Manchester United suffered another setback on Sunday and six games into the season we’re still coming away with more questions than answers. Here are three things we could takeaway from this match.
1. You only got yourself to blame
Here’s what Ole looked like when the match kicked off.
Ok. He’s wearing a tie. Vibes are good. Don’t worry about the football, it’ll sort it self out.
But then Ole came out for the second half looking like this.
THERE’S NO TIE?!? What the hell is he doing? Even if he thought all the halftime adjustments that were needed was a wardrobe change why would you change into the look that hasn’t been working?!?
Now, I can’t say for sure whether Ole just simply went back into his office and took the tie off, or whether he ripped it off in a halftime tirade over the crap performance of the first half? If it was indeed the latter, then what was he yelling about? What was he asking the players to do?
Because other than Pogba going back over to the left side (more on that later), NOTHING CHANGED.
United continued to have nothing down the left hand side (a byproduct of Luke Shaw getting hurt). Mason Greenwood was still playing incredibly selfish and making poor decisions in the final third. The midfield was still non-existent and despite United having 59.1 percent of the possession they weren’t creating any quality chances.
In the first half United took 15 shots with an xG of 0.71 (0.05 xG per shot). B.A.D.
In the second half United took 12 shots with a non-penalty xG of 0.6 (0.05 xG per shot). Really bad!
Last season United were really good at playing within themselves in the first half before over powering teams in the second half. Some of this was fitness and some of this was “we’ve got Paul Pogba or Edinson Cavani on the bench” but they were very good at opening things up in the second half, and would often create much better shots for themselves.
This year through six games it’s not even close to the same story.
United are not only taking fewer shots in the second half of matches but the shots they’re getting are of far worse quality, while they’re still conceding equally as good quality shots. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason for that especially when you consider that their bench this season is already stronger than it was last season and Marcus Rashford is still injured.
This match turned into a nightmare for United really quick. It was insanely open and back and forth with the midfield being almost non-existent. According to the Athletic, Scott McTominay and Douglass Luiz had just 15 and 16 touches in the first half respectively.
If Aston Villa showed up to Old Trafford and played like this in 2019-20 United would have run them off the pitch with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Daniel James, and even the Andreas Pereira/Jesse Lingard combo. But on Sunday, in a very odd twist of fate, the United squad on the pitch were very much not built for running and counter attacking.
Paul Pogba isn’t a counter attacking left winger (he’s just an extra central midfielder as discussed last week). Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the pacy player that left Old Trafford 12 years ago, and Mason Greenwood is good at finishing transitions but not actually leading them.
For United’s sake the match was begging for a midfielder who could come in and provide some stability and possession to the middle of the park and slow the game down. Nemanja Matic would have been perfect, but dropping Paul Pogba back could have achieved a level of this as well. That would have left him with the ability to bring on a creative player up front so United could actually create decent or good chances, rather than the dross they had been drumming up.
This was a change that could have been made at halftime. Hindsight is 20/20 and when Harry Maguire left the pitch in the 67th minute it was good thing Solskjaer hadn’t brought on a Nemanja Matic earlier, but that left with him just one change to make.
I’ve typically let Solskjaer slide with his late substitutions because for the most of his three years at United when you look at the bench there have typically been no more than one player that is any better than what’s on the pitch. That and compared to his peers, his average substitution time is smack dab in the middle of the rest of them. When the game is tied most managers tend to make their final substitution very late because as much as they’d like to score a winner, they’re also worried about conceding one.
Timing aside, Solskjaer’s change of bringing on Edinson Cavani for Scott McTominay made zero sense. Dropping Pogba deep was smart and necessary, but United weren’t creating any quality chances and his response was to bring on another finisher?
On top of that, Cavani is not the best at defending set pieces and was a factor in why United were so poor at defending them last season (yes United conceded plenty of set piece goals when he wasn’t on the pitch, but he didn’t help them at all when he was on it). That gave Villa an opportunity.
Throughout the match the commentators kept mentioning how both United and VIlla’s set piece coaches were constantly down in the technical areas - especially Villa’s. When Villa won a late corner, United put Cavani in charge of man-marking (the taller) Kourtney House.
If Villa’s coach did his homework - and I’m going to take an educated guess and say that he did - he’d know that Cavani is not a player who gets into many aerial duels, and when he does get into them he typically loses them (his aerial duel win % the last years, 33.3, 40, and 32.1 percent). That seems like a good player to go after.
Interestingly, after the goal co-commentator Robbie Earl made a comment about how it had been Tyrone Mings running across towards that front post all game. This time when Cavani was marking Hause, they had Hause make the run. They took advantage.
Set piece defending aside, Cavani’s inclusion was questionable at best. Yes the two forced substitution to defenders tied Solskjaer’s hands tactically but this is a situation he’s never had to deal with. In the past, United’s team essentially picked itself and there were at best only one or two game changers on the bench.
