pulled a win out of their ass ground out a win over Wolves at Molineux on Sunday. I tweaked the title of the piece because did we really learn anything or did we just see a bunch of things that we already knew?
Here’s three tactical things we saw from Manchester United’s win over Wolverhampton Wanderers.
1. Good things happen when you use your weak foot
Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford are two players who love to cut inside and shoot. They’re also two players who really try to avoid using their weaker foot even though they’re better then they give them credit for. Even if it wasn’t that great, you gotta use it sometimes just to give off some unpredictability, otherwise you become too easy to defend as teams just collapse around your strong foot and prevent you from using it.
There must be something about Wolves though. Last year Rashford put it on his left foot and got a favorable deflection to grab all three points for United.
This year it was Mason Greenwood’s turn, putting it on his right foot and also getting a nice deflection.
Good things happen when you use your weak foot!
I’m sorry, I don’t want to be beating this bush week after week (after seeing this problem week after week last season) but if United are going to look at a very clear problem and decide the solution is “let’s just sign another attacking player like we used to” then this problem is going to keep rearing it’s head week after week.
All we keep hearing is “United need a defensive midfielder, United need a defensive midfielder.”
Manchester United don’t need a defensive midfielder. They need a holding midfielder. What’s the difference between the two? Not much, but defensive midfielder creates the image in ones mind of someone who makes a lot of tackles, intercepts a lot of passes, and recovers the ball a lot.
United don’t need that. They already have Fred who does all that. Nemanja Matic is a “defensive midfielder” who doesn’t make a lot of tackles or intercept a lot of passes. The 2007-08 Champions League winners featured a base pair of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, neither of whom were known for tackling and neither of whom were league leaders in interceptions.
What they need is someone who can pass but literally holds his position in midfield. Yes there will be occasions where you need to bring in Fred or McTominay to form a three man midfield so you can have more energy and tackling in there but for most games - especially against low blocks - you just need a passer who holds his position. That’s important because it’ll upgrade the team in two areas.
On Sunday United were finally able to get their new first choice center back pairing on the pitch which should in theory significantly bolster United’s defense. Did it?
Ok ok, before you start rolling your eyes at this let’s put all the chips on the table. Yes, this is an EXTREMELY small sample size. Yes, about 0.8 of that xG came from the David de Gea double save which was from a corner and not open play.
And finally, no this isn’t trying to make Raphael Varane look bad because this isn’t Raphael Varane’s fault. These numbers are very much the result of a non-existent midfield that completely left their defense out to dry.
All game Fred and Pogba were just so easily carved up the middle. That’s because their two styles just don’t mix. Fred is someone who likes to engage you to win the ball back right away, but with his (lack of) size and physicality he can get outmuscled pretty easily. Whereas Pogba seems to avoid them all together.
Even when he does make tackles it seems like he’s trying to avoid them and get out of the way.
It’s difficult with Pogba. He’s playing in a position where you need to make these types of plays if need be, but you also don’t want him trying to tackle because he’s so bad at it and when he does he typically ends up in the book. This is why Ole doesn’t really want to use him in the pivot anymore.
Yes, the fact that United were able to keep a clean sheet despite not having a midfield is credit to the excellent defending of Wan-Bissaka and Varane but also because David de Gea put up a PSxG-GA of 1.1, a number he has only matched twice in the last three seasons (Everton away 19-20, Chelsea away 20-21).
You also want to give Pogba freedom to move around in possession. Fred does a good job holding his position in attack, but out of possession his instinct is still to try and engage the ball carrier and win the ball back rather than just staying in front of him to delay things while your teammates get back. With that approach, if you don’t win the ball back you’re going to give a free run at your center backs.
It doesn’t matter who your center backs are, relying on exposed center backs to make super human plays and your goalkeeper to have his best game in the past three years isn’t a sustainable formula.
2B. Attacking - United have been found out
In 2016-17 - like most post Ferguson years - Manchester United didn’t really find their form until Michael Carrick came into the team to play alongside Paul Pogba. Carrick isn’t a guy who gets a lot of tackles and interceptions. He’s not a midfield destroyer.
Carrick was a holding midfielder with great passing ability, and someone who just sat in his position. His biggest defensive quality was ‘being there.’ It was when Carrick came into the team that Pogba really got going that season, mainly because with Carrick next to him, teams couldn’t focus solely on him.
Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay started five of United’s first seven matches in the 2019-20 season. Since then they have started just seven more games in all competitions as a midfield pivot.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t deploy them together because, against low blocks, it doesn’t work. United have won just five of the 12 matches they started and two of those were against Chelsea and Liverpool. The reason it doesn’t work is because the opposition will routinely double and triple team Pogba, pressuring him whenever he gets the ball, while leaving McTominay wide open. They’re not going to let Pogba beat them, they’ll challenge McTominay to do it and he can’t.
On Sunday, Wolves did the same thing. Make sure the ball doesn’t get to Pogba, and leave Fred open.
They sat off of Maguire and Varane allowing them to carry the ball up the pitch (which just restricts the space you have to work with) and Fred too. It was only when the ball went to Pogba that they started pressing. If he gave up the ball they backed back off.
