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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Set piece defending emphasizes need for backups and coaching time

United are good at defending set pieces when their first choice back 4 is on the pitch. When they’re not...disaster.

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Peter Powell - Pool/Getty Images

Author’s Note: This was written prior to United’s match against Fulham. All numbers are as of May 17th 2021.

Manchester United conceded three goals from set pieces in the span of about 50 hours last week. That in itself is really bad, what makes it worse is that it wasn’t really surprising. Those goals were the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth set piece goals United have conceded in the Premier League this season accounting for one third of the goals they’ve conceded.

There’s no way to describe that without using words such as awful, horrific, or downright unacceptable.

Why does this keep happening? Who’s fault is it? How do you fix it?

At times this season it was fashionable to blame the goalkeeper. United have conceded five goals from corners with David de Gea this season and four with Dean Henderson (in about 1000 fewer minutes), so that’s not it.

Is it the centerbacks? Fans have had their issues with Victor Lindelöf for years and blaming Harry Maguire and his £80 million price tag is always fashionable when an error occurs at the back. But United still concede from set pieces when Eric Bailly (or Axel Tuanzebe) replace Lindelöf and the fact that they’ve conceded three in the two games that Maguire has been out suggests he’s doing way more good than harm back there.

The simple answer is the coaching. Set pieces and defending set pieces are two things that can easily be gone over on the training ground. If there’s a flaw in your system, coaches should be able to pick it out and make the necessary adjustments. That hasn’t happened this season.

Let’s take a look at why this problem isn’t going away, and potentially find some optimism about it maybe eventually going away. Or at least we’ll try.

United’s system for defending free kicks — specifically corners — is a hybrid between man-marking and zonal marking. On a given corner, United will typically line up with four to five players marking zonally across the six yard box and another cluster of players near the penalty spot ready to man mark runners.

This isn’t too dissimilar from how Liverpool set up.

As was mentioned after the Everton match, your position is based on your heading ability. You start with your best man in the air — which is Maguire — and go from there. Maguire always takes up the position of the second man from the back post. Behind him is typically one of the central midfielders, either Paul Pogba or Nemanja Matić. In front of Maguire is where things get interesting. That will typically be United’s second best aerial threat, but whether that’s Lindelöf, Bailly, Scott McTominay, or someone else depends entirely who’s on the pitch.

The system is built around two things: winning the first ball, and Harry Maguire. Maguire’s job is to have eyes for the ball and to go for it. If there’s a United player in his way he’s going to move him out of the way to try and get to that ball. That’s how you end up with still frames that make it look like he’s marking Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

While Maguire and the rest of the zonal markers’ job is to get up and win the ball, the man markers job is to not let the runners get to the six yard box. If they fail at this those runners tend to come right across the face of Maguire (or whomever) and it’s incredibly difficult to win a header when you’re leaping from a standing position, against someone who is coming in with a running start.

If United win the first ball — and they do the overwhelming majority of the time — they’re typically in good shape. Where everything falls apart is when they don’t win the first ball. When United don’t win the first ball, they end up conceding extremely high percentage chances that typically end up in the back of the net.

That could be from one simple driving header.

Or a flick at the near post.

Where everything falls apart is when the first touch isn’t a shot but just a flick that turns into a second ball. That’s when United typically lose their head and too don’t react to the second ball and leave a man wide open.

The last problem that arises is when the first ball isn’t cleared but is kept in right around the box. Naturally when that happens the defenders charge away from the goal to play any opponents staying there offside. Unfortunately, often the United man markers who are forwards will begin pushing up the pitch back to their position, but the opposition centerbacks will still be in the box. This often causes miscommunications between the zonal markers and the man markers and leads to people being left wide open.

United usually have their striker guarding the zone by the front post while another attacking player (such as Bruno Fernandes) is in front of him. Luke Shaw is always a man-marker, but Alex Telles is a primarily a front post defender. Therefore when Telles is on the pitch he takes the position in front of the striker, meaning the other attacking player has to go elsewhere.

The assignments also depends on who’s playing midfield. Matić, McTominay, and Pogba are all guys who can battle in the air, but Fred very much is not. Whether Fred is on the field or not changes things.

You can see how all this can get dicy.

