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Tactical Analysis: When football is neither good nor bad

Manchester United weren’t at their best against Leeds, but they weren’t bad either.

Leeds United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

In today’s world of obsession and micro analysis everything becomes so definitive. If something’s not right, it’s wrong. If it’s not good, it’s bad.

Reality is more complicated then that and that holds true for football as well. Football isn’t black and white. There’s so many shades of gray in between. Not good necessarily mean bad and not bad doesn’t automatically mean something was good. Of course that would be the case in football, a football match itself isn’t binary. You don’t win or lose a football match, rather you can win, lose, or draw.

In football if you’re bad you’ll probably lose, but if you’re not bad that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. To win you need to score some goals, which either requires your opponent to be bad and make mistakes or more likely for you to be good and force the issue yourself. In the perfect world, both teams would try to be good and more often then not the team with better players will score more goals and win.

That’s where football gets even more complicated. Different teams will come into the same match with a different definition of what’s “good.” Two out of the three possible results could be good for one team with only one of the three results being good for the other. That’s going to influence the tactics of the match.

This scenario was the backdrop for Manchester United’s trip to Elland Road on Sunday as they took on Leeds for the second time in four days.

This was not Manchester United’s best match of the season. Far from it. You can argue United weren’t even good in this match and I wouldn’t try to stop you. The question I focused on was, why were they so bad? Turns out that match scenario had a lot to do with it.

Coming off a (surprising?) 2-2 draw midweek, the pressure was all on Manchester United in this match. For Leeds a win far from expected while second draw would be a great result. Thus two of the three potential results would be good results for Leeds, and their tactics reflected that.

As soon as the opening whistle blew, Leeds had their point. Now the (far-easier-said-than-done) only thing left to do is hold on to that result. If United make a mistake and give you a chance, or you can nick one on a set piece, that’s a wonderful bonus, but ultimately Leeds only had to worry about half the game. They don’t need to score to get what they came for, therefore, they don’t need to be good. They can devote all their energy to just preventing United from being good.

On Wednesday, Leeds came out and aggressively pressed everyone on United’s back line except for Raphael Varane, whom they let have the ball content that he wouldn’t hurt them. United manager Erik Ten Hag recalled Harry Maguire with the idea being the Englishman’s superior on-ball skills, while getting Varane out of the firing line and giving him a rest before he comes back in against Barcelona.

But Leeds made a change too. Rather than pressing aggressively and risking tiring out in the second half again, they sat off all of United’s defenders and focused on cutting off any passes into the middle.

Here as Maguire has the ball Leeds give him space while sitting right on central midfielders Marcel Sabitzer and Fred.

If you try to make the pass to Fred, the two players can quickly close him down so he doesn’t have time to turn. Thus he’s forced into just passing it backwards.

Even when one of the fullbacks like Tyrell Malacia would tuck inside to midfield, Leeds were focused on blocking off those passing lanes.

Here United have already crossed midfield but look at how many players are plugging the midfield for Leeds. Fred and Sabitzer are completely surrounded by five Leeds players, while Tyler Adams is also blocking any potential direct pass to Bruno Fernandes. Shaw can try a long looping pass to Jadon Sancho out wide, but that’ll take time to get there and by the time it does, he won’t be open anymore.

Rather than trying to win the ball back and create opportunities for themselves, Leeds were more than content to let United have the ball at the back. United weren’t going to score from there while Leeds themselves didn’t care about scoring goals, their whole game plan was built around not letting United do what they wanted to do.

Leeds’ plan was to deny the ball to United’s three most dangerous players, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, and Jadon Sancho. By sitting off United’s defenders but denying the midfield the ball they were forcing United to go up the outside. If you force the ball to move up the touchline that means the wingers have to receive it with their backs to goal and then try to turn, they’re far less dangerous than if the pass comes from the middle of the pitch and they can receive it either facing inward or facing the opponents goal.

Even when United tried to mitigate this defense Leeds weren’t biting.

Take a look as again Leeds have a four man box surrounding Sabitzer. Bruno Fernandes has dropped a bit deeper but Tyler Adams is blocking any direct pass. But notice Tyrell Malacia tucking into midfield.

There’s no way for Maguire to get the ball to him directly. In an ideal world (see below:) you would want one of Leeds’ front two to step out and pressure Maguire. That would enable him to slip a pass to Fred and now with only one man on him the hope would be he’d able to turn and make the pass to Malacia, who then can turn up field.

But Leeds never gave United that option. Instead they just sat, banking on United getting frustrated enough that they’d start to take risks. When you face a side as disciplined as Leeds was, there’s only two ways you’re going to beat them. Either they’re going to make a mistake, or you need to start taking risks.

