Ole’s Reds are back to their inconsistent ways. What can we learn from a rather frustrating performance at Saint Mary’s?
1. As we’ve been saying for two years, the midfield is simply not good enough
Last week I joined a fan forum over on The Utd Journal and here’s what I said when asked “what can we the fans realistically expect from Manchester United this season?”
This isn’t new and we didn’t “learn” that United don’t have a reliable midfield pair, rather the thing that we’ve all been saying for two years was reinforced right in front of our eyes for 90 minutes.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, Fred and Scott McTominay - who are United’s most reliable pair right now - have started 32 Premier League matches as a pair, United have won 16 of those games (exactly half). That is simply not good enough. They’ve won seven out of 12 league matches that Matic and Fred have started together (58.33%) which is a tick better but still not good enough and in more than a few of those they pulled some results out of their ass. Their next best pair is Pogba and Matic but their wins have all come against bottom half clubs where United have all of the ball and the fact that they haven’t started a match together since January shows how much Ole trusts them.
On Sunday Matic and Fred did exactly what Matic and Fred could be expected to do. They controlled possession and limited Southamptons chances but very much struggled to push the ball forward and get it to the attacking players in positions where they could be dangerous. They did just enough to win, but not enough to provide insurance incase United weren’t clinical with their finishing or they got unlucky. Both happened.
United were tactically out-minded in this one. Whereas Ralph Hassenhuttl is usually known for his ‘go go go’ pressing, Southampton very much did not do that on Sunday. Instead of pressing, they trapped.
Southampton sat off United’s defenders and midfielders and focused on cutting off the supply line to Pogba and Bruno. As soon as they did receive passes, they were quick them down.
Southampton’s 4-2-2-2 shape allowed their holding midfielders to sit on Pogba and Bruno while their forwards waited for United to move the ball to the outside. Only once the ball went out wide the wide forwards and fullbacks would close in to trap the ball, using the touchline as an extra defender.
Given that the middle of the pitch was being cut off, this caused Bruno to typically drop into wider areas to try and find the ball. Southampton were fine with this because isn’t going to be dangerous from out wide. And once Bruno is out wide, they don’t have to worry about United’s most dangerous player getting the ball in space in the middle, so if Bruno pulled wide, they’d then press the middle of the pitch too.
With the Saints focused on forcing the ball out wide and not letting Bruno or Pogba get the ball in dangerous spaces, they were happy to concede the middle of the pitch, often leaving Fred wide open.
This was a “we challenge Fred and Matic to beat us” move (which is the same defense teams employ against the McTominay-Pogba pivot).
Which leads us to...
1A. Fred. Oh Fred.
Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic can’t play in a pivot against any team that will maintain possession against United. Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay doesn’t really work because every team has figured out exactly how to play against it (see above). Since McTominay made his first start in the 2017-18 season, he has only appeared in midfield with Nemanja Matic (in either a two or a three) for 865 Premier League minutes. That’s just 6.96 percent of the available Premier League minutes since that day, which means not one but two managers have gone to great lengths to avoid playing them together (for obvious reasons).
That means like it or not Fred is currently United’s most important midfielder. He’s the only one who isn’t restricted by partner. He can play with McTominay, he can play with Matic, and in theory he can play with Pogba.
Fred’s role changes when he’s playing with McTominay compared to Matic. Fred is at his best when he’s able to win the ball back and move it quickly to United’s attacking players so they can be dangerous.
Not surprisingly this was on display Saturday - especially for Bruno's second goal. Pressing high up the pitch means nothing if you can't move the ball quickly before a defense resets itself. Lindelof wins the ball, Fred quickly moves it to Pogba and United create a chance #MUFC https://t.co/eOftHNVhfh pic.twitter.com/VfWKoMJgGZ— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) August 17, 2021
This suits him well when playing with McTominay since that pair doesn’t hold possession too much in midfield.
With Matic, Fred not only has to move over to the right side of the pair and become the player further forward, but Matic is a much calmer on the ball than McTominay and keeps possession a lot better. Thus has more responsibility in terms of trying to pick out passes and play through the lines.
Whereas McTominay often takes a safety first approach, Fred has a willingness to play through the lines and often has the right idea. But his actual ability to hit those passes is lacking and typically lets him down.
On both these passes to Shaw he has the right idea but his execution is just off.
If these were the only issues it would be fine. You could live with that. What Fred brings along though is his propensity to misplay incredibly simple passes too.
That’s the thing with Fred. You could live with the shortcomings of his game (and have them not be a detriment to the team) as long as you cut out the very simple and preventable mistakes. You can’t have both. Nothing sums up Fred’s match quite like this.
Fred doing some very good things but if you don't complete the pass afterward, it doesn't really matter— Aaron Moniz (@amonizfootball) August 22, 2021
That was the type of game Fred had. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing. He had all the right ideas, but then something just went wrong. No United player applied more pressures than Fred, no one made more tackles, no one won more tackles, no one recovered the ball as much as Fred (he came off with 15 minutes to go!) and no one had as many blocks as Fred. But then he sticks his foot in to block a shot and it ends up being an own goal. That kind of game.
