an example of how José Mourinho’s tactics still could work — if the players didn’t hate him. Now that they liked their manager, they were willing to put in the work.

Perhaps there was no better juxtaposition to those ideas then when United met Mourinho’s Tottenham on Sunday.

Despite recent performances not being the best, United entered the match second in the league having won three in a row, and as the most in form team in the league over the last seven matches. Spurs are going in the opposite direction. They climb back into the Champions League picture only to fall straight back out of it. There are already mumblings about internal strifes within the club — the kind that follow José Mourinho around wherever he goes.

You can look at all the tactics and patterns in a match to help explain why a match played out the way it did, or sometimes you can simply look at the goal celebrations. It turns out, you can learn a lot from the goal celebrations.

Jesse Lingard showed up at West Ham and immediately taught them how to make music. They’ve been climbing the table ever since.

Solskjaer opted for his new big game XI — the McFred pivot with Pogba on the left wing and Rashford on the right. The match started out as boring as you would expect a match between two pragmatic managers who are both afraid of having a repeat of the 6-1 match from October. United were staying compact through the middle, Spurs were trying to play without the ball.

United were looking to make some runs off the back shoulders of defenders but could only really do that when Victor Lindelöf had the ball (as we saw Thursday) or if Bruno Fernandes dropped deep.

If they were looking for those long balls when other players had it, well... what do we expect from Fred?

Finally after a half hour United made something happen courtesy of a play straight out of the Zinedine Zidane tactical playbook (i.e., let your good players do some individual magic).

Fred plays a tight forward pass to Paul Pogba at the edge the box, and the Frenchman does some cool stuff before playing in Edinson Cavani off a great run.

That gave us our first look at a celebration.

There have been lots of things written about Edinson Cavani and his happiness recently. The same goes for Paul Pogba. Cavani may want to return to South America. Pogba may want to leave Old Trafford. Nevertheless this does not look like two unhappy players who are simply doing their jobs. These are two players who want to win; they’re giving their all to win. They genuinely like playing with each other and being around each other.

What happened next would simply make me irate if I were a Spurs fan. Spurs are awful when they go 1-0 up. Eight times they’ve had leads near at halftime and failed to win. Their 18 points lost from winning positions is only second to Brighton (20), while United have won 28 points from losing positions, 12 more than second best Leicester City.

If Spurs wanted to win this game their best chance would likely be to let United score first, just how they did it at Old Trafford.

But before the match could kick back off referee Chris Kavanagh was standing with his hand to his ear. VAR wanted to take a look at something, but what could it be?

We already know that this wasn’t a foul.

And we know that this wasn’t a foul either.

So surely this can’t possibly a foul now?

But Chris Kavanagh ruled it no goal. Unbelievable. VARchester United stepping in to ensure United stay the course and don’t put themselves, and Spurs, into a foreign situation.

Ultimately though not a big deal for Spurs. Taking that goal off the board doesn’t mean that Spurs are automatically going 1-0 up, therefore a few minutes later United took things into their own hands by doing what they do far too often. Having Cavani and Bruno initiate a press even though the rest of their teammates aren’t ready for it, which does nothing but completely spread the team out.

It starts with Bruno rushing to close down Pierre Hojbjerg even though he can play a really simple ball out wide, and United don’t have any defenders there. Pogba is still very narrow, keeping his eye on Giovani Lo Celso, Fred is in the middle keeping close tabs on both Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele. McTominay moved wide to watch Heung-min Son and therefore isn’t exactly close to the central midfielders.

When Hojbjerg plays it wide, Pogba needs to cover a great deal of distance to get out to there, giving Eric Dier plenty of time. The change in shape now allows Lo Celso to ghost into the middle of the pitch where he’s wide open. Fred will need to close him down, which will completely distort United’s shape, and leave Ndombele wide open in a dangerous space unless Harry Maguire follows him. At least Marcus Rashford has picked up Son on the left side.

Maguire opts not to chase Ndombele but rather keep the defensive line intact with Lindelöf covering Lucas Moura. This leaves Ndombele wide open in the half space, and with one touch Lo Celso is able to bypass Fred — and United’s whole midfield — and get the ball to Ndombele. Rashford is still with Son.

Ndombele has time and space to look up. With Lindelöf marking Moura, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has to come inside to mark Harry Kane. That one on one favors the Spurs striker and Ndombele launches a ball towards him. Rashford has now let Son run by him.

Kane wins the initial 50-50 and flicks it on to Moura. United’s back line is discombobulated because a lot of people are covering for other people. That’s fine, United’s defense is built to do that — as is their attack. If Bruno drifts out to the right Rashford should go to the middle, if Pogba comes to the middle Bruno should go left. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants his players to have that freedom but they need to be smart enough to fill in the gaps.

For some reason, Marcus Rashford never thinks “maybe I should drop back and help Wan-Bissaka because there’s an extra man ghosting in at the back post” (a man Rashford just let run by him). Instead, Rashford just... stops and watches the whole thing.

Son’s goal leads us to perhaps the most interesting “celebration” of the day. Son is obviously happy, Sergio Reguilon joins him pretty quickly and... that’s about it. Eventually some Spurs players join him and Harry Kane came over to give the lightest most half assed hug. This celebration looked as boring as Kane’s personality is.

This really doesn’t seem like a team enjoying themselves at the moment. It’s almost as if they don’t want to get too happy right now because they know what will come next.

Nevertheless what United was doing in the first half wasn’t working. They had 49 percent possession and turned that in to one shot for an xG of 0.09. Something needed to change.