This system requires the players to take a lot of personal responsibility for their roles. If players have to change roles based on different players being on the pitch it can cause some miscues. That’s especially true if the focal point (Maguire) is suddenly out.

There is reason to be optimistic that this problem gets solved. Unfortunately that probably won’t be before the end of the season, but hopefully by the beginning of next season.

This is the same system that United were using last year. You’ll never believe this but last season United had the same issues defending set pieces. Whether it was players getting right in front of Maguire...

...or players getting lost between the man markers and zonal markers after the initial ball was cleared.

After 24 games last season United had conceded 10 goals from set pieces (they conceded nine from their first 24 this year). Then, suddenly the problem went away as they conceded just one goal from a set piece over their final 14 games.

Two things were vital in making that happen. The first was simple continuity. Over the first half+ of the season United used five different combinations in their midfield pivot (Pogba-McTominay, McTominay-Matić, McTominay-Fred, Pereira-Fred, Matić-Fred) as well as countless different combinations in their back four. Luke Shaw, Axel Tuanzebe, Ashley Young, Brandon Williams, and Diogo Dalot all started matches at fullback while Maguire, Lindelöf, Tuanzebe, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones (!!) all started games at centerback. After match 24 (with the exception of a couple of games) that was simplified down to primarily two midfield combos — Matić-Fred and Matic-Pogba — and a steady back four of Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Maguire, and Shaw.

The x-factor here was Matić. His re-introduction to the team in January coincided with the team becoming much more solid defensively and he was a big asset when it came to defending those set pieces. From match 24 onwards, Matić was an ever present in the team starting all but one match.

More important than continuity was the Premier League’s new winter break. In early February United jetted off for Marbella where they spent a week on the training pitch. That week gave them a chance to work on their set piece defending and work on the players getting to know each other. Don’t forget, Eric Bailly was injured midway through preseason while Harry Maguire didn’t arrive until just before the season started. That week was massive and United’s defensive record after the winter break (as well as the COVID training camp) says as much.

Okay, so they solved the problem last season, why in the world has it come back this year? Why have they regressed? That’s even more inexcusable!

Interestingly, all the reasons why United improved in this area last season are the same reasons they’ve regressed this season. For one, stability.

It turns, as bad as United’s defense has seemingly been this season (fourth in goals conceded, fourth in expected goals against, third in both categories if you strip out the first three games), when they have their first choice back four on the pitch they’re really not bad at all!

This chart accounts for the Champions League as well but if we strip out those minutes the first choice back four has played as a four man unit for 1769 minutes in the Premier League season. That’s 0.56 non-penalty goals per 90 conceded, which is... pretty good (21.28 non-penalty goals per season) and an improvement on the 0.77 number that foursome put up last season.

Of the 11 NP goals they’ve conceded this season, one was an own goal and seven more came from open play. That means only three (3!!) have come from set pieces. That’s not terrible. Extrapolate that over a full 38 game season and you’ve got 5.5 set piece goals conceded. Only two clubs have conceded fewer than that this season.

Those 1769 minutes represents 54.6 percent of the total Premier League minutes United have played this year. In other words, that foursome has played just over half the season together and conceded three goals from set pieces, which means that in less than half the season that the four of them haven’t been together United have conceded 11 times from set pieces! 78.57% of the set piece goals have come in just 45.40% of the minutes!

The first choice back four hasn’t been a problem. But when changes have to be made things have gone haywire. That’s not that surprising when you factor in all the other things listed above.

One change to the team can cause a domino effect in setting up to defend a set piece. There’s also a degree of player responsibility when defending these set pieces and players could have different abilities in that regard. Take the second goal Liverpool scored last week.

It’s a free kick coming from out wide. United line up with a high line in what looks to be a mixture between man marking and zonal marking. Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Lindelöf, and Wan-Bissaka all appear to be picking up men, with Shaw, McTominay, Bailly — this is an important one — and Pogba picking up zones.

This isn’t too dissimilar from the set piece at the end of the Everton match. The angle that Everton took their kick from was more extreme, but the defensive set up was the same. United remain clustered towards the middle, with McTominay — the last man — leaving a lot of space near the farthest man at the back post.