Fred’s misplaced passes stuck out (he lost possession 16 times!) and made it seem like he was the biggest problem United had, yet United lost any foothold they had on the game once Fred came out. Over the first 75 minutes United had 65.6 percent of the ball and were outshooting Southampton 14-7. Over the final 15 minutes when Fred was removed United only had 53.7 percent of possession and managed just a single shot.
Fred’s gotta improve areas of his game, but he’s still very important for United.
2. You’re not going to be able to play at Covid speed in 2021-22
With no fans in the stands many games last season were played at a much slower pace, with Pep Guardiola even talking about trying to increase the amount of time his players could spend “walking” on the pitch.
This season is not last season and it didn’t look like anyone told that to United. Right from the start they looked like a team that wanted to play at a nice slow COVID-ball place, whereas Southampton said “we’re going to run and run and close down everything.” Whenever United were on the ball they seemed think they could hold things up and look around, never suspecting that someone might close them down from behind.
When they made passes, they seemed to be waiting for the ball to get to them, while Southampton charged towards the ball.
All of this was evident on Southamptons goal. It starts with Martial not holding a defender to receive a pass.
Then later Matic lets the ball run by him because who would think that a defender might be coming up behind you?
United played the whole match far too relaxed, and against a team that was running for everything that was never going to work.
3. Anthony Martial is going to be a problem
You can tell Ole really wants Martial to come good again.— Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) August 22, 2021
He (correctly) thinks he has more to gain by Martial coming good, than freezing him out, waiting for a bored/curious suitor to make an offer.
Martial is clearly trying. To do something.
But it might not work out. https://t.co/uiDNQDXKdg
I’m going to try and keep this short because Anthony Martial is a whole other post in his own right but Carl is right. You can’t just “sell Anthony Martial” because no one is coming in to try and buy Anthony Martial right now (if an offer was made, United would accept it in a heartbeat). So it’s in Ole’s best interests to try and get Martial going.
Last season Martial was still doing all the things you want a modern day striker to be doing with the exception of putting the ball in the net. Given that he’s historically a very good finisher it stood good reason to say that as long Martial kept doing those things the finishing would come back around.
Martial has only played 74 minutes this season, which is an extremely small sample size, but so far he’s not only not doing those other things, he’s not even showing any signs to suggest it’s anywhere close to clicking.
The problem is this current version of United has evolved away from the systems where Martial has had success, and as long as Paul Pogba is going to be playing on the right wing, it’s hard to see Martial ever coming round.
Martial’s two best runs of form came when he was coming off the left to play as a second forward playing off a big central striker (Lukaku) who created gaps for him to run in behind, or when he was playing as more of a false-9 in a 4-2-3-1 where he would drop deep to create space for the wide players to run in behind.
With Pogba on the left wing, he’s the one tasked with coming to the middle to get on the ball, eliminating Martial’s need to drop deep and causing him to drift off towards the left. Martial likes the left, but he’s been ineffective there when not playing off a ‘play off me’ central striker. Martial hasn’t been too successful when deployed in a front two, and unlike Rashford and Pogba, he didn’t thrive as the left wing in a 4-3-3 when Solskjaer first arrived. Edinson Cavani is not the same kind of striker Lukaku is, which is why Martial (and Rashford) have struggled to be their best playing along side of him.
On Sunday United initially came out in their base 4-2-3-1 formation but often shifted into a 4-3-3/4-4-2 diamond. Not surprising given they initially lined up in a diamond last season at St. Marys.
If we look at their average positions we can see the midfield often ended up in a bit of an attacking/defensive box which pushed the forwards into more central left striker and right striker roles.
This was true even in the first half before players moving positions around had a chance to skew their average position.
We’ve seen Marcus Rashford have success as a split striker (when playing as the right striker) and we’ve seen enough good things to suggest Mason Greenwood should be fine in this role, but Anthony Martial has never performed in this role.
The biggest issue with playing as a left central striker is the angle from which United’s strikers can now run in behind. When Martial (and Rashford) has had success running in behind it’s when he’s come off the left running towards the middle and can have the ball on his strong foot. When playing as split strikers the angle is now different. Instead of running from wide towards the middle, you’re running from the middle out wide.
That’s a problem if you’re playing on the “off” side. Last week Greenwood broke from the middle towards the left flank, allowing him to keep his body between the ball and the defender and keep the ball on his strong foot to maintain his shooting position. We’ve seen Rashford have success when playing as the right striker for the same reason.
Against Southampton, both Martial and Greenwood were running to their respective “off” flanks, which neutralized anything they could do. When Martial did get in behind, he had to hold up to try and get the ball on his stronger foot, giving Southampton plenty of time to get back and defend the situation (the same thing would happen with Greenwood).
It’s clear Martial isn’t going to thrive in this position but given the form of Paul Pogba it’d be foolish for United to be changing their setup. If Edinson Cavani is even 70 percent of what you expect him to be, and Greenwood maintains his current form, it’ll easily be Greenwood splitting the starts up top with Cavani and it’s hard to see where Martial will fit in.