1. Ralf Rangnick discovers Left Wingba
It was bound to happen eventually. Ever since Ralf Rangnick took over Manchester United three months ago he’s run through a bunch of the same ideas that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried only to see it didn’t work. A Matic-McTominay pivot, a 4-3-3 with McTominay at the base, a back three, having the central midfielder split the centerbacks in possession - having Scott McTominay do this to good success then bizarrely having him stop doing this - trying a McTominay-Pogba pivot only to see the pitfalls there.
Over the past year Solskjaer used Pogba off the left wing, a move which coincided with United hitting their best form of 2021. When Ralf Rangnick took over, he was asked about Pogba and he responded along the lines of seeing him more as a midfielder than a winger. Not surprisingly that’s where Pogba has been deployed since returning from injury.
The results have been not surprising at all either. Under Rangnick, United have been far better when Pogba is on the pitch. Both of these are small sample size (354 PL minutes with Pogba vs 456 without him) but their shots per 90 have rise by 5.90 when he’s out there, their NPxG jumps up by nearly a goal from 1.7 to 2.53 while their NPxGA drops from 1.25 to 0.9 when the Frenchman plays. The only thing that doesn’t rise is their goal scoring, which of course is the most important stat. As a result, United weren’t winning.
One of the issues with Pogba in midfield was that Rangnick was trying to balance the ideas of “play Paul Pogba as a midfielder” and “let Paul Pogba have freedom so that he could better influence the match.” That would often leave United a little too light in midfield, therefore it was only a matter of time before Rangnick tried what his predecessor did, moving Pogba over to the left wing where he was given the freedom to interchange with Bruno Fernandes as the number 10 and essentially have the freedom to roam all over the pitch. Pogba’s average position shows you just how much he moved around.
When Pogba isn’t playing deep, United struggle to move the ball quickly to their attackers in positions to run at defenders and be dangerous. When Pogba is deep, they often lack the player to link up with Bruno Fernandes and provide duel threat creativity in and around the box. Playing him off the wing - with a fullback who can push on and provide your width leaves you with both, and it’s exactly how United nearly struck early in the first half, when Pogba collected a ball deep and moved it quickly up the pitch to Bruno, allowing United to get the ball to an attacker in a dangerous position.
From there, Elanga is able to run at defenders and make things happen, eventually working the ball over to that left back holding the width. It’s a great play only negated by Ronaldo being in the only position where he’s able to score goals from - offside.
When Pogba plays as the left wing he’ll routinely swap positions with Bruno, taking up a more central position to be in the box. It was there that was saw him set up what was probably United’s second best chance of the day.
And later from the left wing, he’s able to pick out the run of Anthony Elanga breaking into the box, but also follow his pass with a run of his own that just doesn’t come off.
The ball would eventually make its way to Bruno who decided to feed an ego rather than a goalscorer.
It would not shock me to see more of Pogba on the left wing in the business end of the season.
2. One change can have many residual effects
United made a bunch of changes for this match. They played pretty well. They created some very high quality scoring chances while giving Watford nothing.
They did this all with captain Harry Maguire sitting on the bench. Given his form this season and the general feelings of a fanbase always looking for someone to blame, it was no surprise to see plenty of very surface level analysis along the lines of “Maguire was finally dropped and as a result United looked great.”
To say that’s an oversimplification would be a major understatement. Don’t get me wrong, United could be better without Maguire than with him, but in order to know that we’d have to ask and answer a lot more questions.
2A. Residual effects of Maguire’s absence
United had a fantastic statistical match without Maguire on Saturday, the first time that’s ever happened. It’s also the first clean sheet they’ve kept in the Premier League without Maguire since a 0-0 draw with Liverpool in March 2019. The fact that they’ve only kept six with him this season tells you that the problem is something other than Maguire rather than simply Maguire himself.
What usually happens when Maguire comes out? When Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof form the centerback partnership United are conceding just about a goal per game (0.99). The problem is they’re scoring less than that. The big reason for that is they’re creating far fewer opportunities. A big reason for that is because they’re struggling to move the ball from the back to the front. Lindelof is decent on the ball, but when paired with Varane and or Eric Bailly, he shows that he’s a ball carrying Robin who cannot masquerade as a batman. Varane has never looked great on the ball this season and looked incredibly uncomfortable on the ball this week alone.
