This article will attempt to provide a holistic comparison of Manchester United’s wide dynamics this season.
It will focus on the various elements that are present depending on personnel, discussing advantages and drawbacks, whilst also presenting potential adjustments in order to improve all round performance out wide.
It is important to note that this article focuses solely on the wide dynamics in possession, ignoring the dynamics out of possession to a large extent.
Firstly, a wide dynamic in general consists of not only the starting wide players (i.e., full-back and winger in United’s 4231), but all players whose actions contribute to the dynamic, most prominently the players who are positioned close by, and/or players who have a tendency to drift across to support the dynamic, hence the decision not to categorise each section via personnel. The wide dynamics rely on a multitude of factors, and therefore, it is more a team dynamic rather than a two-player relationship.
It makes logical sense to begin by focusing on build-up play, which typically originates from around the half-way line against mid/low blocks as they place emphasis on protecting dangerous space rather than committing to a high press.
It is evident that our build-up play in general benefits greatly from the creation of a back three; the difference it causes down the right hand side is significant.
The back three is typically created when one member of the double pivot drops in between, or to one side of the two centre-backs.
It is largely beneficial on the right because it grants Aaron Wan-Bissaka the opportunity to begin higher and wider, which in turn, means we are less reliant on him to progress the ball from deep, an area where he has shown vulnerability under pressure this season.
Thus, via the creation of a back three, we are more reliant on these players to progress the ball, most prominently the wide centre-backs (perhaps temporarily). The wide centre-backs differ depending on which member of the double pivot drops into the first line of attack.
Typically when Scott McTominay is on the pitch, he drops to the right of the defence (McTominay, Lindelof, Maguire from right to left), whereas when Nemanja Matic is present, he typically drops to the left of defence (Lindelof, Maguire, Matic from right to left).
The personnel which forms the back three makes minimal difference for ball progression down the right, it is more prominently the structure which enhances United’s build-up play. This is largely because the creation of a back three facilitates greater access to the half-spaces, where relationships and combinations can be established.
This allows Mason Greenwood to begin in a more narrow position, which in turn, encourages combination play with the right centre-back, Wan-Bissaka and also either the centre forward (most prominently Edinson Cavani) or Bruno Fernandes, who have shown tendencies to drift across to support progression.
However on the left, it is more advantageous for Matic to create the back three, largely due to the fact he is left-footed, and therefore naturally has greater access to inside (Rashford) and outside (Shaw) passes.
Whereas, Maguire has a greater tendency to play wide to the full-back, given that he naturally carries the ball with this right foot, meaning that a pass into the half-space is more unnatural, and therefore more difficult to execute.
Matic naturally has greater access to both wide and inside passes, meaning that our wide play down the left is essentially more dynamic and unpredictable, and therefore more difficult to defend, when he slots into defence to create a back three.
Rashford typically starts in the half-space, whilst Shaw operates wide, however, our progression down the left flank was optimal against Crystal Palace when both Rashford and Shaw began wide because it created more central space for Rashford to move into.
The double wide positioning essentially forced Crystal Palace to protect progression into the wide areas, and therefore the ball side wide midfielder positioned himself wider to protect the wide space and prevent progression into Shaw/Rashford.
However, this presented a gap between the ball side wide midfielder and the ball side central midfielder (the half-space), which allowed Rashford to move inside and receive from Matic; in turn, this attracted the full-back who jumped out to Rashford. However, on the blindside of the wide midfielder, Shaw began his movement down the flank, where he was immediately found via Rashford’s flick.
When Paul Pogba is selected on the left, the dynamic during our build-up play is extremely different. The Frenchman usually operates close to the touchline when we have deep possession on the left, and this is predominantly because his stature facilitates simple progression down the flank because he can hold the ball up despite difficult reception which allows us to gain territory.
Pogba also gives us a different, and perhaps greater dynamic from goal kicks when playing from the left.
He essentially acts as a wide target man which allows us to go long on occasions rather than persisting with progressing from deep, which adds an element of unpredictability.
His stature ultimately allows him to win duels, which in turn, allows United to gain territory and flip the opponent, and therefore attack the space behind the opposition’s midfield.
This also temporarily negates our issues in build-up as Pogba allows us to skip that particular phase and move up the pitch.
However, with aerial duels comes the risk of losing second balls and eventually conceding possession. To maximise the potential advantages of the direct ball towards Pogba, the objective seems to be to bait the opponent into pressing (i.e., starting higher) by setting up as if to play short (i.e., centre-backs split on byline, full-backs deep and wide), only to flip them via the long ball and eliminate their midfield.
However, this ultimately means when Pogba fails to win the aerial duel, there is copious space between our units (deep defence, high attack) which results in the opponent rapidly gaining territory and attacking the final third.
The dynamic alters when Daniel James is our right winger. He typically begins wider, to create a double wide structure with Wan-Bissaka, which has advantages but also significant drawbacks.