Now he’s got several different options and several big names. He’s gotta balance getting players minutes and keeping guys happy with the needs and chemistry of the squad. Some players work well together, others may not. If you’re bringing on Cavani taking off Ronaldo would probably benefit Cavani, as well as Pogba and Greenwood. Is Solskjaer going to be strong enough to make that call?
You can’t always predict that a game will be more open than you thought and suddenly you have the wrong team out there. Will he be able to deviate from his plan and bring on the neccessary players that can calm things down possibly at the expense of a big name? Will he be strong enough to pull a Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes off the pitch if he isn’t playing well?
It’s a new ballgame for Solskjaer this season and so far these questions still aren’t being answered.
Until they are, you should probably keep the tie on and keep the vibes gods happy. No one made you take that off, that’s entirely on you.
2. Luke Shaw is crucial to this team
Luke Shaw got injured at the end of project restart and right away we were able to see how important he was to the team.
Which is why it was a major worry when Luke Shaw sat down 33 minutes into the match and said he couldn’t continue.
With the right footed Diogo Dalot replacing Shaw, United had no natural left footer to hold width on the left side. Their response was swapping Greenwood and Pogba moving the former over to the right.
This is Pogba’s touch map before Shaw got hurt.
And here are is his touch locations from when Shaw hobbled off the pitch until halftime.
After Shaw left United just completely lost anything that they had on the left side, and the attack suffered. In the first 33 minutes of the match Shaw had already created four shots. From his injury until halftime United only took four more shots, all of which came via set pieces.
In the second half Pogba and Greenwood switched back but the left side was still as good as dead. Playing nearly twice as many minutes as Shaw, Dalot took just one more touch in the final third than the England left back. He only carried the ball the ball into the final third one more time than Shaw and didn’t create any shots. While =he did get into the box more than Shaw, he wasn’t helping United get to the box or providing them with any width from the wide areas. It all lead to United being far too narrow.
Villa did a very good job pressuring United’s players in the middle of the park, forcing United to keep the ball out wide.
But without Shaw their outside creativity was limited to speculative long passes that required a near perfect first touch to actually be useful.
Shaw is second on the team in shot-creating actions per 90 and no one carries the ball into the final third more than him. He also leads United’s midfielders in progressive passes and carries (which is alarming to say the least).
United were forced to go with the right footed Dalot as Alex Telles wasn’t in the match day squad. If Shaw is going to be out for some time you’d expect Telles to be the guy who slots in, though just about the only thing Shaw and Telles have in common is that they’re both left footed.
United need to hope Shaw’s injury isn’t serious.
Personally, I find the #(insert name)effect hashtag - where fans attribute various success to the arrival of one particular person even though there are so many things that fans don’t know about going on - to be incredibly stupid. Luke Shaw didn’t all of a sudden become good because Alex Telles arrived. Luke Shaw’s form was already taking a massive leap forward during project restart, he just finally stopped getting injured.
Most of it is all narrative and doesn’t really come to fruition. The #ZlatanEffect didn’t lead to Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial suddenly becoming booming forwards. Neither did the arrival of Edinson Cavani.
When Cristiano Ronaldo signed we were greeted with all the usual pomp and circumstances about how he’s a professional and there will be higher standards in training at Carrington. Bruno Fernandes is also a professional who holds teammates to high standards, as is Cavani and the same things were said when each of them arrived. If the professionalism and standards in the dressing room at Carrington still isn’t up to par with those guys in it, United have much bigger problems, and Ronaldo won’t be solving them.
Now, that’s not to say that big time players don’t have an effect throughout the club when they sign. It’s clear Cavani and Mason Greenwood have a tremendous relationship, it just took the better part of a season to form. But that’s also not to say that every effect a player has is positive.
You can see how a ruthless goalscorer like Ronaldo will come in and talk about how in order to be a ruthless goal scorer you have to be a bit selfish and have that mentality where the only thing you think about is scoring goals.
And therefore you could see how when Mason Greenwood sees Ronaldo not square him this easy ball...
...and finished the game with seven shots without setting up a shot for any of his teammates in open play Greenwood might take note of that.
You can see how that might be on Greenwood’s mind when he opted to take the shot here instead of playing the simple pass back to Bruno.
Or when he’s only thinking shoot while running this break - an incredibly difficult shot to get power behind.
He certainly has that selfish goal scorer mentality when he ignores Ronaldo’s overlap to take on four defenders.
None of whom were the least bit worried about Cristiano Ronaldo - that’s how confident they were in him not passing.
Or a few minutes later when he ignored Ronaldo at the back post to take a shot with every defender focused on stopping the shot they knew was coming.
Greenwood took a team high eight shots but only created two others for his teammates from open play. That’s not enough as a winger and it’s certainly not going to bode well for a team if they have two players playing like this.
And then of course there’s Bruno Fernandes taking his first penalty with Ronaldo looking over his shoulder and doing this.
It would be foolish to say this is #TheRonaldoEffect, but there’s certainly some intrigue in wondering “hmmm, I wonder what’s going through those players minds?”