This is one of those games where United don't necessarily need Maguire's ball carrying from deep, but the absence of it looks odd.— Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) February 26, 2022
Two occasions now where Varane has approached halfway before slowing back and deciding to play it simple.
With neither defender particularly adept at line breaking passes or forward runs (Lindelof makes some great carries from time to time and when he does it you notice it because they are very good, but they happen very infrequently), United were going to need someone else to pick up that responsibility. That’s where it helped to have two midfielders who don’t shy away from the ball and can move it forward.
With Watford not pressing in the slightest, it allowed Nemanja Matic to drop back and really pick up this mantle. Matic ended the day with 11 progressive passes, 11 passes into the final third, and 17 progressive carries. Those are straight up Maguire esque numbers and he only played 73 minutes!
The fact that United had another midfielder who is competent on the ball greatly helped, as Watford had to play him honest. That allowed Matic’s carries to actually make an impact, rather than just carrying it forward and dishing it off leading to nothing (a trait that often hampers Declan Rice), Matic also had four shot creating actions and an xG buildup of 1.17. In his last three matches Maguire has put up xG buildup scores of 0.58 (SOU), 0.58 (BRI), and 0.76 (LEE). On Sunday Lindelof had his usual 0.27 but Varane only had a 0.13 (despite being in an easy position to give the ball to Matic). If it weren’t for Matic taking up Maguire’s responsibilities, United likely would have struggled to move the ball effectively.
2B. Midfield midfield midfield
It always comes back to the midfield. After watching and rewatching the match, what was clear was United keeping a clean sheet had far more to do with their selection in midfield than their selections at the back.
Nemanja Matic is United’s only natural defensive midfielder. It should come as no surprise that when Matic plays United concede a lower expected goals against total then when he doesn’t This is true this year, this was true last year, and it was true every season dating back to when he first arrived.
Matic and Fred are by far United’s best defensive midfield pair. They have the most complementary traits of everyone and the numbers back them up. Against Watford, United were clean defensively mainly because, they never let the ball get near their goal. This season United have been allowing their opponents to successfully enter their box (via pass, cross, or carry) 12.26 times per match, Watford only managed to do it eight times. Only 20.76 percent of United’s touches came in the final third, the lowest total of any match this season and United had fewer defensive actions in their own third than in any match this year, with the centerbacks accounting for almost none of those actions. In other words, the midfielders just didn’t let the ball get to their defenders.
It probably helped that United were only whistled for a grand total of four fouls, preventing Watford from stopping the match and letting all their players push forward. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not that’s related to the midfielder whose been whistled for 17 fouls in his last five matches not being on the pitch through illness.
There’s another residual effect here. We know United are typically a left sided heavy team. That comes mostly from having their best attackers on the left wing, but also their best buildup players (Maguire, Show, Pogba) playing on the left side as well.
As Telles and Varane don’t contribute to buildup and were passing those responsibilities over to Matic, United had two left footed midfielders dictating the play, which changes all your passing angles. With Pogba coming more centrally but having his back to goal, the passing angles were changed to feeding the ball more down the right.
That lead to Aaron Wan-Bissaka leading the charge with 106 touches and 10 progressive carries. Wan-Bissaka’s performance was somewhere between ok and is he playing well or just exceeding my really low expectations of him? Either way, it’s not great.
The drawback to the Matic-Fred pair is if you defend them correctly they can quite easily kill you in possession. Defending them isn’t even that difficult. Press them, or press Matic while simply cutting off the passing lanes to Pogba and Fernandes. Make them beat you and more often then not they’ll show you they can’t.
Luckily Watford didn’t do that. In fact, Watford being terrible and not playing at all like a Roy Hodgson side was the fundamental reason United looked better than they were on Saturday. This very much didn’t look like a Roy Hodgson side. There were gaps and spaces all over the pitch. Wan-Bissaka wasn’t a trigger point for the press, rather only man would come allowing him to beat his man and not get in trouble.