James starting wider forces Wan-Bissaka to begin deeper, which as aforementioned, forces us to rely on his progression from deep. However, James looks to drop deep on the touchline to receive, which essentially gives Wan-Bissaka a simple pass down the line, if the opponent presses in to out (most do in order to guide possession into wide areas).
However, the double wide format is quite easy to constrain from a defensive perspective because Wan-Bissaka and James are relatively uncomfortable in tight spaces, and this is exacerbated by the fact they operate close to the touchline, meaning they are susceptible to the archetypal touchline press.
It is quite difficult to accomplish effective spacing between Wan-Bissaka and James because the latter is uncomfortable in more central areas, which ultimately forces one of our other attacking players (predominantly Fernandes, sometimes the centre-forward) to drift across to support the dynamic, which in turn results in deficient box presence.
Rashford, however, offers greater distribution from deep when playing on the right. Similarly to James, he drops deep to receive and gives Wan-Bissaka a simple pass down the touchline.
However, Rashford ultimately possesses greater confidence and ability in possession, and therefore enhances United’s progression down the right.
His deep movements have encouraged a rotation down the right hand side with Bruno Fernandes. Rashford drops deep, in turn, dragging the opposition full-back forward and out of position, which creates space for Fernandes to drive into and receive from Wan-Bissaka.
This is most effective against man-orientation (in order to drag the defender forward), which highlights how the opponent, and their defensive strategy specifically, can impact how the wide dynamic is manifested.
The focus will now turn to wide combination play, which has been referred to previously because build-up essentially results in combinations and link-up play to progress the ball. However, the focus is predicated on combination play in the final third.
Firstly, although it appears obvious, the addition of a third man typically enhances the combination play on both flanks.
The personnel largely depends on context, although Bruno Fernandes as aforementioned has a great tendency to drift into wide areas and therefore he often acts as the third man, predominantly on the left, but also on the right. Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay have also shown tendencies to support wide areas.
The addition of a third man essentially makes our wide play less predictable, more dynamic and therefore more difficult to defend. This is because, from a defensive perspective, it is difficult to constantly apply pressure to all players within the wide dynamic when constant rotation is occurring.
Rotation can often drag defenders out of position and ultimately results in the opposition conceding space, which is why the third man is so effective. It also encourages the conventional ‘up, back and through’ combination.
However, this only occurs, or is only optimal, when the players follow through with their movements in wide areas.
Wan-Bissaka’s tendency to stop his run (overlap or underlap) before dragging his marker away from the vacated space accentuates this on the right hand side.
This is a fundamental problem and is often the reason behind our stagnant possession in wide areas. Predominantly, when making a run, you move to create greater space and time for the ball carrier or ball receiver, rather than actually to receive the ball yourself.
Failure to do this results in a more compact wide zone which ultimately makes it easier for the defensive team to constrain.
However, there is great potential in Wan-Bissaka’s underlaps on the right, when he continues his run after not immediately receiving. There have been many examples where his underlaps created space for the ball carrier/ball receiver on the right, most prominently against Everton, where Rashford, the eventual ball receiver, delivered to Edinson Cavani to open the scoring.
Overall, our wide play on the right is much more effective when Wan-Bissaka follows through with his runs, his underlaps in particular.
There also seems to be a lack of understanding of when to rotate on the right hand side, most prominently when Greenwood and/or James contribute to the dynamic.
Specifically, it seems the pair lack understanding of when to move beyond a centre-forward drifting across in order to stretch the opponent and buy more space and time for the ball receiver, which ultimately leads to the area becoming more and more compact.
However, this can be solved fairly easily via repetition of these rotations, which will allow the players to understand the triggers to move in behind/towards the ball.
The understanding that Rashford and Shaw have developed and established on the left hand side has been one of the highlights of the season thus far from a performance perspective.
The English duo combine excellently, and understand where to position themselves which is manifested by the variety in reception (occupying different vertical corridors – Shaw wide, Rashford inside or Rashford wide, Shaw inside) which can confuse opponents.
However, more recently, Pogba from the left has provided Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men with a different dynamic.
Due to the influence and impact he can have on football matches, Pogba plays inside, allowing Shaw to hold width on the left. This essentially allows him to play between the lines, and therefore closer to Bruno Fernandes.
Two world class players in proximity, in dangerous space, is exceedingly difficult to deal with from a defensive perspective. Pogba’s brilliance from the left was evident against Roma.
Although not often, Anthony Martial has also appeared on the left this season when partnered with Luke Shaw or Alex Telles. However, this dynamic has been underwhelming, greatly reducing the threat of our left hand side.
One of the more noticeable reasons for this is that Martial always drops to receive the ball to feet – there is inadequate variance in his movement.
This ultimately makes our dynamic more predictable and therefore it easier to constrain, which is exacerbated when there is no third man runner, because it allows the opponent to congest the area, trap United and force turnovers.
Also, the central positions that Martial takes up when playing on the ‘left’ accentuates the issues.
The dynamic, and the threat specifically, would be greater if Martial began wider. United should aim to isolate him one v one with the opposition full-back, to showcase his exceptional dribbling when running at defenders.
