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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Can making bad passes be a good thing?

Risks are actually good, and United need to take more of them

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

No Manchester United player gives the ball away more than Bruno Fernandes. No Manchester United player is better than Bruno Fernandes either. Similarly, very few players in Europe give the ball away more than Lionel Messi or Kevin de Bruyne but you won’t find many players better than those three.

You’ve already heard this before. Bruno gives the ball away a lot because he plays more risky passes. In matches that United won this season Bruno completed 75 percent of his passes, meaning one out of every four went to the opposition.

United’s biggest problem this season wasn’t that Bruno gave the ball away too much, it’s that they didn’t have enough players besides Bruno giving the ball away.

Giving the ball away isn’t automatically a bad thing, especially depending on where you are and what part of the game you’re in. In fact, it can actually be a good thing if you use it correctly.

The same can be said for taking shots from outside the box. The statistical revolution in football has lead to a drastic decrease in shots from outside the box for the simple reason that they are incredibly inefficient. They do have some good uses though — such as trying to pick out the top corner after a corner, and either scoring and sending it out for a goal kick, so your defenders can get back and not get caught in transition — especially if used properly.

Bruno Fernandes loves to shoot from distance. This season he took 73 Premier League shots from outside the box — 19 more than second placed James Maddison (WhoScored). Of those 73 shots, Fernandes scored on just one of them. I don’t need to tell you how bad that is.

But Fernandes uses that trait to his advantage. Thanks to his time in Portugal he’s developed a reputation as a player who can hit them from distance. Most of Bruno’s shots don’t have a fairy tale’s chance of going in, but when there’s dip on it and the goalkeeper palms it away, it looks just dangerous enough that you have to respect it. That’s when Bruno can take advantage.

Take this situation last year during Project Restart. Bruno came back from the break and just began launching shots from everywhere in United’s first few games, reminding everyone that he’s “a threat.” When United were facing Bournemouth, Bruno picks up the ball on the edge of the box and begins to bring it to the middle.

That’s a lot of space and a player of Bruno’s caliber needs to be closed down. Bournemouth’s right-back notices this and takes a step up to close down that angle. When he does that though, he leaves a meter behind him for someone — I don’t know maybe Mason Greenwood? — to take advantage of, so long as Bruno can get him the ball.

Bruno slides it across just beyond the reach of the defender and with just one touch Greenwood is able to get behind him. The defender is only about one step out of position but at this level that’s far too many.

This season against Tottenham Hotspur, we see something very similar. Bruno gets the ball at the top of the box. Serge Aurier has to come out to close him down even though Bruno isn’t even facing the goal, because Bruno is far too dangerous to be given that kind of space. Bruno merely gives the ball up, but Aurier is lazy to get back into position, leaving a space in behind for Edinson Cavani to take advantage.

The same principle applies to passing. Sometimes you have to make passes that have almost no chance of succeeding in order to set up better looks later in the match. If you don’t, you become one dimensional and are far too easy to defend against.

A great example of this came in United’s home match against Burnley. Four minutes into the match Scott McTominay got the ball in plenty of space with a chance to be dangerous, but instead he played the ball out wide to Aaron Wan-Bissaka which added no value to United’s possession.

We’ve seen McTominay do this time and time again but in this situation we can clearly see why he plays it square. When McTominay gets the ball no United player is open and none of them are even making any runs to try and get open. None of them even look ready to run after a ball.

It’s easy to blame United’s forwards for this but at this point in the season we’ve already seen McTominay opt for the easy route plenty of times before. If United’s attacking players don’t trust McTominay to deliver that ball, they’re not going to make the run. We see this later in the first half when Bruno gets the ball in a very similar position.

As soon as Bruno gets the ball Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw immediately start making runs in behind. Bruno gets tangled up over the ball which is the only reason he doesn’t play it. But Pogba and Shaw do this because they trust that when Bruno has the ball he’ll deliver it if they’re making that run. Marcus Rashford said as much in his interview with Rio Ferdinand.