You would expect a Hodgson side to sit back and be compact. Watford very much weren’t which allowed United to hit them on transitions early on.
Most of United’s chances came from transitions and having lots of time and space, including all their big ones.
2C. How sustainable is this?
For everything United lacked they were able to cover for, but most of that coverage came in some way or another from Nemanja Matic. Pogba is able to have freedom up the pitch because he’s got Matic and Fred behind him. You can rest Maguire without losing the ball progression from deep because Matic can do it.
So naturally the question becomes, how sustainable is this? Matic has gone from being someone who can only play once a week to someone who can only play 70 out of 90 minutes in a match!
With the score still level after an hour, Rangnick started to make changes that - in theory looked good - but quickly made you realize what you lost by not having the Matic-Fred pair on the pitch, or what you had been missing at the start of the match.
First Jadon Sancho replaced Fred, dropping Pogba deeper. In theory this is a great move. Sancho is a still a creative outlet who can move around the pitch, and Pogba can contribute from deeper. But Jadon Sancho on the left wing isn’t Paul Pogba on the left wing and Paul Pogba in midfield isn’t Fred or the further forward Paul Pogba. United were lacking that bit of a duel threat closer to goal as their attack shifted away from creating dynamic chances to more trying to feed the ball to the guy who gets paid to score goals and doesn’t.
17 minutes from time Matic was removed, with Bruno Fernandes dropping next to Pogba. Luke Shaw was introduced and suddenly United were potent from the left side. Alex Telles had 70 touches over 73 minutes (86.30 per 90), Shaw had 22 in 17 minutes (116.47) and you quickly remembered what United had been lacking on the left side.
Up front though, United had plenty of talent along with Jadon Sancho doing a ton of Jadon Sancho things, but still weren’t generating anything substantial. It wasn’t helping that their two biggest threats throughout the match, Pogba and Bruno, were now much further away from goal. Having Maguire’s passing and ball carrying skills on the pitch would have allowed one of those players to push further forward, but without them, they were needed further back.
When Fred came off the pitch after 61 minutes, United had taken 14 shots for an xG of 2.18. Over the next half hour they took eight more shots with an xG of just 0.23. They had the talent on the pitch but seemed to lose the things that made everything work. For the first hour everything was accounted for and allowed players to perform at their highest levels (though again, a lot of that was Watford being terrible). Once some of those things were removed the situations were changed and United simply weren’t as good.
3. A first choice starting XI is starting to emerge, but not in the good way
A staple of the Sir Alex Ferguson era was that Ferguson never had a set XI in the early parts of the season. He’d rotate the squad heavily giving everyone games and prior to March you never really knew what the XI was going to be. Then in the business end of the season a first choice XI would emerge.
Last season was very similar as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer constantly chopped and changed his squad - this was even blamed for the why United were starting matches so slowly. Around March April things started to take shape. Alex Telles was no longer being rotated in at left back. Nemanja Matic wasn’t getting his name called. The midfield would be McFred, Pogba would be on the left wing, and up top would be Cavani when possible and Rashford on the right wing.
We’ve very close to getting there this year but not in the good way. Rather than players winning their spots, it’s almost like we’re getting there by default.
Fred continues to be fantastic whenever he plays, and when he comes off the bench immediately shows you what he brings to the game. He needs to be in there.
Pogba has been sensational since coming back. Not picking him would be foolish. But he can’t play next to Fred while Pogba-McTominay as a pivot doesn’t work and McTominay-Bruno-Pogba in a midfield three has been hilariously bad. He’s going to need to play further forward. Given that Matic is a 70 minute player now, you’re first choice midfield has to be McFred. Playing Varane-Lindelof behind a McFred is a disaster so Maguire slots back in. He can be rested on days when Matic plays.
That leaves Rashford, Ronaldo, Sancho, Elanga, and Bruno up top. Elanga and Sancho pick themselves while Rashford and Ronaldo are in terrible form. With Pogba on the left Sancho slots over to the right while Elanga plays down the middle.
Will this formation work? Is it the best United currently have? Unfortunately we don’t know the answer to that, we just know that certain players are very much not working at the moment, and therefore others deserve a shot to get the team firing again.