Reception of switches
Another noteworthy aspect of the wide dynamics was that our reception from switches is far from optimal and can be improved on in order to enhance attacks.
We receive switches more frequently on the right, largely because we attack down the left more often. According to WhoScored, United’s attacks originate from the left hand side 42% of the time, which is the 3rd highest in the Premier League.
Ultimately, this is because United are more threatening down the left, predominantly due the relationship that Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford have established this season.
This in turn leaves great amount of space on the right when we force opposition to commit to the ball side (left), which becomes more significant when we commit further numbers (Fernandes, Pogba for example), as the opposition overcommit to deal with the threat.
Our tendency to attack down the left is exacerbated when Matic and Fred form the double pivot. A double left-footed pivot naturally results in a greater volume of passes towards the left, rather than the right.
Even though this essentially makes us more predictable and therefore somewhat easier to constrain on the left, it does increase the amount of space afforded on the right, and therefore the potential value of a switch is greater.
United seem to be generally too narrow in receiving switches, particularly on the right. This is suboptimal because when forcing the opponent to commit to the ball side, you need to exploit the space on the far side quickly to avoid the opposition shuttling across in time and therefore nullifying the space.
Narrow reception of switches, rather than wide, means shorter distance for the opposition to shuttle across due to the lack of horizontal coverage, which is less physically demanding and therefore easier to defend as they can apply pressure to the ball carrier in a shorter space of time.
The narrow positioning typically means upon reception of switches, Greenwood and Wan-Bissaka are occupying the same vertical line, which again, is far from idyllic.
This is probably because Wan-Bissaka sits in a narrow position in order to aid a potential defensive transition following a turnover, and Greenwood operates centrally and thus closer to the goal (more of a goal threat).
However, this often leads to stagnant attacks down the right following switches as it often means Greenwood has to run outside to receive from Wan-Bissaka, which allows the opponent to shuttle across adequately and truncate the space.
To ameliorate our reception upon switches on the right, we should look to keep Wan-Bissaka in a narrow position, with Greenwood on his outside (wider).
Wider positioning on the right will have a positive knock on effect on our wide dynamics in general. United will either have more space to exploit on far side or will prevent the opposition from originally committing heavily to the left side.
The Greenwood wide, Wan-Bisska inside positioning following switches will also facilitate crosses from the former; he has shown improvement in his crossing this season, specifically from the right flank when cutting in on his left foot.
Wan-Bissaka’s narrow and deeper position will afford him the option to either underlap/overlap Greenwood to drag a marker away to create space for the cross, or remain deep and inside to protect us from a potential counter attack. This is largely dependent on the positioning of the opposition, or the game state.
Daniel James is more inclined to stay wide, perhaps due to his lesser goal threat, but this allows the team an outlet on the far side which maintains greater horizontal coverage across the pitch.
We should look for Greenwood to add more variety, and operate in a similar way to James on occasions; hold width until play reaches the 18 yard box, then operate more centrally in order to attack the box.
General offensive play
In more general offensive play, similarly to the concept of goal kicks as aforementioned, Pogba gives us a different dynamic when playing from the left.
He has a tendency to play in proximity with the centre-forward, and therefore, direct balls into the box from deep and sustained crosses from wide areas are more dangerous and ultimately give us a different offensive dynamic.
Manchester United’s number 6 has had a lack of settled time on the left this term (until recently), largely because he is often drawn back to the double pivot in order to enhance ball progression from deep when we are struggling to unlock the opponent. This manifests his quality, to be able to play a variety of roles to such a high level.
However, as mentioned throughout, Pogba on the left essentially prevents Rashford from playing there; he has impressed all season.
Although Rashford on the right is still functional, it is still quite unnatural. His dribbling specifically is much easier to constrain on the right because quite simply, it less dynamic and unpredictable.
This can be developed via repetition in practice, if Solskjær deems Pogba to be a long-term option from the left.
One advantage of Rashford, or James from the right, is their direct counter attacking threat, which is another reason, alongside their work rate out of possession, why they are often selected for fixtures against the top six.
Rashford and James give a greater direct threat on right because they are immediately on their correct foot after reception in the right channel. This typically encourages more direct running, which can manifest itself in rapid transitions.
In summation, Manchester United’s wide dynamics vary depending on many factors, most prominently personnel.
The importance of the opponent also cannot be underestimated. This can impact the team’s approach going into the game, which can manifest itself in the team selection. The most prominent example is the inclusion of Daniel James against top six teams.
This is largely down to his pressing ability, and his work rate out of possession, which ultimately is invaluable against teams who tend to have more possession than us.
Overall, the left side dynamic has been largely impressive this season due to the relationship that Shaw and Rashford have developed over the course of the season. However, Pogba’s recent performances have surely given Solskjær a healthy predicament.
The effectiveness of the right side dynamic is more inconsistent and generally less threatening, which often causes the opponent to commit more to the left side in order to nullify our attacking threat.