We’ve seen this before. Bruno gets the ball and players immediately make runs in behind.

They also do this when Paul Pogba gets the ball.

Or if they’re not running right away, they’re ready to run as soon as the ball is played.

None of these passes are easy or low risk. In fact, most of the time they don’t come off at all and either end up out for a goal kick or sail into the goalkeepers arms.

United’s problem is that Pogba and Fernandes are the only midfielders who make these risky passes. The other midfielders have very good pass completion rates (McTominay 87.3%, Nemanja Matić 90.5%, Fred 88.2%) due to their propensity to take the safe pass. Fred to his credit will occasionally try the more expansive pass, but he usually hilariously fails at it.

That’s a problem for United because they need risk takers on the ball. They aren’t good enough to wear you down with a possession based style the way Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel’s teams do because too many of their players (Rashford, Greenwood, McTominay, Fred, Pogba) either aren’t good enough on the ball or are too careless with it that it wouldn’t work.

United’s season wasn’t derailed by their defense but by the amount of 0-0 draws they collected this season. A quick glance at the numbers shows exactly what happened. In games United drew Bruno was involved in fewer of United’s touches, attempted fewer passes, and touched the ball in the final third far less often.

In other words, if teams could mark Bruno out of a match and force someone else to ask the questions for United, the Reds were in trouble. That comes from having too many players taking the safety-first option rather than trying to make something happen, and never giving the defense something to worry about.

Alas, as we saw before, when Scott McTominay is on the ball no one even tries to make a run, which takes away his opportunity to try and make something happen. How can this be fixed?

In theory, this seems like a ‘chicken or the egg’ question, but it’s actually very simple. The ball has to come first.

Let’s go back to that situation where McTominay plays that square pass to Wan-Bissaka. No one is doing anything, so really, what should Scott do?

We’re four minutes into the match so if McTominay tries something audacious that doesn’t work that’s not really going to hurt United’s chances of winning. Perhaps a diagonal towards the back post?

Even if Pogba or Rashford make a run to get on the end of this ball the odds of it being completed are slim to none. Most likely he’s going to over hit it out for a goal kick, or under hit it and it’ll be cleared away. Maybe he doesn’t get the bend on it and the goalkeeper easily collects it. That doesn’t matter — we’re four minutes into the game. We’re not necessarily trying to score here, we’re just trying to create different looks that’ll make it easier to score later.

In truth, even if McTominay hits this ball perfectly, United aren’t going to get it because Rashford and Pogba aren’t looking for it. That’s the point. What McTominay needs to do is play that ball and then yell at them for not making the runs. Then when he gets it again a few minutes later, do the same thing. When they don’t run, yell at them again.

When the team comes into training the next day the coaching staff should have that play clipped and tear into Rashford and Pogba for not making the runs. Then the next week you yell at them again. Eventually they’ll start making the runs.

This is the way it has to be. It can’t be the other way around. They’ve already lost faith in McTominay playing that ball. They’ve been making runs for two years and it’s never come — so they’ve stopped. The only way it’ll change is if McTominay starts playing it.

At first he’s going to give the ball away a lot. A lot a lot. But that’s fine. You do it early in games when the risk is low, which gives the defense something to think about.

What’s McTominay (or Fred or Matić) going to do? Is he going to play through the lines, go over the top, go square? That’s a lot better than currently where they know two of those options aren’t even on the table. Then later in the match if they start to overplay one of those options it’ll create space to do something else, which can create a great opportunity.

All this heightens the need for a defensive midfielder. If United’s midfielders are going to start taking more risks they’re going to give the ball away more, and they’ll need a true defensive midfielder to cover for that.

United have very good attacking patterns when they have less of the ball or about even possession. It’s when they dominate the ball that they need to add more creativity. That’s going to require them to have more players than just Bruno taking some risks. That starts with making low percentage passes. Once those start, the runs will come and the defense will have to worry about several different points of attack. In the long run, it’ll pay off.

There’s a time and a place to make bad passes. Manchester United need to start making more of them.