Manchester United scored five goals in the second half against Roma in their Europa League clash on Thursday despite not looking particularly dangerous in the first half. This was primarily down to sloppiness in possession which transformed significantly to precise in the second half; however, a crucial tactical element somewhat explains the difference is Roma dropping their wide pressing intensity which allowed Manchester United more time in possession to find holes in between the lines which became increasingly present as Roma’s man-oriented centre backs were manipulated by the juxtaposing movements of vertically stretching attackers Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford and deeper dropping half-space players in Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
Roma pressed in a narrow front four, with their wingers, striker, Edin Džeko and a midfielder pushing forward tracking the player who remained central, whilst another one of United’s midfield dropped into the back three who would be covered by the ball sided winger. Scott McTominay was the player predominately dropping whilst Fred occupied central areas consequently meaning Jordan Veretout prior to his early injury and Gonzalo Villar thereafter was responsible for stepping out in a man-oriented fashion while Amadou Diawara held position.
An interesting individual battle which occurred consequent from Roma’s pressing system was Chris Smalling against Paul Pogba. When Manchester United worked the ball out to the full back, Roma’s wingback, on the right-hand side Rick Karsdorp would pressure, meaning Smalling would have to cover the wider areas occupied by Pogba seeking to aid Luke Shaw. Meanwhile Fred would come wider to support play creating a diamond shape with Harry Maguire at the base, and Pogba at the tip during wide progression. Smalling’s aggressive marking of Pogba was trigged by the ball moving to wide areas creating an inertia period where Villar would be required to cut the more dangerous passing option to Pogba, granting Fred more space temporarily to receive as United had a transitory numerical superiority whilst Roma adjusted.
This structure is what allowed Pogba space to turn into before his goal. The primary strength of man-oriented defending is forcing backwards reception which can allow for pitch compaction as the player in possession has his progressive options nullified, making covering passing options easier as there are fewer available, and the defence is not vertically stretched reducing the space in between the lines. Additionally, coming short to receive which is an intuitive response to help a player needing support serves to increase the chances of a turnover because the opponent tracks, compacting the effective space further, until the player in possession runs into congestion. Below Roma have effectively executed their press as Pogba seems out of options while the space in between the lines is not large enough to facilitate quick link up, which will allow Roma’s players to transform from man-orientation which limited the space through limiting passing options into ball-orientation, swarming Pogba.
Pogba first managed to wriggle out of the congestion, turning Smalling and evading compressing Villar, seemingly moving into another pressing trap being surrounded as Diawara provided contingency support, only to take it past him. This generated the space needed to pass it to Edinson Cavani who linked up quickly with Bruno Fernandes, catching Bryan Cristante flat-footed, creating the first goal. Manchester United therefore used the qualitative superiority of Paul Pogba, who through his press resistance undermined Roma’s man-orientation. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s rationale for playing Pogba on the left could have linked to a potentiality like this one, as when Rashford is on the left the dynamic is predicated to a greater on quick link-up play with Luke Shaw where consistent progression is needed to maintain the transition which would have been difficult to achieve against Roma’s defensive set-up, meaning playing Pogba, who could better hold himself up against an aggressive centre backs made sense from an offensive perspective in addition to the defensive perspective of allowing him into the side alongside a double pivot of Fred and McTominay. In this regard Pogba could act as an outlet in possession to alleviate and play through pressure, although, in the first half particularly this was not always effective.
The transition provoking the penalty was caused from a poor throw-in deep in Roma’s half, in conjunction with poor anticipation from Fred who stood idle while the ball was trickling towards him allowing Lorenzo Pellegrini to jump him. This goal is primarily caused by a proximate event with few detectable underlying tactical issues being present. However, the underlying mental issue of switching off early in games was visible; Aaron Wan-Bissaka carelessly throwing the ball in and Fred being caught ball watching. The response following the transition was good – Maguire showed Džeko down the flank and the team was able to compact after reaching a recovery limit around the box due to good recovery from the midfielders and Wan-Bissaka. Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba were able to ensure no dangerous 2v1 opportunity occurred down the Roma’s right in response to Manchester United’s central compactness, occurring as the initial aim following a transition is to funnel play out wide and protect the most vital areas. An unfortunate, but nonetheless a correctly awarded penalty resulted from a non-dangerous situation (easier to say in hindsight as Pogba would not have been fully aware of how compact the box was) following otherwise good tracking from Pogba.
