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Tactical Analysis: Kobbie Mainoo provides answers to a lot of questions

Kobbie Mainoo was sensational in his long awaited debut, but didn’t solve United’s problems...

Everton FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Sunday at Goodison Park featured a matchup between the second-best team in the league in preventing opponents from creating good scoring chances (xG per shot against) and the 17th-best team at creating quality scoring chances from open play. That wasn’t the storyline heading into the match. Instead, it was Manchester United, the Premier League’s form team thanks to a cushy schedule, facing an Everton side who just got hit with a 10-point deduction for breaching the Premier League’s financial stability laws.

On a day where everything could have gone wrong for an injury-ravaged Manchester United, everything went right. The Red Devils turned out their biggest win of the Premier League campaign Sunday behind two kids whose combined age is merely two years older than one Jonny Evans.

Just over two minutes into the game 19-year-old Alejandro Garnacho got everyone out of their seats with a sensational bicycle kick that will surely be one of the finalists for goal of the season.

It’s a goal so good we should see it twice.

And I’m sure you’ll see it no fewer than 300 more times between now and the end of the season

Following Garnacho’s goal, the spotlight belonged to another teenager. 18-year old Kobbie Mainoo made his full Premier League debut and immediately brought both a calmness and dynamism to United’s midfield that the club has been lacking since the days of Michael Carrick.

Mainoo didn’t do anything technically outstanding or provide any skills on the ball that few players could have. What made Mainoo stand out was how excellent he was at doing very simple and basic things, and how consistently he did them.

Two minutes into the match Mainoo did something that few United midfielders have done this season. With the ball at the feet of United’s center backs, Mainoo drops between the Everton line to provide a central pass.

Mainoo receives the pass facing United’s goal. United have made this pass several times this season and every single time the next pass has gone either back to Andre Onana or back to one of the center backs.

Mainoo doesn’t do that. Instead, he waited for a beat, then he waited for another beat, and then he realized he’s got time so rather than forcing a pass backward, he turned around and fired a pass up the pitch.

20 seconds later the ball was in the back of the Everton net. Good things happen when you do simple things in midfield.

A few minutes later it was more of the same. With the ball at the feet of Andre Onana, Mainoo comes back to give him an option right between the Everton attackers.

Abdoulaye Doucouré moves to close him down as soon as the pass is made, but rather than panic and make a quick safe back pass, Mainoo knows he still has enough time to turn forward. Once he turns forward he has the presence of mind to scan around and see what he can do with the ball. His immediate options, Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay are covered. But rather than forcing a pass, he takes what the defense gives him, charging forward with the ball until a potential through ball opens up for him.

This all seems like simple basic stuff, yet no other United midfielder has shown the ability to do this. Contrast the above with loanee Sofyan Amrabat when he found himself in a similar situation in the second half.

Andre Onana rolls a pass out to Amrabat who receives it on the half turn.

Amrabat already has a head start on Mainoo in that he’s not completely facing his own goal. He should be able to glance over his shoulder and see that while he may not have passing options, he has plenty of space to turn forward. Doing that will either force one of the midfielders to close him down and thus open up either Bruno or McTominay, or he could drive forward while looking for another pass.

But Amrabat never even looks over his shoulder. He takes one touch to stop the ball and then fires a back pass to Victor Lindelof.

What stood out for Mainoo was his ability to understand time and space. He knows exactly how much time he has on the ball and more importantly, his internal clock is correctly calibrated. Too often United players know they may have two seconds before they have to get rid of the ball, but their internal clock moves too quickly. They think 1.25 seconds is actually two seconds and they rush to get rid of the ball too quickly. When Mainoo has two seconds, he knows how long two seconds is.

His composure allows him to look at what’s in front of him and take what the defense gives you. Even if his preferred option isn’t there, he doesn’t panic, he doesn’t force things. He moves around to open up new options.

A nothing sequence 40 minutes into the game was a great example of this understanding. Mainoo gets the ball and fires a pass out wide to Marcus Rashford.

Often when United midfielders have made this pass this season, they followed it by either barging forward, dropping back towards the CB, or not moving at all. Mainoo does none of those things. Rather he understands how the defense is going to shift, he needs to keep moving to give Rashford a follow-up pass, but only a little bit.

Rashford plays the easy ball back to Mainoo, but when he receives it, he has no passing options in front of him.

Mainoo also has a man closing him down from behind, so stopping and trying to turn to make a back pass isn’t an option either. Instead, he takes what the defense gives him and drives forward. The result is Rashford’s man leaving him while Mainoo gets close enough to Dalot that he can make an easy pass and have Dalot subsequently make another simple pass to Rashford to allow United to recycle possession.

Mainoo was active off the ball as well, doing many of the things that will catch your eye as a fan watching the game. He defended 1v1 well.

While his ability to read the game led him to be in the perfect position to make a goal-line clearance to preserve United’s lead in the first half.

Mainoo ended up in the 1v1 situation from above thanks to his awareness as well. United’s attacking system requires Diogo Dalot to bomb forward and often be one of the furthest players forward. When United turns the ball over he’s obviously going to be out of position, but too often this season United’s midfielders haven’t covered for him.

