Manchester United suffered a frustrating evening in southern Spain, with Granada evidently set up to limit damage in the first-leg of their Europa League encounter and give themselves the best chance of scraping through the tie.
Having conceded the most goals in La Liga and endured heavy defeats to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, coach Diego Martinez adopted a more pragmatic approach vs United in this quarter-final matchup. Throughout, Granada focused on both preventing United from playing forward, and diligently defending their penalty area, offering little in attack themselves. Aside from United’s moment of quality for the first goal, Granada’s tactics largely proved effective.
Cutting Supply Lines
The Spaniards’ gameplan centred on cutting off supply to the influential Bruno Fernandes and United’s other electric forwards, mainly by targeting the double pivot of Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay. Applying pressure on the duo forced a more patient buildup from United since penetrative passes through the lines were tough to execute. Despite setting up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 formation in their mid-block, Granada were extremely keen to squeeze up the pitch whenever possible, morphing into an aggressive 4-1-4-1 where Pogba and McTominay were closely tracked in a man-for-man system.
In the below example, Granada squeeze up as the ball is played into McTominay (white circle), creating a ‘bowl’ shape around the ball to prevent forward progression by United (orange lines).
With McTominay facing his own goal, the Granada players’ press is triggered. Angel Montoro (#19) harries McTominay – ensuring he cannot turn and play the ball forward, whilst the eager Yangel Herrera (#21) advances, anticipating a pass in front of Harry Maguire.
Ultimately, this forces McTominay to pass behind his captain, who must chase backwards to retrieve the ball – as seen below in photo three. Montoro and Herrera are now in front of United’s pivot players, thus preventing a ball into them.
As such, Granada forced United both back into their own third, and to play the ball out to the opposite side. This tactic slowed United’s buildup, relieved pressure on Granada, and most importantly, prevented United’s dangerous forward players receiving the ball.
As expected, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United attempted to circumvent this issue by pushing the fullbacks on – thus stretching the pitch laterally and increasing the distance Granada would have to cover to press effectively. Granada were reluctant to push beyond United’s fullbacks when pressing (since bypassing the press becomes incredibly easy), resulting in a large amount of space for United’s central defenders and pivot players to get on the ball.
Below, one can see this in action: Granada’s midfield four holding their line across the pitch, reluctant to push beyond Aaron Wan-Bissaka (white circle). Herrera (#21) is once again ready to spring out if Maguire passes to Pogba, who smartly runs forwards to increase space and time on the ball for those behind him.
As McTominay receives the pass from Maguire, he now has space in front of him into which he can carry. Also, notice Wan-Bissaka on the far side (white circle), who has advanced forward and now commands the attention of Kenedy (Granada left-winger) who is facing toward him, ready to apply pressure if McTominay passes.
This is crucial from Wan-Bissaka, as Kenedy is now focused on him rather than screening passes into United’s forwards.
With Kenedy distracted, a gap has opened in Granada’s midfield. Mason Greenwood was alive to the opportunity, and drops in, allowing him to receive and turn into the enormous space between the lines (blue circle). Once into these spaces between the lines, United are so often dangerous.
Below, the last image in the series shows McTominay releasing the pass, slotting it through to Greenwood as he drops in. Notice how Maxime Gonalons (#4) is tracking Fernandes, whilst Herrera is still close to Pogba – this is why Greenwood is able to receive and turn into so much space in a dangerous area.
Thus, United smartly used Granada’s pressing structure against them: exploiting their man-for-man marking in midfield (leaving space), and their unwillingness to push beyond United’s fullbacks when pressing (giving time on the ball).
Lack of Quality Costly
Although United did figure out how to break down Granada, a poor first touch or sloppy play cost United. In many situations like the second example above, United’s forwards miscontrolled the ball, took a loose touch, or simply failed to turn and look forward. Consequently many potential opportunities were spurned before they could become dangerous, and United were scarcely able to create clear-cut chances.
As so often for Manchester United this season, poor execution proved our largest obstacle. A 2-0 away victory is a good result nonetheless, and with a better performance at home, the gulf in quality between the sides should be more apparent on the scoreboard.