They did this wherever Pogba got the ball, even if it was further up the pitch.
Teams do this wherever Pogba gets the ball, and as we saw last week, including right in front of United’s goal, hence why Ole is hesitant to play him so deep.
It’d be easy to say ‘someone needs to tell Pogba to get rid of the ball quicker,’ but one of the problems United face is, when Pogba plays in midfield, no one else seems to want to move the ball up the field.
They all look around like “sure I could do this, but you’re really good at it so you do it.”
Pogba tries to play simple and quick, but when he does that no one is willing to carry the ball forward and run at defenders, which just leads to the ball coming back to him. Eventually he realizes he needs to make something happen which leads to him holding the ball too long.
Structurally, United weren’t that great either.
When Pogba plays next to Matic, Matic typically splits the center backs and forms a back three, allowing the full backs to push up higher and giving Pogba more space in the middle. On Sunday the midfielders were both typically on top of each other allowing them to be easily cut off.
Fred doesn’t like to hold onto the ball. He likes to get it and move it quickly (an area where Matic’s patience is a big asset). So even if he’s not under pressure he’ll tend to try and pass it quick which often leads to backwards passing. At one point in the first half, Pogba told him to drop between the center backs, and when he actually took his time and created a new angle, good things happened.
Wolves weren’t going to let Pogba beat them. Playing a 5-4-1 they were able to clog the middle as well as sit wide on United’s wingers, denying passing lanes into dangerous areas.
Wolves only pressed United 15 times in United’s own third. When the defenders had the ball, they were more than happy to back off and let them walk it up the pitch. United’s back four of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw accounted for 43.54 percent of United’s total touches, and 45.45 percent of United’s touches in the middle third.
On the other side 47.48 percent of Sancho, Greenwood, and Bruno’s touches came in the middle third, exactly the same amount as they took in the attacking third. Individually 50 percent of Sancho’s touches came in the middle third with 40 percent in the attacking third. In his years at BVB Sancho averaged 41.45, 45.32, and 40.26 percent of his touches coming in the middle third with 57.95, 54.63, and 59.41 percent coming in the attacking third. That’s not where you want Sancho getting on the ball and United weren’t getting it to him in dangerous areas. 45.61 percent of Bruno’s touches came in the middle third. Last season in matches that United won he was only averaging 42.17 percent.
These numbers show United’s alarming lack of ability to move the ball forward.
United did address this fairly well in the second half as they dropped Pogba back deeper than Fred essentially using him as a deep lying playmaker who also had the freedom to make runs forward.
The numbers reflect this as well. In the first half Pogba attempted 32 passes, with less than 60 percent of them being forwards. In the second half that jumped to 47 passes with 68.09 percent being forward, which makes sense given his deeper position. From there Pogba was able to spray passes around the pitch to facilitate the attack.
United were able to control the game much better with Wolves’ only real chance coming from a set piece. The issue was after 20 minutes Jadon Sancho was removed and United suddenly had a front three of Martial, Greenwood, and Cavani, none of whom are really creative players at this point of their careers.
While the tactical tweak may have helped United gain control of the match, the bottom line is United have created a grand total of 0.71 xG from open play over the past two games. No matter how you slice it that is simply not good enough and it comes from the midfield’s inability to get the ball to the attacking players in dangerous areas.
Until United have another passer in midfield, teams are going to continue to swarm the guys that can do it and leave the other midfielders wide open (this is why Saul is probably not the answer to United’s midfield issues). Challenge those guys to beat you. More often than not, they won’t, and we’ll be seeing a lot more performances like this one.
But hey, at least we signed another attacking player who works hard, will provide us with added creativity up front, and make the rest of our players better!
*Checks notes on his creativity numbers the past few years*
Whoops. Forget that.
3. Turn on the ball and go!
I’ll try to be brief here because this is already getting long. As much as United’s midfield was being incredibly poor moving the ball up the pitch on Sunday, the forwards seemed to be doing everything they could not to help them out either.
With the middle clogged up, players rightly saw that they’d need to drop deeper. That’s good an all but too often when they did drop deep to receive the ball, they would just send the ball right back to where it came from.
Now sometimes, the passes were poor and hard to control.
Other times they’d have it under control but just opt to go backwards.
Even when you could easily just slide this ball out wide with your second touch so the rest of the team could push forwards.
Plenty of times United had the time and space to turn and run at goal but just simply chose not too.
They never seemed like they wanted to turn on the ball and actually challenge someone.
Possession is nice, but eventually you have to start taking risks. Get people moving. Sure you don’t want Pogba or Fred doing that, but the forwards should know they have plenty of players behind them should the risk they try not work.
Every so often United would take a turn and move forward.
And when that happened United suddenly looked dangerous!
This is a team with a lot of attacking talent. Greenwood, Rashford, Sancho, Bruno, can all run at defenders. Do it. Use your skill to make things happen. As you saw in number 1, good things happen when you take chances.
The midfield was poor on Sunday, and it likely will be way too often this season, but if the forwards actually help them out a bit it can be easily overcome. What can’t happen is for the midfield and the forwards to both not be on their games. That’s what happened Sunday, and United were lucky to escape with three points.