The first half generally was marked by sloppiness as Manchester United seemed rushed unnecessarily by Roma’s press, which while seeking to disrupt play and pressure deep actors did not feature sufficient intensity to justify some of the errors made in possession – something which was perhaps best encapsulated by Victor Lindelöf shortly before the 28th minute: A misplaced pass after light pressure to a force a decision rather than win possession, which got jumped on by Leonardo Spinazzola, who had forward momentum on Wan-Bissaka expecting backwards reception. In essence, the sloppiness was poor possession quality rather than proficient pressing.
Manchester United’s pressing was not too dissimilar from usual which is detailed more here: Tactical Analysis: An overview of Manchester United’s pressing structure – UtdDistrict as United sought to use ball-side man-orientation to generate turnovers. To summarise, when the ball was with the centre, centre back either Bruno or Cavani would pressure, showing them down a flank through choosing a pressing route which allowed pressure application while simultaneously cutting the lateral passing lane. They would then continue whilst the winger would be within effective pressing distance of the wide centre back and the player in the forward line who was not pressuring the centre back would drop onto the ball-side midfielder. The ball-sided full back would play aggressive on Roma’s wingback while the wide centre back would move out wide onto Roma’s interior player, with the far-side full back creating a back three to facilitate this action. However, when deep, the goalkeeper acted as an extra actor in possession for Roma, upsetting pressing as the deep central pass facilitated the switch to the underloaded side. But, highlighted in the 32nd minute, is the intensity of Cavani often made up for the numerical disadvantage when Roma had the ball deep.
This level of intensity from a forward greatly improves the efficacy of a press such as this as it meant Roma went from overloaded side to overloaded side rather than the desired overloaded to underloaded to transition into space meaning conditions were always conducive for Manchester United’s desired press.
This incidentally was the press prior to Roma’s second goal which worked successfully as Wan-Bissaka generated a turnover through aggressive pressing on Leonardo Spinazzola as Roma were successfully isolated three vs three on the flanks with all passes leading to compacted space. He did however fail to control the turnover resulting in possession returning to Roma who were now able to exploit the space left in behind through Wan-Bissaka’s pressing. Credit should be given to Spinazzola, with Manchester United benefitting greatly from his subsequent injury, as the powerful wing-back was a constant threat from turnovers as being right footed, he was often able to cut inside to expose the underloaded flank and Manchester United’s narrow defensive funnel (how compact the back 4 stay as the ball progresses). In this example he charged down the flank, first beating McTominay with a long touch reception, then pushing Manchester United’s defence deep as Lindelöf and McTominay looked to prevent him from cutting inside onto his stronger foot. This led to an up-back and through sequence for Roma as he managed to recover possession deep. United failed to adjust their defensive line cohesively quickly enough, with the right-hand side pushing up while the left side remained deep leaving Pellegrini onside with acres of space to find Džeko. The left side should have been more alert to the changing circumstances and attempted to play an offside trap in accordance with the ball-oriented right. Additionally, Fred should have scanned better to be more aware of his blind-side as Pellegrini was able to sneak in behind unnoticed.
Another instance which showcased Cavani’s sharpness, and the tactical discipline of United’s pressing occurred just before the 56th minute as Rashford and Cavani become aware of that changing the men they are responsible for makes sense as the ball has been forced out wide, therefore, Cavani had performed his initial pressing role meaning he needs to move onto the opponent’s defensive midfielder as Rashford becomes responsible for the wide centre back whilst Wan-Bissaka pressures from deep. This making sense as Rashfords out-in pressing would serve to show play into the open centre negating the effectivness of the press and exposing Manchester United’s compactness.
The still can be deceptive with regards to the amount of time Diawara actually had in possession because of the inertia period of the pass reaching the destination in addition to the converging effect of McTominay and Cavani essentially doubling the speed at which space is decreased; however, his poor touch serves to highlight Roma’s sloppiness in possession which would continue to the second half in contrast to Manchester United’s improved display, which partnered with a defensive collapse allowed five goals to be scored.
Roma’s man orientation which had made progressing play difficult when in settled possession in the first half backfired as they attempted it following a turnover from a lost second ball. Villar lost the initial duel, letting Fred free Pogba, who encountered Cristante, the centre of the three, stepping out while Diawara also came over. The doubling on Pogba seems counter intuitive because of the huge space in between the lines for Bruno to receive into once the passing lane had been open via Cavani. However, Diawara tried to cut the initial passing lane to Bruno while supporting Cristante is closing space. In assigning individual blame, Cristante should have been more aggressive in how he closed down Pogba as he needed to cut the forward pass and converge with Diawara, in all likelihood fouling Pogba. His body orientation and lack of pressure made the pass for Pogba. If deciding to go more passive, he must cut out that pass as his blind side is covered by Diawara. Charging out as the centre, centre back also resulted in Cavani being free in the centre with Smalling attempting to come narrower, which was ineffective by the time he did because Cavani had moved into the relatively free channel goal-side of Karsdorp. None of this should subtract from the terrific execution by Pogba in playing the initial pass, Bruno with the disguise on the pass and Cavani with the excellent finish.