Once the ball is kicked, no one is worried about a man. It’s straight zonal marking, everyone has eyes only for the ball. You remember this of course because Maguire played everyone onside. Maguire was cheating towards the inside because that’s where he believed the ball would go and he was making up for his lack of pace. He got burned on this one because the ball went near post.

Liverpool had to defend a free kick from nearly an identical spot last week. They line up a little deeper, though their last man still leaves a big gap between United’s two men on the back post.

Watch Nat Phillips as the ball is kicked. He never once looks at a man, wouldn’t even know McTominay is behind him. He’s only got eyes for the ball.

Now look at how United defend this set piece.

Everyone breaks with eyes for the ball with the exception of Eric Bailly. Bailly charges inward on a man who’s already marked by Wan-Bissaka, then he picks up the flight of the ball and realizes he has to go backwards. Pogba needs to do better but Bailly should have been breaking for the ball right from the start. If he picks up the flight of the ball right from the start does he get a touch on it? Probably. Maguire is a player who is always watching the flight of the ball. If he’s in there and he breaks for the ball right from the get go does he get just enough of a touch that Firmino misses? Maybe?

All this comes from a lack of time on the training pitch. There are plenty of problems with the system itself — personally I don’t like it and wish they’d use something more simplistic — but changing it isn’t so simple. If you want to overhaul something like this you need to be able to spend time on the training pitch. You can only do so much with an iPad in a classroom.

That’s time that United have simply not had this year. Systems like this are typically implemented in preseason, and United didn’t have one this year. From September until April United had two games every single week of the season, reducing most of their training sessions to being solely about recovery. In the week between the Roma match and the Liverpool match United didn’t even step on the training pitch so obviously they couldn’t work on this.

That put Eric Bailly in a really tough spot as Maguire went down on Sunday. Bailly has been on the pitch for five of the 14 goals United have conceded from set pieces. Not that all five goals were his fault but that’s almost 30 percent of the set piece goals despite only playing 25.49 percent of United’s season. The fact that three of those goals came last week works in his favor and shows the lack of time on the training pitch.

This season Bailly has primarily been competing with Lindelöf for time on the pitch. It’s safe to assume that when practicing set pieces, he’d be working as the #2 aerial man next to Maguire who’s #1, because that’s the most likely scenario you’ll get in a game. Obviously you have to account for the possibility of Maguire getting hurt, but you only have so much time on the training pitch and there are so many different permutations. You have to prioritize your reps to the combinations that you’d reasonably expect. It’s hard to imagine Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ever thought he’d be playing a Premier League match with a back six of Williams, Tuanzebe, Bailly, Telles, Matić, and Donny van de Beek. Not a surprise they struggled.

Similar to Bailly, Alex Telles has been on the pitch for six of the goals conceded from set pieces. 42.86 percent of the goals in just 18.52 percent of the season. Telles arrived after the season began and immediately missed time due to COVID. Most of his issues defending set pieces came early in the season (Southampton, West Ham, Sheffield United). As he’s spent more time here he’s improved (though he still routinely leaves men free at the back post).

Where things have really gone awry has been with Matić. Last year he came in and solved so many problems. This season has been the complete opposite. He’s been on the pitch for seven of the set piece goals! Fifty percent despite playing just 31 percent of the season! They’re not all his fault but given his level across all areas has visibly dropped this year, are you surprised?

As much as it’s hard to believe, these mistakes don’t happen when the first choice back four is in there. If United were to dip into the market for a centerback this summer it’s more likely to be a depth piece for the (hopefully) outgoing Phil Jones to push Eric Bailly than a big money move on someone who walks into the XI.

As the first unit has shown, continuity is a key. So is time on the training pitch. United solved a lot of issues with their one week training camp last winter. That’s something they didn’t have the luxury of this year. They’ll have a preseason next year, and they’ll get out on the training pitch. They’ll either overhaul this system entirely or work on it with the newer players and try several different combinations of players so everyone can get acclimated with each other.

If it doesn’t improve then, then we’ve got a big problem. If your coaches can’t get results when they actually have the time to put in the work that raises a lot of questions. The first four are taking care of business right now. What United need are for the backups to do the same. If they can’t do that, then they need new backups.

And either way. Just hire a bloody set piece coach.