Despite a fairly pedestrian attack this season (their 1.18 npXG per game is eight best in the league while their 0.09 npXG per shot is 13th), Manchester United sit fifth in the table thanks to a stellar defensive record. Therefore it was very surprising to see their defense get picked apart on Sunday.
With all the caveats of it is just year one of the Erik Ten Hag rebuild and this is an extremely unbalanced and poorly put together squad these results are going to happen. United have plenty of excuses for Sunday. They were missing key players due to injuries and suspensions which combined with a noticeable lack of depth (which goes back to the squad building thing) meant they were behind the eight ball from the jump.
Players who are used to receiving help in certain situations didn’t get help. Energy provided by some of the missing players wasn’t there. Plenty of things were off and while individual mistakes were made throughout, make no mistake about it, this was an Aston Villa team prepared to face Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United.
Aston Villa were good not great in Unai Emery’s first match in charge, but they made up for that by knowing exactly what they were doing. United never got anything going, partially because of the players on the pitch, and partially because Villa never let them. On more than one occasion it was Villa making United look bad and if they were a better team perhaps they may have inflicted more damage.
It’s easy to write things like this off as just the players having an off day or individual mistakes letting them down. Sometimes that is the case. Other times, mistakes are made because your opponents are forcing you into mistakes. On Sunday, key mistakes were made in the buildup to both of Villa’s open play goals, but the goals weren’t scored because of the mistakes.
The goals were scored because Villa were ready for those mistakes, and they knew where and how to attack United after those mistakes were made. Unai Emery had his team prepared for how Erik Ten Hag was going to play. They were prepared for how to stop it but more importantly, they knew where the tactical weaknesses in United’s system were, and attcked precisely those weaknesses.
Villa knew United were going to be missing some players but they must have started licking their chops when they saw United’s starting XI. The back four was as expected, in midfield you had the defensively superb Casemiro along with the much weaker defensively Christian Eriksen, while the front four was comprised of three players not known for their defensive work along with the wildcard of an 18 year old making his first Premier League start of the season.
Out of possession Erik Ten Hag’s system is a heavily man marking one. Therefore if you can drag the defenders out of position and also occupy the midfielders, you can probably get some open looks via late runners taking advantage of United’s front four + Eriksen’s knack of either not getting back or not doing the best of jobs tracking runners.
Enter the first goal. It starts with Villa’s Ollie Watkins making a run towards the touchline. Watkins is center back Victor Lindelof’s man so he needs to go with him, dragging him out of position.
Watkins comes all the way to touchline to receive the ball. Lucas Digne - who made the initial pass - immediately follows his pass with a forward run beyond Watkins, forcing Diogo Dalot to follow.
With little options, Watkins begins bringing the ball deeper up the pitch towards the halfway line, dragging Lindelof further and further out of position. That leaves a big gap in the defensive line between left center back Lissandro Martinez, and right back Diogo Dalot.
Martinez and Shaw can’t shift over to close the gap. They are both preoccupied with the other forward Leon Baily, while Shaw also has the wide man Jacob Ramsey to worry about. Ordinarily you would expect the defensive midfielder to drop back in and fill the hole left by Lindelof but in this man marking system Casemiro is staying with his man. That leaves Christian Eriksen in a bit of no-man’s land, marking a man or defending one of the dangerous spaces.
With Watkins being a handfull for Lindelof, Rashford tries to come back and trap the ball but he arrives too late. Watkins is able to sneak through the trap and now turn up the pitch.
At this point, Eriksen has hardly moved putting him in an even bigger no mans land. He’s not going to be able to get to the ball nor is he cutting off any passing lanes. The wide man Ramsey has tucked even more inside and no one is picking up. Meanwhile Casemiro has moved away from his man, but instead of filling in for Lindelof he’s moving closer to Eriksen. This puts him in his own no man’s land as he’s not covering for anyone or blocking any passing lanes.
With one pass, Villa can completely bypass United’s midfield.
When Bailey drops between the lines next to Ramsey it puts Martinez in a very awkward position. Follow him deeper, or hold your line because, there’s no other centerback!
With no midfielder blocking off the passing lanes between Watkins and Bailly/Ramsey, United have isolated Shaw and Martinez.
With one pass Villa took out United’s midfield and put Shaw and Martinez in an impossible situation. They’re too far back from the ball, so if they rush to close down Ramsey he’ll be able to play through them. If they don’t, they’re letting Villa run at them with this very large gap in the back line.
