I’d often laugh over the past few years when the often dumb, but often debated, question of “who’s the best out of Frank Lampard, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Mikel Arteta?” would pop up in the media. It was funny to me because despite the Premier League presence of those 3, it became obvious in time that the best ‘former Big 4 player from the 00’s-2010’s turned manager” was actually the former Liverpool man turned Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard.
What he did at Rangers was no joke. Breaking Celtic’s 10 year grasp on the top spot is pretty good, but the way they did it was damn near insane. 38 games, 32 wins 6 draws, 102 points, 92 goals scored and only THIRTEEN conceded. Those numbers weren’t a fluke either as their underlying numbers were just as dominant. Yes it’s the Scottish League but those strong underlying numbers carried right over to the Europa League where they faced teams from all over the continent. Gerrard proved he was legit.
United got their first encounter with Steven Gerrard the manager when they faced Aston Villa this past week, playing matches in both the FA Cup and Premier League in a five day span. The two games proved to be one long tactical chess match between Gerrard and United interim boss Ralf Rangnick.
At it’s core, chess is merely about making moves and countering the moves of your opponent. Tactical battles in football are the same thing, and at the end of two matches it was Gerrard who came out on top.
That’s an interesting thing to say considering that United came away with win and a draw while Gerrard’s side are out of the cup and have just one point to show for it but that’s the thing about tactics, you can have the right - or better - tactics but at the end of the day it’s still on the players to go out and execute. You can have the best plan in the world but still be undone by an individual mistake, or if your players don’t actually finish the chances you’re not going to win (Just ask Graham Potter about that).
The two matches were all about moves on counter moves. On Monday, Rangnick named a side of De Gea, Shaw, Varane, Lindelof, Dalot, Fred, McTominay, Rashford, Bruno, Greenwood, and Cavani. A high energy side but one that lacks vertical passing from the back and with three shoot first forward playing across the front three, a bit of creativity. That ultimately wouldn’t matter much as seven minutes in - right off the heels of a failed corner - United got a breakthrough.
We certainly know this team is pretty good defensively so the early goal should have been enough.
Ultimately it was, barely.
Villa dominated the remainder of the match. They had more of the possession and outshot United 19-13. Just a quick glance at the shot chart will show tell you exactly who had the better chances in this match.
Villa’s three man midfield dominated the McFred double pivot. They had complete control of the middle of the park, preventing United from building any sustained attacks while being able to launch attack after attack on United’s goal. According to Opta, the xG finished 1.6-1.05 in favor of Aston Villa, who were a bit unlucky not to win the match and certainly deserved a draw to send the match to extra time and maybe penalties.
On Saturday, Rangnick made some changes to the starting XI, some were made by choice and some of it forced by suspensions. The result of that was a list of 11 names that all look good, but questions about whether the sum of the parts was a good team were immediately apparent as while nearly all those players offer you something good, they also all don’t offer you something else:
De Gea - shot stopper, doesn’t come off his line
Alex Telles - can put in a great cross, doesn’t offer you much else, poor in buildup
Varane - great defender, not great in buildup, rangers from ok-decent on the ball
Lindelof - good defender, decent in buildup, rangers from ok-decent on the ball
Dalot - poor defender, much better than AWB on the ball, still not great going forward
Matic - great positionally, decent-ok progressive passer, old & immobile
Fred - high energy, great off the ball, decent-ok progressive passer, dives in a lot
Elanga - natural striker playing out wide, who knows how creative he is but most importantly, youth player who’s overall mostly unknown, can’t expect much from him but be pleasantly surprised with what he gives you
Bruno - only creative hub in the team, could be an issue defensively
Greenwood - not a winger, adding creativity to his game but relying on him for creativity can be very hit or miss, can be poor defensively
Cavani - high energy striker with great movement, old, requires service to be effective
Not surprisingly, over the course of 90 minutes basically all these drawbacks would end up hurting United.
The first counter move in the chess match was the middle of the park. Rangnick going with the Matic-Fred pivot, which is United’s best defensive pair (though McTominay was suspended so he had no other choice). He put them ahead of Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof who, defensively, are the two most in form center backs United have.
The downside to the Matic-Fred pair is that they really struggle to progress the ball up the pitch. While both are ok/decent forward passers the thing about ok/decent passers they tend to only play well when playing next to a good passer and taking up a supporting role. When you rely on them to be good passers it usually doesn’t end well (this also applies to Varane and Lindelof).
To help them out with the forward passing, and to help the fact that Villa’s midfield still had a 3-2 advantage, Bruno Fernandes dropped deeper to make a three man midfield in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Now United would be able to win back control in midfield.
Defensively this team looked like it would be solid enough but the obvious concerns were how would United generate an attack? With Luke Shaw suspended, United now had zero vertical passers in their back six, which meant buildup was going to be a chore. There was no means of getting the ball to the attacking players quickly and in space. This was massively emphasized with the pass maps of the center backs Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane.
67.62 percent of their passes went to the player standing next to them. The two combined to make just thirteen passes to the three central midfielders in front of them.
That seems really bad. I can’t definitively tell you if it’s bad or not because I don’t have a baseline. What I did do is pick a random match to compare it to (Norwich away) and immediately saw that in that match Harry Maguire alone completed 15 passes to just McTominay and Fred (27.78%, as well as three each to further up the pitch players Sancho, Rashford, and Bruno). As I looked over a few other matches including some under Solskjaer back when McTominay was still hiding from the ball and Maguire would still make at least eight passes to the two central midfielders. On Saturday Varane and Lindelof combined for one progressive pass and four progressive carries. Maguire makes 3.48 progressive passes per 90 and 4.52 progressive carries.
In a related story, United’s xG drops by half a goal when Maguire doesn’t play. That’s the same amount that it fell by when he didn’t play last season.
