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Tactical Analysis: United dealing with problems in possession as they adapt to new system

New tactical analysis up about United’s recent struggles in controlling games...

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

In the 35th minute of Manchester United’s Champions League match against BSC Young Boys Donny van de Beek received a pass from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and quickly played it back to him. Wan-Bissaka received it, then took a heavy touch, ended up stamping on the foot of an opponent as he tried to recover, and was promptly sent off.

United had a 1-0 lead but would be forced to play nearly an hour with only 10 men. It undoubtedly changed the match and really hampered United’s ability to go for a knockout punch. They’d have to change things around and if something wasn’t working it would be a lot harder to change it when you only have 10 men.

The red card also created a nice excuse if United didn’t play well, “it’s not easy when you only have 10 men.” It hid the fact that, even with 11 men, United were very much not playing well.

At the time the red card was brandished, United had been holding 65.9 percent of the possession but weren’t doing anything with any of that possession and were being outshot 5-2. If things continued at this rate (and that’s a BIG “if” considering there were about 60 minutes left so plenty of time for adjustments) the game was more likely to end 1-1 than 1-0 or 2-0.

There were plenty of reasons for the bad play. Paul Pogba was having an off night, European away matches are always tough, an artificial pitch etc etc. It sounds like a list of excuses but like yes, you can have a night where a perfect convergence of shit just happens. If it’s a one off there’s nothing to worry about.

Then the first 25 minutes of the West Ham match happened. Those 25 minutes looked awfully similar to the first 35 minutes of the Young Boys match. Once again it “looked” like United were in control - they had 63,8 percent of the possession - but West Ham were out-shooting them 4-2 with an xG of 0.54 to 0.11. Only one of United’s shots came from open play and it came in the 25th minute.

Possession doesn’t inherently mean control of a match. PSG had 63 percent of the possession in last week’s draw against Club Brugge but never looked like the better side. Their midfield was almost non-existent.

Chelsea and Manchester City are very good at using possession as a means of defense (you can’t score if we have the ball) to control matches. United were very much not doing that. On Sunday West Ham successfully entered United’s box 14 times, the most successful box entries the first team has conceded in a match since Liverpool back in May, and the most against a non-top six club since New Years Day against Aston Villa.

After the 25th minute the match opened up. From the 25th minute until Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal United only had 53 percent of the possession. They outshot the Hammers 6-1 during that stretch. From the 25th minute until the 72nd minute (when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his substitutions), which includes United’s best stretch of the match, they had just 54.3 percent of possession but outshot West Ham 13-7 with an xG of 1.69 to 0.35.

After Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho came on, United regained “control” of the ball, having 65 percent of the possession until full time, but again lost their creativity and were outshot 3-2.

United struggling with a majority of possession of the ball is nothing new, but whereas they’d gotten better in those types of games last year, they seem to be getting worse this season. Is that reason to start ringing alarm bells?


For one thing, it’s still extremely early in the season. There’s plenty of time to identify the problems and work out solutions. For another thing, a lot of these guys have barely played together and haven’t exactly had a lot of time on the training pitch together.

That doesn’t just go for players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Jadon Sancho. It goes for everyone because most importantly, United are learning a completely new system. New systems take time to learn, it doesn’t happen overnight, and there are going to be growing pains.

These changes have been brought about for different reasons. Part of it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s way of compensating for weaknesses. He doesn’t trust Paul Pogba in a pivot because he had a tendency to get caught on the ball, and because Pogba doesn’t want to do the defensive work. Without Pogba in the pivot United struggle to progress the ball. United also have a right side issue.

Last season got off to a rough start but the 3-2 win at Brighton showed that United’s plan was still the same, it was just being undone by individual mistakes. This season it’s a whole new ballgame. While the starting XI graphics on TV graphics still showing United in a 4-2-3-1, this is not the 4-2-3-1 of yesteryear.

Even if Solskjaer didn’t plan on changing much heading into the season, the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo forces you to throw any plan you had into the bin and start anew. You have to make changes to accommodate it all.

Off the ball United used to maintain their 4-2-3-1 shape or drop into a 4-4-2 block. This season out of possession Pogba is tucking in much narrower, much less as a left wing, and much more as a third midfielder.