The change was merely tactical. United started the match with Pogba on the left wing and Rashford on the right. After 15 minutes they switched sides and 15 minutes later they switched back. As “fluid” as it was, it was very rigid.

In the second half United gave Pogba far more freedom. He was no longer pinned to the touchline and could move around the pitch more freely with Bruno and Rashford filling in the vacated spaces. He was given license to play ‘The Mata role’ finding himself pockets of space to receive passes, turn, and direct the attack. This was much more like the Pogba we saw against Aston Villa and much less like the one we saw in the two matches on the wing against Manchester City.

Mourinho also made a change. Mourinho started the match with a bit of a curveball. What looked like a standard 4-2-3-1 was actually more of a 4-5-1/4-3-3 with Lo Celso tucking inside to form a three man midfield. In the second half he reverted to a 4-2-3-1 with Ndombele dropping next to Hjoberg and Lo Celso playing further up the pitch.

The change allowed Pogba to drift into spaces and take over control of the midfield. After 15 minutes Mourinho replaced Lo Celso with Moussa Sissoko, pushing Ndombele further up the pitch. That only made it worse.

With Pogba moving freely about the pitch United started inter changing positions and playing with more confidence. United would quickly find their equalizer in a goal that showed exactly what Cavani brings to this team — and what he doesn’t.

Cavani is known for his cunning movements in the box. But he doesn’t really contribute to United’s buildup play. That’s on full display in the equalizer.

Cavani starts the play standing in between both Spurs centerbacks. While the ball is moving around he slyly drifts around and behind Eric Dier (where Dier can’t see him). That opens him up to be played in by Fred.

Cavani’s movement is crucial for this goal, but it requires everyone else to move the ball around and create the chance. In this case that’s Fred, playing a 1-2 with Rashford then playing a first touch pass in to Cavani before following up the play and smashing home the rebound.

When it works it’s tremendous and Cavani adds so much to the team. As much as I’ve always believed Fred has this in his cupboard we never see passing like that from him at the edge of the box. If one of those passes from Fred or Rashford is wayward — as they so often are — Cavani’s movement is for nothing and no chance is created.

Wait, go back a second... Fred???

Just look at Cavani’s reaction when that goal was scored. Now look at everyone else.

Fred’s got a reaction that’s half celebration and half utter relief. Like all that hard work he’s been putting in to try and score a goal has come to fruition. Bruno gets over to him and gives him one of those “did you seriously just do that??” shoves that you give to a best mate whom you love to rip on because he doesn’t score goals.

The entire team runs down the pitch to celebrate with Fred. This is a team that doesn’t typically celebrate equalizers. Just look at the “celebration” one week ago when Marcus Rashford equalized against Brighton.

A jump and then a turn to line back up and push for the winner. But this week...

This is a squad that knows how big that was. They love being around each other, they want each and every one of them to thrive. They know they still need another goal but it’s important for them to celebrate this. This was the culture Solskjaer wanted to build when he took over.

As for Fred, maybe the key is fewer shots from 20-25 yards out and more from 6-10 yards out?

Fred’s goal only gave United more confidence that had been growing throughout the second half. Their second goal was just about a culmination of everything we talked about the past few weeks. Confidence, movement around the box, a striker’s instincts.

It starts with Victor Lindelöf getting on the ball and urging Aaron Wan-Bissaka to push up as he carried forward.

Last week I wrote about how Mason Greenwood should get more chances to lead the line as he’s starting to show those striker instincts Cavani has, and has been adding clever movements to his game, all while also contributing more in United’s buildup play. That’s all on display here.

As soon as Lindelöf passes the ball wide to Wan-Bissaka, Greenwood breaks into a sprint towards the corner. The run forces both Tottenham defenders to back up, giving an extra yard of space to Bruno who can receive the ball. All the while Cavani has been ghosting around the box again to get away from Eric Dier so when Bruno flicks it to Greenwood, the teen is able to fire a cross in first time for Cavani to head home.

Cavani doesn’t speak English. He’s never had an extended run in the team. With all the reports about Cavani wanting to leave, or the recent reports about him saying he wasn’t fit when the medical staff said he was, it’s easy to think he might be a bit ostracized from this team. United gave no indication that could possibly be true from the way they reacted to his goal(s).

We’ve all seen the pictures of Solskjaer with Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba and Mourinho at full time. We’ve seen the smiles from everyone after the game. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here six years or six months, you know that each and every player in a red shirt wanted some sort of revenge for the 6-1 loss earlier this season. Cavani wasn’t even signed when that game was played, yet this was him at full time.

That’s how close this team is. This is a team that is together. This is a team that is determined. They’re tired of hearing the doubts, tired of hearing the moans every time a performance isn’t perfect. They know they can be better and they want to be, they’re doing it for themselves, their teammates, and their manager. This is a team that badly wants to win.

Juxtapose that with the images from the other team on Sunday. Spurs scored a goal from a sequence of beautiful football. They created a mismatch and exploited it perfectly with beautiful one touch passing. They’ve scored plenty of goals like that this season, so many that you wonder how good they’d be if they were just allowed to play like that more often.

Instead they went into a shell. With each minute of the second half their confidence waned as they retreated further and further into their own box. With each minute United’s confidence gained as both teams seemed to know what was inevitable.

One manager wants his players to express themselves, and he’s got a team on the up that’s filled with belief. The other sacrifices creativity for control and he’s left with a team devoid of confidence that’s falling apart.

(Okay, this might have been a stretch regarding celebrations but we’re trying to have some fun this week).