Bruno was dropped deeper to attempt to help that, but that takes Bruno away from where he’s best. Bruno playing deeper allowed space for the other midfielders - namely Fred to get forward and be around the box. Fred took advantage of this and created a game-high seven shots, but he’s still Fred. He’s not great in that area, and since your best creator isn’t there, you lack creativity.
United’s concerns about where would the goals come from were once again eased just minutes into the match when they got a breakthrough thanks to a howler from Emi Martinez.
Getting an early lead United were in a great position to do what they wanted to do and not let Villa establish what they were looking for.
United scaled back their press significantly in this match, having the Elanga-Cavani-Greenwood front three back off to about midfield. In the first half they had Fred sitting right on top of Jacob Ramsey to cut off the passes to him (while Cavani would sit on top of Douglass Luiz).
This was very similar to United’s match against Southampton in August where the Saints sat on Pogba and Bruno but were happy to let Fred and Matic have possession of the ball. If Villa’s play makers wanted the ball, they were going to have to come very deep to get it.
This helped United establish that “control” that Rangnick is always talking about. They finished the first half with 54.7 percent of the possession. They outshot Villa 7-4 with an xG of 0.69-0.32. It’s not great going forward, but this isn’t bad at all. Seeing as you weren’t giving Villa anything and already had the lead, it’s exactly what you’re looking for.
This was Rangnick’s counter move to Monday’s FA Cup tie and at halftime it was Gerrard’s turn. Gerrard looked at how United were playing and saw how Fred is surrounded by players who either have questionable defensive work rate or just aren’t great defensively.
Thus he started bringing both of his playmakers - Ramsey and Emi Buendia - onto the same side of the pitch to overload Fred.
Force Fred to mark two people so he can’t sit on the passing lane to cut off one of them and you’ll probably get a mismatch somewhere else.
Rangnick immediately countered this move by making a move of his own. While making sure to remain in one of the passing lanes, he pushed Fred higher up the pitch to directly pressure the center back.
The only way to cut off passes to two players are once is to not let the pass be made in the first place. Instead of letting Mings carry the ball up and wait for a pass, United were going to force him to either go long, or go wide where they had more coverage.
Just like that Southampton match back in August, once the ball goes wide, you can push up and press far more effectively.
And when you cause turnovers high up the pitch that leads to...
Move, counter move.
Now it’s Gerrard’s turn. With Fred pushing up the pitch, that leaves a lot of space open behind. To cover that space United would need the aging and immobile Matic to shift over while also relying on Bruno to drop deep and help cover the middle.
This is where Emi Buendia had been operating but while Buendia is a good progressive and creative player, he’s not much of a goal threat. On came new signing a Countinho, a player who’s very much both a goal and creative threat, and can do a lot of damage operating in that space.
This is where Rangnick failed. After the game he spoke about the idea of switching to a back three but felt that would send the wrong message and United would end up getting pinned deep in their own half. Well guess what, United were already getting pinned deep in their own half. Villa had 68 percent of the possession in the second half and were outshooting United. Not having a player who is calm on the ball and brings organization and possession to United’s back six like Maguire was hurting them. West Ham were sitting on United’s midfielders, the defenders unable to bypass the midfield to get the ball up to the attackers, thus the attackers had to drop deeper and deeper for the ball, so when they got it there was no outlet.
United were defending but they were just giving the ball straight back to Villa so they could launch another attack.
That kind of defending just keeps you under pressure, which increases the chances of someone making a mistake and increases the likelihood that you’ll concede.
It didn’t take long. Tyrone Mings decides to carry the ball forward. Fred opts to cut off the little pass to Buendia and then lunge in at Mings (there’s your mistake). It doesn’t take long for Coutinho to have the ball in a dangerous area.
Coutinho plays a 1-2, Matic doesn’t follow his run, by the time Fred recovers Coutinho is already in the box so Fred can’t make a challenge. Varane steps over to guard against a Countinho shot so when Fred gets a touch on the ball it slips by Varane to a wide open Jacob Ramsey whom Bruno just forgot to mark.
It’s a goal that both had been coming, and could have been prevented at so many different points.
Minutes later the same combination finds them again. Lindelof has a read on a ball but it takes a deflection off Fred, causing him to be woefully out of position. A lack of communication means Nemanja Matic has no idea Ramsey is ghosting in behind him. Coutinho smartly peels off the back shoulder of Varane and despite happening right in front of Alex Telles, he never bothers to pick up his run.
Just like that, Gerrard’s latest move evens things up. He the little button on the timer down signaling it was now Rangnick’s turn only Rangnick didn’t make any other moves.
He didn’t bring on Maguire and go to a back three. He left 34 year old Edinson Cavani - who played the full 90 minutes just 12 times last season - on for the full 90 minutes for the third time in the last two weeks! (along with a 71 minute appearance in there).
There was an element of Rangnick learning the same lesson that 2019-20 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer learned. The one where you look at the bench only to realize “none of these players can do the things I need done right now.” In terms of Matic being done after 70 minutes that was certainly true, but again he could have switched to a back three (Laurie Whitwell at The Athletic suggested replacing him with Phil Jones for the final 20 minutes but.. come on). Or he could have put Greenwood or Elanga up top and taken off Cavani for a runner like Lingard. Cavani certainly has his attributes defensively, but how much of those attributes is he giving you when he’s played the most football in a two week span than ever before in his United career? Not to mention he picked up an ankle injury 17 minutes into the match and while he was able to continue, he never really had an effect after that.
Instead in the tactical chess match it was Gerrard who always had another move to make. For every change Rangnick threw out him, he had a counter. Aston Villa were the better team over two matches this week. United were lucky the results were as good as they were.