There seems to be a concerted effort to keep Pogba narrow, rather than chasing wingers. You can see this when the ball gets moved wide it’s Luke Shaw - and even Harry Maguire - tracking the runs out wide.

This seemed to be the default position for Pogba, who if he was truly playing left wing, would be responsible for tracking the wide man.

On the ball things are completely different and as always we know what’s driving that.

Since Project Restart, in possession, United have played in mostly a 3-2-5 formation with one of the central midfielders dropping between the centerbacks to form a back three. This season that’s changed to more of a 2-2-6 shape where Pogba and Bruno can help out the midfield. We saw this right away against West Ham, albeit since Mason Greenwood briefly swapped positions with Bruno, it was Greenwood dropping into midfield.

That’s the structure, but the execution is still not there. Part of that is getting used to the system, while part of it is still individuals just need to be better. The above picture is one of those examples.

Fred plays a line breaking pass to Greenwood. Greenwood takes the ball on the half turn (good!) but doesn’t ever turn, instead he pulls it back and sends a wide sweeping pass out to Luke Shaw.

This is one of those things that doesn’t “look bad” as Greenwood doesn’t give the ball away. Keeping possession always looks good. But it’s not actually good. The ball takes a long time to get to Shaw allowing West Ham to maintain their shape and get into position. By not turning on the ball, it defeats the purpose of the line breaking pass. (In fairness to Greenwood, this is not his natural position).

United need to turn on the ball, even if it doesn’t work, which is exactly what happened to Ronaldo a few minutes later.

This looks worse than the other, but with plenty of defenders behind you, trying to turn on the ball there isn’t too risky and has a much higher upside than playing it safe and out wide. (Greenwood would do this successfully higher up the pitch later but the attack broke down with bad positioning)

United’s issue has always been their struggle in getting the ball to the good players in dangerous areas. That comes from the midfielders and it was very much on display last week in Switzerland.

The numbers for that match tell the entire story. Just look at how United’s touches were distributed prior to Wan-Bissaka’s sending off.

That is far too many touches being consolidated among the back four, whereas United were clearly struggling to get the ball to Pogba and Sancho.

For the system to work, United need to have midfielders that want to get on the ball and facilitate. Fred and Donny van de Beek are not those guys. Fred prefers to create space for his partner by dropping deep, whereas Van de Beek looks to push up to receive passes. That combination meant that United had no presence in the middle.

Bruno Fernandes accounted for 44 percent of the attacking midfielder’s touches, mostly because he was the (only) midfielder who was dropping deep to get the ball at his feet. This is something Bruno is good at, but Manchester United are much better when he stays higher up the pitch.

United’s buildup in this match was slow, methodical, and seemed to avoid the middle. The ball seemed to just move around the back four and out wide to the fullbacks who then tried to push it laterally up the wing. There wasn’t much passing to the central midfielders, and the straight passes up the touchline forced Jadon Sancho to come deeper while receiving the ball under pressure with his back to goal, forcing him to just give it back to the defense.

Eventually when United wanted to push it up the pitch, the defenders would try a long ball forward.

That brings us to the next reason to have to change.

Last week, I openly wondered whether Pogba on the left wing would work with Cristiano Ronaldo up top. The reason behind that was simple. When playing on the left, Pogba tucks inside to occupy the half space on the left side. This worked really well when Edinson Cavani is playing because he’s a player who stays on the shoulder of the last defender. Ronaldo is a different kind of forward who also likes to drop into those half spaces, often leading to him and Pogba occupying the same space.

Whereas against Newcastle Ronaldo’s dropping relegating Sancho to essentially being a touchline left winger, Pogba was forced to move around, often ending up on the right side of the pitch to try and get the ball. Eventually that started to look like it was by design.

It’s no secret that United have a bit of a right wing issue. With their best players (Pogba, Shaw, Rashford) typically playing on the left side, United tend to buildup on the left before switching the ball over to the right side.

The caveat here is that the ball ends up finding Aaron Wan-Bissaka - or in previous games Dan James or Mason Greenwood, none of whom have proven to be great wide creators. As a result, defenses have loaded up on the left side and left United’s right side relatively free.

