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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Reds have come a long way, but still have a ways to go

Recent results and improvements show United’s growth this season, but we were reminded of their shortcomings against Leeds

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

There’s a reason that when you measure the growth of your child every few months you mark off a spot in a door frame and then compare. You see your child every day, so you’re never going to notice the fractions of millimeters that they’ve grown on any given day. But over time, you notice.

When you watch week-in week-out you’re not going to notice Luke Shaw slowly moving from half decent left-back to one of the best in Europe. In February you had to really dive into the numbers to see some growth in Mason Greenwood’s game even though your eyes were telling you this was a player struggling to get his feet settled this season.

But look at Shaw and Greenwood now compared to the first half of the season. You don’t need numbers to tell you that they are miles better now than they were in November. There hasn’t been an ‘aha’ moment where it’s all come together for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but you don’t need numbers to tell you he’s far better on the ball these days than he was last season.

The growth has been substantial, but it doesn’t mean it’s over.

Perhaps nothing illustrates how far Manchester United have come — but how far they still have to go — than their last two games against Burnley and Leeds.

Burnley have been the type of team Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United have struggled against. A team playing a deep block with no insistence on getting forward and creating space in behind. United will have all of the ball and will need to be creative to get a breakthrough.

In previous versions of this game the longer United went without getting their breakthrough the more frustrated they’d become. The more frustrated they’d become, the more likely they’d start forcing things, which would only lead to more frustration.

This United team is different. Last Sunday they played ~okay~ in the first half. It wasn’t great, but for the first time in some time they went to half time giving off the impression that their lack of opportunities wouldn’t become frustrating, and that they’d keep their cool and go on to win the game.

Solskjaer made a halftime change last week, bringing on Edinson Cavani in place of Fred (Side note: The Super League really distracted us from focusing on the fact that Solskjaer started McTominay AND Fred in a match against Burnley. He really got away with one there). United now had a focal point up front. They had Paul Pogba dancing through the midfield easing the creative burden for Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw. Even as the minutes ticked by it still felt like they’d win, which they ultimately did comfortably. For the third straight game United kept gradually increasing their levels and blew their opponent away in the second half. This is a much better Manchester United side than they were last year or even just a few months ago.

A week later, it’s a different story. United made two changes from the team that started the second half against Burnley to the team that started against Leeds. Out went Cavani and Pogba and in came Fred and Dan James. Suddenly this starting XI looked a lot like the team that lined up for United during their inconsistent first half of 2019-20. In fact, eight of the 10 outfield players starting against Leeds were in the starting XI when United had their first match against José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur in December 2019, with the only changes being Bruno Fernandes in place of Andreas Pereira and Luke Shaw in place of Ashley Young.

This was very close to the team that started against Leeds at Old Trafford, and for good reason — they won 6-2 that day. United knew how Leeds were going to play at Old Trafford and used it against them. Leeds are a frantic and energetic team that press a lot, and United set out to beat them by making quick passes, opening up space in the middle, and getting in behind them.

While Marcelo Bielsa was praised for continuing to play his way even though the loss was heavy, he wasn’t going to get beat like that twice. On Sunday Leeds maintained their ‘frantic’ look but didn’t press high up the pitch. Rather, they immediately dropped into a mid block and then a deep block. Leeds still pressed United more than most other teams but 45% of their pressures came in their own third. In other words, they let United advance the ball to just outside their box, and then they hardened.

Typically when United play against low blocks, their opposition sits back and allows United to dictate the pace of the match. Given time and space, United tend to play a bit too slow for everyone’s liking. Since Leeds were still employing tons of energy as they ran up and down the pitch man-marking United, they provided a very strong pace of the game.

Leeds were all over the pitch and even when it looked like United had caught them in transition, they still had plenty of players back.

The result was a match not much different than United vs West Ham or United vs Brighton a few weeks ago, it just looked much faster. This was still a match of United vs deep blocks and United’s shortcomings came out.

James was a shock recall when Leeds visited Old Trafford in December. He was sensational that day, which shouldn’t have been surprising. James is fantastic off the ball. He tracks back, presses really well, and has a great overall workrate. He’s good at making quick one touch passes to help launch a break.

His off the ball movement is better than any of United’s forwards besides Cavani, and he constantly makes runs that Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, or Anthony Martial simply don’t.

His problem is when the ball finally gets to him. His final ball is still not there. If he isn’t making a first touch pass and needs to settle the ball down, his first touch is horrific.

James is great when playing on the counter attack but when it comes to breaking teams down his weaknesses are greatly exposed. He’s a very good squad player in that when you put him in the right situation he’s fantastic, but put him in the wrong situation and he’s not helpful at all. That’s why he’s a squad player and not a first choice player.

Scott McTominay excels at breaking things up and not allowing opponents to do what they want to do.

He’s at his best when you press him and he just has to move the ball quickly to United’s play makers who now have more space, because the opponent is committing people forward. When you give him time and space on the ball his passing limitations get exposed as he struggles to get the ball to the dangerous players in positions where they can be dangerous.

Defensively, McTominay has grown leaps and bounds this year especially in regards to his positioning. His pressures per 90 are down significantly over the second half of the season compared to the first, and as a result he’s not over-committing to challenges as often, and he’s intercepting more passes.

