This is a continuation of the Tactical Analysis posted earlier. You can read part I here.
As we looked at in Part I of this two part tactical analysis, Ralf Rangnick has managed to successfully reshape Manchester United around Cristiano Ronaldo. United now create more shots than the previous two years, with Ronaldo getting the bulk of them. It’s made them pretty reliant on the striker which leads to the question, what do you do if Ronaldo isn’t available?
Ronaldo wasn’t unavailable on Saturday so Ralf Rangnick opted for a 4-4-2 setup - with both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as double false-9’s - against Leicester City I guess because it got all his best players on the field? Rangnick had previously used this formation against Manchester City where it’s “success” was wildly overstated.
Defensively United were defending in a standard 4-4-2 formation, albeit not a very good one. Their lack of compactness and spacial awareness left gaps all over the place,
that were easily exploitable to often put United’s defenders in compromising positions.
In possession, the logic seems to be that Bruno and Pogba are both good attackers who you want near your opponents box. That logic seems sound but it’s missing a lot of context. Pogba is at his best creating just outside the box or spraying passes to those in front of him. Bruno is at his best playing off the central striker and making runs into the box, almost like a young Wayne Rooney but definitely not the number 9 Wayne Rooney. Neither of them are strikers and neither of them move like strikers. They both thrive with players in front of them, not as the guys furthest forward.
As a result, and this happened against City too, every time United got into a promising situation they looked a man short. They looked as if they were missing a striker!
Disregard Scott McTominay’s awful cross here because, what else is he supposed to do? He doesn’t have any options! The ball initially comes out to Sancho and not only is no one making that near post run a striker would make, there’s no one even in position to!
Leicester City have a three man triangle right in the middle of the park with barely one person to defend. Pogba is making that back post run that he’s used to, but it’s not going to work when you don’t have a striker making that near post run.
The purpose of a false-9 is to have a forward on the shoulders of the center backs then drop into midfield causing a dilemma for the defenders, “do I break the line and go with him or let him create numerical superiority in midfield?” From there your winger makes a run in behind to take advantage of the created space your striker and defender vacated.
The dynamic of this changes when you’re playing a 4-4-2 rather than a 4-3-3. Rather than your wingers being high and wide, ready to attack that vacated space, they’re playing deeper and even wider. They may attempt to attack that vacated space but their starting position means it takes them longer to get there and defenses have more time to recover.
The other problem is the key to everything working is, your false-9 needs to actually start out as a 9 to garner the attention of the center backs. He then drops deeper to link play and create space behind him.
This is the area that Bruno (& this is why he’s always been rather ineffective as a false-9) and Pogba just don’t do. When United have the ball - and especially when they’re struggling to get it forward which is always - their instinct is to drop deeper to get on the ball. But unlike Ronaldo who drops deeper just to get a touch, their instinct was to drop deeper so they could play like midfielders. Get on the ball, turn, look up, and progress it. The things they are really good at.
You can see how this is a problem, if they’re not even starting high up the pitch, they’re just making a four man midfield, which ordinarily could cause problems but in this case it’s fine as there’s no one ahead of them. Leicester’s center backs aren’t worried.
That’s how you get into situations like this.
Pogba and Bruno are both hanging out in the half spaces where they like to facilitate from. Fred gets time and space on the ball. Bruno spots a dangerous run that he makes so often. But with no striker occupying the center backs, it completely changes the dynamic. Rather than making a run into space, Bruno is just making a run towards two center backs who are both free to close him down.
Every time United had a transition they looked short of options. Their midfielders would look up expecting to see runners in front of them and there just wouldn’t be.
There was no one there to try and stretch Leicester out thus every time United got a turnover, Leicester still had more men back than United were coming with.
It’s a managers job to put your players into situations where they can be their best and this formation does not do that at all. Anthony Elanga is not a winger - he’s in the Rashford mold of a second forward who comes from wide. Sancho is more of a winger but someone who likes to operate from the half spaces. Playing a 4-4-2 relegated them both to being touchline wingers, which isn’t what either of them are good at. It also asks Pogba and Fernandes to play like strikers, which isn’t their game at all, and putting them as the highest players up the pitch takes away their ability to grab control and impact a match.
This is how you end up with the current state of Manchester United. The players are now being labelled spoiled and not trying when in reality they’re not being put in position to succeed.
Their roles have been tweaked here and there. Bruno is playing in a more reserved role which isn’t going to get the best out of Bruno (when he was restored to that classic number 10 role behind Cavani against Aston Villa, he quickly scored two goals. This season he’s putting up 0.96 G+A per 90 when not on the pitch with Ronaldo and 0.38 when Ronaldo is on the pitch). Pogba has hardly been deployed the same way in consecutive matches. In possession the fullbacks are tucking inside to support the midfielders, meaning Jadon Sancho is out on the left wing on his own without an overlapping fullback. Fred has been pushed up into a more advanced role and he’s clearly benefitting form it, but he seems to be the only one.
Not to mention, all of this hinges on the ability of the single pivot in midfield. Despite all the different tactical tweaks Rangnick has made and tried, the one thing he has been adamant on has been sticking with a single pivot (and not going back to a double pivot). That is despite United not having anyone who can play that position for a full 90 minutes, causing Rangnick to constantly choose a player who can’t pass
and has such little spacial awareness that he constantly thinks “now would be a good time to run forward” regardless of what threat looms behind him.
All this serves to do is constantly put your already struggling defense under more pressure week in week out.
As what happens after every match where United drop points, reports surface about how the players have stopped listening to Rangnick, mostly because outlets know that’ll make fans blame the players and drive engagement.
I don’t think the players have stopped listening to Rangnick because to be honest, I don’t think they ever fully bought in. This was a man who arrived with a very distinct style of play, a style that has proven to work. That’s easy to buy into and while there were definitely growing pains at the start, the players certainly looked like they were giving their all to adapt to how Rangnick wanted to play.
But just as quickly as that happened Rangnick abandoned his own style. When he does that, what else does he have? He doesn’t have a track record of being able to successfully switch up styles based on opponents. He doesn’t have a track record of playing a different way.
This becomes obvious as you watch the tail end of matches. Last season United were no strangers to a game being level after 65 or 70 minutes. They weren’t phased by it. They simply continued to play their game believing that a goal would come, and often it did (and even in those 0-0 matches they often got the better chances in the final 15 minutes). Under Rangnick when United have been down or level over the last 25 minutes of a match they’ve wilted away completely losing their heads. The win against West Ham came more from a “throw everything including the kitchen sink” at them approach than anything tactical. There’s no sense that the players are thinking ‘just stick to your game and a goal will come’ because they don’t seem to know what the game is.
Over the past two months the players have done what Rangick has asked of them. They’ve sacrificed parts of their game as the team shifted to being built around Ronaldo, only to watch Ronaldo too often not come through. They’ve tolerated the manager’s constant tweaking of their positions or roles only to watch the manager steadfastly refuse to move away from a single pivot that’s so obviously not working. They were ready to buy in to Ralf Rangnick, but they’re not getting Ralf Rangnick.