On Sunday when Dalot was caught out, Mainoo was right there filling at right back, giving United protection on the flanks while Dalot dropped back into midfield to cover for Mainoo.

Mainoo came off after 71 minutes having touched the ball 57 times. That’s just nine fewer touches than Bruno Fernandes achieved over 90 minutes and 20 more than Scott McTominay. His replacement Sofyan Amrabat had 10 touches in 19 minutes, which extrapolates to 37 touches over the equivalent 71 minutes.

Mainoo’s passing stats weren’t anything to write home about. He finished with three progressive passes and only made two passes into the final third. Just 57.14 percent of his pass attempts were forwards, lower than each of United midfielder’s season averages besides Christian Eriksen. But the numbers aren’t of any concern, this Mainoo’s debut, where it was more important to show that he could hold his own rather than light the world on fire.

More importantly, Mainoo’s role isn’t about having sensational numbers, it’s about providing a modicum of control in midfield and facilitating the ball moving from the back lines of defense forward to the attackers. The best ones at this job are usually the ones who do the most simple things, and their numbers don’t often stand out.

Mainoo’s performance answered several questions for United. First and foremost he is the type of midfielder United have been crying out for. At least on his day he is, it’s important to remember he’s only 18 his performances will most likely have some inconsistency.

What’s more important - or rather more concerning - is what Mainoo answered in terms of the bigger picture. Mainoo’s performance showed that United’s issues this year go beyond, just missing that one player. This is a structural issue.

Last week The Busby Babe highlighted how average United have been in many different metrics this season. Some excuses as to why that has been thrown out such as the amount of injuries - particularly to Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw - and the lack of a midfielder like Kobbie Mainoo.

On Sunday United were boosted by the return of the player they’ve been missing most this season, left back Luke Shaw. Shaw wasn’t bad in his return but was hardly effective either. He touched the ball just 45 times in 75 minutes, a far cry from the 75 touches per 90 he averaged (in two games) this season or the 84.22 he averaged last season.

Shaw’s value was to help United in their buildup on the left side and, once the ball gets forward, offer some more creativity, but he didn’t do much of either. He had just two progressive passes and one progressive carry. Shaw’s ability to overlap should create space on the left wing for Alejandro Garnacho, but Shaw never overlapped. He took just seven touches in the final third, and these were the only two that were anywhere close to the Everton box.

Then there’s Mainoo. Mainoo put in by far the best performance by a United midfielder all season. He showed that he is exactly the kind of player United have been missing in midfield. And guess what? United were still terrible.

Despite having that midfielder who is press resistant, has composure on the ball, and can move the ball forward, United couldn’t move the ball forward. United only entered the final third 27 times. Their 38 progress actions (passes + carries) were both the second lowest of the season (both behind Burnley away) and the second lowest of the Ten Hag era against a non-top six team.

53.85 percent of United’s touches came in their own third on Sunday, by far the highest ratio of the season, while only against Arsenal was their ratio of touches in the attacking third lower than Sunday’s 16.2 percent. In other words, United failed to move the ball between the lines.

United started four of their best five ball-playing defensive players, along with their most press-resistant midfielder, and were completely flummoxed by Everton’s press. As Everton ramped things up midway through the first half, United quickly began getting overwhelmed. By halftime, United had managed just one shot from open play - Garnacho’s goal two and a half minutes in - and were being outshot 10-2 with Everton racking up 1.45 xG compared to United’s 0.1. United were only ahead thanks to Everton being horrific and Alejandro Garnacho doing the sensational.

Everton ultimately caused 11 high turnovers, with four of them ending in a shot. This was the fifth time in 13 games United allowed 10 or more completed passes within 20 yards of their own goal and the 27th time it’s happened in the Ten Hag era. It only happened 27 times total in the previous four seasons.

United entered the match 11th in the league in expected goal difference. After Sunday they still sit 11th, yet despite winning a penalty their expected goal difference per 90 still got worse. They ultimately conceded 24 shots and 2.5 xG to an Everton side that would have entered the game 14th if not for the points deduction. Not good by any stretch of the imagination.

None of this is the fault of Shaw or Mainoo. Their inclusion made it clear that the problem lies in the team’s structure. One (or two) players can’t make a difference if the entire structure around you is terrible. United have had issues with their buildup structure all season long.

They’ve struggled to get the ball through that first line of defense. On Sunday, Kobbie Mainoo showed that he could be a solution to that problem. But what happened when he broke that line? He still had no options ahead of him!

What’s becoming more clear every single week is their players are not being utilized to the best of their ability, leading to underperformance across the board. They created two high-quality chances against Everton, converting one while also getting a once-in-a-season goal, at the expense of allowing several chances to be created against them. The system has weaknesses that everyone in the league knows how to exploit, the only question is who is good enough to do it.

United have won eight of 13 matches this year. The average position in the table of those eight teams is 15.12 - (and for the purposes of this question Everton was considered to be in 14th place). They have not beaten a single team in the top half of the table.

Six of United’s next seven games are against opponents who currently sit in the top half. United may have scored three goals against Everton but if they continue to play like that December can easily become a bloodbath. United have the players now, they need to get their act together.

Only time will tell if they can actually do that, but at the very least, Kobbie Mainoo is gonna be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.