All of this was on display Sunday when McTominay was in great position to intercept a Leeds pass in a dangerous area. Even with the fake crowd noise, you could hear United’s coaches on the touch line yelling for him to play a quick forward pass as soon as he made the interception. But McTominay still isn’t comfortable playing the types of more risky passes that may result in a loss of possession but are needed to break teams down, and instead he held onto the ball and tried to dribble forward where he would eventually be dispossessed.

With Kalvin Phillips man-marking Bruno Fernandes the Portuguese creates space in the middle by simply not being in the middle. In December that left room for McTominay and Fred to run into. On Sunday Fernandes continued to stay high up the pitch — pinning Phillips back and out of the midfield. This time United’s midfielders couldn’t take advantage.

As much as McTominay’s defensive positioning has improved he still struggles to make himself available for his teammates when in possession. McTominay averages 48.3 targets (teammates attempting to pass him the ball) per 90. Only Wan-Bissaka, James, Cavani, and Eric Bailly have fewer. On Sunday, United only targeted McTominay 26 times, by far the fewest of their starting XI (they targeted Pogba 17 times and he played 15 minutes). That essentially meant United were building up with only one midfielder — and since that midfielder was Fred it basically meant they didn’t have a midfield.

Without a midfield United were forced to go all the way from the back, either by playing the Lindelöf to Rashford long ball,

Or with Maguire taking charge and coming forward.

When Paul Pogba isn’t playing, Maguire carries the ball forward much more than when Pogba is in the team (7.06 progressive carries per 90 without Pogba vs 4.94 with Pogba). It’s a strength of his game but it should be done in moderation considering he’s only doing it because the midfield aren’t doing their job. The matches where he does this a lot (Crystal Palace home, Sheffield United home, West Brom away, Crystal Palace away) don’t tend to end well for United.

Without a midfield presence and with Fernandes staying high, someone else needed to drop into the space and link play up.

Anthony Martial does that very well but it’s something that we’ve rarely seen from Mason Greenwood. On Sunday we saw Greenwood do it a lot, clearly showing (needed) growth in a specific area of his game.

But when it comes to dropping deep and making quick passes to launch counter attacks he’s still not quite there.

Or when he drops into space to collect the ball but now has time to turn on the ball, his limitations as an on-ball creator come out.

Greenwood has been nothing short of fantastic as of late and he’s starting to add those in the box instinctual movements that makes one a dangerous number 9. This is just a reminder that he’s not completely there yet.

There was a lot of look at how far United have come in this match. Defensively United gave Leeds nothing, holding them to six shots with an xG of about 0.4. Like United, Leeds have been a very strong second half team — they entered the match having won three of their last four thanks to very strong second half performances. The fact that United were able to match their energy for the full 90 minutes — despite Leeds playing significantly less football this season — is a testament to United’s excellent fitness levels.

On the other side, look at how far they still need to go. Remove two players from this team (Pogba and Cavani) and suddenly United lacked creativity. The Reds took 16 shots but only had an xG of about 1.17 and only 0.55 of that came in open play. Once again it was left to Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw to do everything themselves (the two combined to create 11 of United’s 16 shots).

Whereas last week United (and the week before against Spurs) United stayed calm and relaxed as if they would find a way, against Leeds that frustration began showing again. When Bruno created he was frustrated his teammates couldn’t finish, and when he got into finishing positions he was frustrated his teammates couldn’t find him. It was the most visibly frustrated Bruno and Rashford have looked in a long time.

The levels of growth applies to the manager as well. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is really good at creating tactical plans catered to his opponents, but he also has a tendency to fall into the trap of ‘well this worked last time so I’m just going to run it back again.’ He used essentially the same starting XI from the 6-2 game against Leeds because he expected the same game. It was almost inconceivable that Leeds might come out with a different approach.

Solskjaer made another statement in the second half. Things clearly weren’t working but Ole was very hesitant to change things up. Some may say he always waits too long to make changes, but that’s already been disproven. Among his peers Solskjaer is the quickest to make changes when he’s losing and he’s right in the middle when things are level. Plus no one’s changes have affected the game state more positively than Solskjaer’s this season.

When Solskjaer waited until there were just 15 minutes remaining to bring on Paul Pogba — and waiting another 10 minutes before bringing on Cavani — it let us know exactly where United’s priorities were. United entered the match seven points clear of Leicester City for second in the table. They didn’t need to win this game, and thus the priority was keeping Pogba and Cavani fresh for Thursday’s Europa League semifinal against Roma.

United now have 67 points, one more than they finished with last season, and they still have five games remaining. They’re not fighting to the wire for Champions League qualification. Hell, they’re not even fighting for second place. They (currently) have the luxury of being able to prioritize winning a cup without having to risk their league position.

Having said that, they still have a ways to go to catch City. They’re still two players away from having a team comprised of mostly squad players who are great in the right situation but awful in the wrong one — Solskjaer said after the match United need “one or two players” to catch up to City. The line between looking like ‘what this team has the potential to become’ and ‘the inconsistent frustrating side of a year ago’ is still far too thin.

How many floors do you need to climb before saying screw it, I’m taking the elevator? Everyone has their own number but for most people the answer is fewer than five.

United under Solskjaer have made tons of progress, and accomplished a lot so far, but there’s still a ways to go.