That occurred here when Leeds are again clogging up the midfield. It seems that Maguire’s only option is to go out wide or play it square to Shaw, which will just start the whole process again.

Instead Maguire opts to take a risk. He decides to thread the needle with a pass between two Leeds players to Sabitzer, who catches it and is able to turn up field. Now United can start moving and running with the ball. But even when you take risks, everything need to be perfect, and ultimately this is not.

Leeds want United to take those risks because eventually some of those risks aren’t going to come off. That’s when Leeds will get opportunities. Here Tyrell Malacia pushes way up the pitch, leaving Maguire again with no good options in front of him.

Maguire opts for the riskier pass directly to Malacia, but doesn’t get enough on it and it gets intercepted.

And with Malacia very out of position, Leeds now have an opportunity to attack.

Erik Ten Hag’s attempt to mitigate things was unconventional to say the least. After an hour he replaced Jadon Sancho with Alejandro Garnacho, but moved Rashford up top while target man and ‘classic number 9’ Wout Weghorst was moved to the number 10 role.

The logic is pretty straightforward. Weghorst is the best United player at receiving with his back to goal and actually holding the ball up and maintaining possession in those situations. Since United coudln’t get the ball all the way to the last line, why not drop him deeper so you can get him on the ball and slowly work the ball up the pitch? Ten Hag essentially turned back the clock and put United in a 4-4-2 with the classic tall guy/fast guy partnership up top.

Ten Hag’s switch played a role in United taking the lead but nevertheless had Leeds stayed disciplined it may have all been for naught. As Leeds were going for a draw, all they had to do was avoid making any mistakes and they’d get their result. For United, they needed to be ready to take advantage of any potential Leeds slip-up. They were ready.

United’s goal starts the same way as nearly the rest of the match. Maguire has the ball, Sabitzer drops deep to make a back three, but Maguire has nowhere to go but out wide. But there’s something different this time. Notice how many Leeds players are in the frame. It’s not nearly as many as it used to be.

Maguire gives the ball to Sabitzer and with Leeds having less players clogging the middle, the Austrian takes the opportunity to run forward with the ball. Now we can see Leeds next line of defense, it’s no longer a five man box. It’s a flat midfield line.

Given the flat line, Sabitzer is able to fire a pass between Adams and Weston McKennie to a dropping Wout Weghorst. Even though McKennie and Adams move to close him down as soon as he gets the ball it’s too late, Weghorst lays it off to Fred and suddenly United have reset their starting point 30 yards further up the pitch.

It seems like nothing. The ball comes back to Sabitzer and once again Leeds have everything all blocked up. There’s almost no option ahead of Sabitzer other than a long pass out wide to Shaw which will take time to get there. Everything else is well covered.

Sabitzer makes that choice, and by the time Shaw receives the ball, he’s no longer open. Neither is anyone else. Now it’s just about good players doing really good things, and the help of another another slip up from Leeds.

Shaw uses his body to drive forward even with a man on him, while Rashford tussles with Luke Ayling to try and get free. That’s when the next slip up happens. Leeds defender Robin Koch ends up in no mans land. He’s not in position to do anything to stop a cross and he’s too far over to notice Weghorst making a near post run. That leaves Ayling having to cover two players and when Rashford gets behind him Ayling gets distracted by Weghorst leaving Rashford alone to head in an inch perfect cross.

The underlying numbers in this match were not good. But they also gave you a good indication of where to look to get the story of the match.

Usually when you see numbers like this your first thought is, one team had control but were vulnerable to counter attacks leading to high percentage chances. That wasn’t what happened in this one so the next thing to do is check the set pieces.

Leeds’ best opportunity came three minutes into the match when Diogo Dalot made a good defensive play... if he ensured that the ball rolled out of play. Instead he gets beat to the ball and United have to scramble.

That account for two of Leeds’ 13 shots from inside the box. Of the remaining 11 shots, eight came from set pieces and accounted for half of Leeds’ xG (0.9 of 1.8). An individual mistake could have been costly but wasn’t indicative of the overall flow of the match.

This was a side that wasn’t playing its first choice XI against a team whose primary objective was “don’t let our opponent be good.” It’s natural for United to not be good in this match given the players available. There’s certainly a fear that further teams will employ similar tactics, and without Christian Eriksen, it has the potential to cause United problems. Then again, no other team has Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, two midfielders who are perfect fits for this tactic.

Ultimately this is a very good win for United. If you want to compete on multiple fronts, you’re not going to have your top players available every single match. There’s going to be games where you need to rotate your squad. The guys coming in have their strengths but limitations to, and given those limitations you may not be able to play the way you want to play. You may not be able to do the things you want to do! Fighting through that to still get three points in those matches is the type of resilliance that good teams possess.