You could of course fix this by just putting Jadon Sancho out there. Against West Ham, Solskjaer opted for the tactical solution. He flipped it around. In possession Pogba would come over to build up on the right, before switching the ball over to Luke Shaw, who’s much better on the ball than Wan-Bissaka.

The issue with this is this isn’t Shaw’s game. Shaw’s never been a dominant crosser of the ball (he completes between 16-17 percent of his crosses and hasn’t completed one this season). His strength is his passing and ability to carry the ball. He gets into the box, he can pick out a pass into the box. The reason Pogba on the left wing worked so well last season was because of the passing triangles he formed with Shaw and Bruno. Isolating Shaw on the left doesn’t help.

The numbers from the first 25 minutes of the match clearly reflect this change.

This is certainly better than Young Boys but its still not good. We see Pogba is able to get on the ball much more and the amount of touches from Varane and Wan-Bissaka suggest United were more focused on their right side. It’s far more balanced but again, United weren’t creating anything and two numbers stick out stick out in that regard.

With United building up on the right side, it’s eyebrow raising how two of their right sided players, Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood, weren’t getting on the ball at all.

While these numbers are alarming, neither are too surprising. McTominay doesn’t take up great positions to receive the ball and his teammates target him with fewer passes per 90 than any other midfielder. Greenwood is a different story. The position he was being asked to play doesn’t fit any of his strengths.

Greenwood’s success this season has come in the first three games as a center forward. Previously he’s played on the right wing but he’s not really a right winger and never really contributed much to build up play. But United’s formation has now shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to more of an unbalanced 4-3-2-1/4-3-3 where Greenwood was playing something between a right winger and a right sided duel number 10.

Greenwood’s game doesn’t fit that role but Sancho fits that role like a glove with his ability to receive, dribble, and make things happen in tight spaces.

Things would get better. As the game went on and United had less of the ball both McTominay and Greenwood unsurprisingly got better. McTomiany started getting on the ball a lot more and, statistically, might have had his best game in a United shirt. Greenwood also got better as the game opened up and started to suit his skill set. Ultimately Greenwood “looked good” doing winger things but wasn’t great, which isn’t surprising given it’s not his position. It’s just weird because United had that really good winger right on the bench.

That’s going to be the ultimate issue for United this season. Eventually the first XI is going to “click” and United are going to be really good. But just like previous seasons the lack of like for like replacements is going to cause issues. What happens when someone gets hurt? What happens when you need to rotate guys to keep them fresh?

This is going to be the big question for Solskjaer to have to balance this season. Mason Greenwood has been on terrific form that you can’t just drop him from the squad, but playing him meant playing him out of position. It’s early days but Paul Pogba has not looked good on the LW with Ronaldo up top, and on Sunday he was removed when Solskjaer realized it wasn’t working. Players are going to have to move around and a big name or two may have to be left out to accommodate other players (just like Zidane realized that Ronaldo and Bale wouldn’t work in Europe and one would have to be left out).

United are currently struggling to create chances in possession. 62 percent of their xG on Sunday came from the same play (Ronaldo’s shot and Ronaldo’s rebound). 83 percent came from three shots. None of which came from building up in open play.

The Ronaldo goal came off a scramble just following a set piece.

While the other big chance came from a turnover.

These are issues that need to be worked out, but again it’s far too early to be sounding alarm bells. Ronaldo’s arrival forced a lot of changes as you need to account for the type of game Ronaldo plays. When trying to compensate for certain things United might be over compensating but that’s what happens when you’re making changes like this. You overcompensate for one weakness which creates another but eventually you come back to the middle and figure out the balance. That’ll happen with time.

Last season United went into the first international break having lost 6-1 to Tottenham after a torrid first month of the season. It wasn’t a sign of things to come. It took another few weeks but Solskjaer ultimately figured things out and got United back on track. I’m reasonably confident he’s going to figure it out this time as well with the added bonus of having Ronaldo means United will still pick up results while they do.

It’s early days. New systems take time to fully settle. There’s no need to sound alarm bells yet, but there are certainly some things happening that are worth keeping an eye on.