Manchester United drew 0-0 with Leeds United on Sunday in the Premier League, in their first visit to Elland Road since September 2011.
Despite a disappointing, and perhaps anticlimactic performance and result from United’s perspective, there were a few tactical elements which had evidently been worked on in the build-up to the match, which was refreshing to see.
This article will analyse those elements, predominantly focusing on how United attempted to expose Leeds’ man-orientated defensive approach.
Leeds are well renowned for their man marking approach out of possession. Man-orientation is predicated on forcing difficult reception for the opponent, with the overall objective of forcing turnovers.
The man marking approach naturally results in both teams having the spare man in the defensive line. From a defensive perspective, it is deemed the least dangerous position to concede inferiority (2v1 in this case).
This often granted United centre-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf time and space in deep possession. This presented opportunities to drive forward with the ball from deep which allowed United to gain territory and attack further up the pitch.
This was optimised when the double pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred rotated away from their normal, central positions to open space for the centre-backs to drive into and gain territory. This was most prominent when McTominay drifted wider or more central, pulling his marker with him, to open space for Lindelöf to carry the ball forward, unpressured.
This summarises why man-marking in general is, despite being aggressive, extremely reactive rather than proactive. The defensive team never really has control over the opponent because the movement of the defenders solely depends on the movement of the attackers.
As a result, the defensive team become susceptible to space creation via positional rotation and movement of the offensive team.
This essentially granted United’s centre-backs, Lindelöf in particular, greater time and space in possession before being pressured and ultimately moving possession on.
To combat this, Leeds often rotated their front three central players (Bamford, Dallas and Roberts) to eventually apply pressure to the ball carrier and prevent simple progression.
Despite this, United maintained their central overload (4v3 – two centre-backs & double pivot) and often found the spare man to progress the ball. Finding the spare man is a ubiquitous aspect of build-up play in general; in the example below, Lindelof attracts pressure being the ball carrier, and finds the spare man in McTominay to progress the ball.
Not only did the extra space granted by the positioning of the double pivot allow for ball carries into Leeds’ half, it also presented opportunities to progress the ball into our forwards dropping deep.
This was most prominently manifested by Mason Greenwood who dropped deep to facilitate ball progression throughout. It was evident that this was something worked on in the week building up to the match, with the aim of dragging a Leeds defender out with him in order to create space in behind. The performance of Anthony Martial in the reverse fixture would have been a template to build from.
However, United’s forwards often struggled to cope with the immediate rear pressure upon reception of the ball (the paramount of man marking), and consequently, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men struggled to sustain possession in advanced areas which ultimately resulted in a lack of chance creation throughout the match.
Time and space are the two elements which can ultimately exploit the lack of coverage from a defensive team, and this was evident when Lindelöf looked for the curved runs of Marcus Rashford.
With all progressive options marked tightly by an opposite number, it can be difficult to sustain possession in the opponents half (as aforementioned), due to the immediate and constant pressure that the ball receiver is placed under.
Therefore, United seeked to play direct in order to escape it, exploiting the space in behind Leeds’ high defensive line. The home team were relatively compact out of possession, but lacked effective coverage of dangerous space, as there was often significant space between their goalkeeper and their defensive line.
This was manifested by Rashford’s curved runs between the opposition full-back and centre-back when the Swedish centre-back had deep, unpressured possession.
Rashford has improved the timing and execution of these runs in recent weeks, which makes them more noticeable. He is developing a good understanding with Victor Lindelöf, arguably United’s most capable passer in defence. This route of chance creation gave United a foothold in their Europa League quarter-final win against Granada.
The direct option can be quite the weapon because it gives United a different dynamic when building from deep against a compact defensive block which begins relatively high up the pitch.
It also negates our build-up problems at times, and also allows the team to gain territory and move up as a unit, even if the long pass fails to result in a shot on goal or a chance created.
There were also rehearsed patterns of play, which aimed to disorientate the man marking system; these often worked but lacked cutting edge after entering the final third.
From on offensive perspective, that is how to break down man-orientation. Dragging players out of space, and exploiting it with runners (positional rotations and combinations).
These patterns often involved one of the double pivot, predominantly McTominay, breaking into the space created by a forward dropping deep.
Essentially, United were trying to create up-back-through combinations, with the ‘through’ being the first touch of the third man (McTominay). The example below manifests this.
It was evident that United had worked on drawing defenders away from their positions, and exploiting it via McTominay, who is powerful in his strides; we have see him make runs beyond forwards and into the box this season when given the license to join attacks.
However, again the execution of this relies on technical security under pressure, which we struggled to cope with on a consistent basis, meaning it was largely idea over execution. The principle was there, and it was evidently worked on, which was refreshing to see.
Another aspect which seemed to be predetermined was our throw-ins. Over the last few years, we have seen the growth of practicing and rehearsing throw-ins; it highlights the multidimensional nature of football.
Throw-ins are arguably easier to coach than open play patterns because it is essentially a dead ball, which ultimately means it’s an environment which can be controlled and rehearsed in detail.
It is much easier than coaching transitional moments, as these are very context dependent.
United had clearly practiced and rehearsed a variety of throw-ins in order to exploit Leeds’ man-orientation; the following sequence of images illustrates the most effective example of these routines.
In summary, despite the result, certain elements of the performance highlight the difference a week off, i.e., no Europa League fixture, can have on the performance from a tactical perspective.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has often spoken about the lack of tactical work that can be done on the training ground due to the fixture congestion this season, especially after Europa League fixtures on a Thursday evening.
This simply means there is not enough time to implement tactical features in preparation for the next Premier League game due to the emphasis that is placed on the recovery of players, again exacerbated due to the ludicrous fixture congestion this season.
From a results perspective, United have dealt with this problem relatively well, but it is noticeable in performances.
Despite an underwhelming performance in general which lacked sustained attacks and chance creation, this article hopefully highlighted the refreshing tactical elements that were on show, and clearly practiced and rehearsed in the week leading up to the match in accordance with the opponent.