Despite being on top of each other, Villa make the correct decision of letting the midfielder receive the pass, while having the forward immediately run towards the large gap.
By the time Casemiro turns to run back, it’s too late. Villa play right through line and generate a high quality chance, which they convert.
All this could have been prevented had Lindelof won his one v one battle or simply fouled Watkins - but you can say that about almost every goal that’s ever scored. More-so, Villa knew exactly what what they were doing. Drag the defender out of position to either open up a hole in the defense or get a man free (if Casemiro had covered for him). Have your wide man on the other side of the pitch ghost inside taking advantage of a winger who might not be tracking back, a midfielder who often doesn’t pick up runs, and a number 10 who doesn’t have Bruno Fernandes’ off-the-ball energy for tracking back and picking up runners.
All these things should have been done, but given the personnel on the pitch, you figure if you run these patterns over and over, you’ll get one or two opportunities where everything breaks your way.
We’ve spoken a few times this season on how the key area of pressing is attacking your opponent within five seconds of winning the ball back. These five seconds are when your opponent is most vulnerable due to them being in their ‘in possession’ shape rather than being in their defensive shape.
Villa’s second goal begins with Lissandro Martinez inaccurately heading the ball right between Casemiro and Christian Eriksen.
United had been in possession so when the turnover happens they are very much in their ‘in possession’ shape. We can see the backend of their 2-3-5 attacking shape with Luke Shaw tucking inside to form a midfield three, and right back Diogo Dalot pushed much higher up the pitch.
United’s buildup has been poor all season, which has been a big contributor to their low attacking numbers, and while this is a topic for another post we can one of the reasons for that here. There’s a massive gap between that midfield three and front five. So massive that Villa’s bank of four midfielders has plenty of time and space as soon as they win the ball. There’s no United player near them to close them down.
That allows Villa to immediately go to work on all the things that they did on the first goal. Immediately Ollie Watkins breaks for the open space near the left touchline. With the right back Dalot all the way up the pitch, Lindelof has no choice but to go with him.
Within one pass United are already disjointed. The midfield has been bypassed while Martinez turns to look for the other man, and the location of Shaw so he can assess where he needs to be.
The pass goes right by Casemiro and he turns and follows the ball hoping to be able to recover enough to trap the ball with Lindelof. Eriksen picks up the run of Emi Buendia who made the initial pass.
On the right side of the pitch, Diogo Dalot begins to run back defensively but on the left side no one is doing the same. Leaving, once again, two players ghosting on the weak side wide open, while the defenders already have their hands full.
Martinez has to shift over to cover for Lindelof and we can see him communicate with Shaw in regards to picking up the man at the back post. Casemiro is still following the ball, while Dalot hasn’t made up much ground.
Again that leaves two very dangerous late runners following the play, with none of United’s forwards tracking back to help out the defenders who already have their hands full.
Lindelof does a good job of keeping Watkins in front of him, but that’s about all he can do. In this situation his priority is simply not allowing Watkins an easy chance.
That means he can’t engage in a 1v1 duel because if he loses not only is Watkins is home free, but Martinez would have to come over leaving United without numerical superiority in the box. The defender here needs to just force Watkins to either take a bad shot, or give the ball up and rely on his teammates having picked up the necessary runners and can defend that pass.
Lindelof does that successfully, the problem being, none of his teammates have ever bothered to pick up the late runner.
Eriksen follows the run of Buendia into the box because you want to have that numerical superiority of three white shirts vs two claret shirts in the dangerous area. Perhaps he could have left Buendia for Shaw and Martinez and tried to cover the late run, but as the play develops he never looks in that direction. He spends the entire play looking back between the ball and his man to make sure he’s staying with him. HIs focus being so narrow minded is likely the result of a player who spent his whole career playing further up the pitch now having to play deeper. Sometimes it’s better to give a player like that very simple instructions so he doesn’t have to make tough choices and risk making the wrong one.
Normally United can deal with that shortcoming because they know Bruno Fernandes will fly back to pick up that late runner. Without Bruno on the pitch, no one does...
Villa finished Sunday’s match with six shots and just 0.6 xG. That may partially be a result of game state but ultimately it was nothing particularly remarkable. They got a result by making the best of their chances and they got those chances by very deliberately attacking United where their tactical system was the weakest.
On more than one occasion Villa were able to easily bypass United’s midfield. Most of the time United’s defenders were able to delay the attacks until everyone got back and then deal with the mess. A few times United didn’t get everyone back, and Villa made them pay.