Tactically, Manchester United’s play became more half-space oriented, seeking to exploit the space left vacated in Roma’s centre by the tracking midfielder, forcing Diawara more to the ball side thereby allowing for dangerous switches of play to occur in addition to tight interplay down the overloaded flank. Bruno Fernandes in particular could be seen roaming in wide areas more frequently. Crucial to making this effective was the vertically stretching runs of the forward players (mainly Cavani and Rashford) which dragged defenders back, creating the space in between the lines for the interplay to occur.
Many chances occurred restaurant from turnovers meaning the high positioning of Roma’s wingbacks during build-up could be exploited from the forward momentum of the pressing wing-backs overloading in addition to the runs of the wide players and potentially Cavani or one of the midfielders. On the far side the lack of structure and wingback support often lead to the appearance of 2v1 opportunities as Manchester United capitalised upon the chaos. Poor build-up led to isolated wide centre backs as the lack of compactness theoretically beneficial in build-up for stretching the opponents’ lines and generating your own isolation/overloading opportunities can be punished if build-up is sloppy as the positioning requires a degree of gambling of a turnover not occurring. The lack of wide coverage meaning potential infiltration occurred in dangerous areas such as this example from the previously displayed Cavani onto Diawara turnover.
Roma’s press dropped in intensity, as although still oriented around the central four into ball-side man-orientation, the did not engage as high, granting the deeper players more time in possession. Luke Shaw positioned himself deeper, drawing Roma’s wingback forward, increasing the space in between the lines for Pogba to receive in, and/or dragging Smalling away from his defensive partners opening up a space in the channels for runners, typically Cavani after a passing sequence had occurred. This vertical stretching, caused more by Roma’s odd choice of a high sitting first line which did not correspond to their man-oriented back line which could easily be manipulated through pinning generated enough space in between the lines to make the attempted man-orientation ineffective as the players receiving possession has enough space on the far side of the marker to move into generating time for themselves and exposing the space left in behind consequent from the applied pressure. An odd combination of high depth, passivity and flatness to Roma’s press nullified the effectiveness of their defensive shape by allowing space in between the lines negating any positive effects of man-orientation facilitating easy progression from Manchester United. Roma had one player in the second line structurally when pressing with the ball-sided centre back going aggressive on Manchester United’s winger/half-space player with Bruno roaming. Lack of compactness in between was the primary reason behind easy progression, while attempts to rectify through man-orientation just furthered the danger of progression by exposing space in behind which could not be made ineffective through pressuring because the space was too large to make up in many instances.
The half-space overload on the near side and runners into the exposed space into the channels made Roma’s defenders react through moving in accordance with the runners as they had to drop in accordance with the ball through being viable which often meant after a United player had received in a wider area, Roma had overwhelmingly committed to the ball-side with the initial players and the covering players being present. This resulted in odd situations such as the one below where Roma were overly committed to the ball-side and consequently overly compact resulting in the spaces for the outlets on the underloaded side being in narrow dangerous positions rather than in wider regions where there is more time for recovery. It moreover serves to demonstrate the press resistance Paul Pogba displayed.
The lack of intensity Roma showed when pressing became increasingly difficult to understand considering their high positioning, which allowed Manchester United to easily execute switches of play as time in possession is what exposes compactness creating advantageous situations on the underloaded flank as the momentum of the overlapping full back could carry him forward ahead of the forward pressing – subsequently caught behind the game after an easy pass wingback following a give and go with the wide attacker. The biggest difference in the 2nd half was the ease at which United could progress, and I think this can predominately be put down to the lack of pressure on the ball from Roma’s wide attackers which allowed United time and space in possession to exploit their lack of pitch coverage, and consequently their man-oriented reaction through positional rotations using the full backs on the flanks. This is one of many egregious examples.
To reinforce the aforementioned point regarding the danger of sloppiness when combined with high wingbacks during build-up because of the potential for 2v1’s to appear which grants United’s players time and space in possession: see the antecedent steps to Shaw’s wonderful pass to Rashford ultimately leading to the penalty. Poor control from Pellegrini after having the ball fired into him leads to Shaw winning the second ball with forward momentum. Roma have committed their full backs high granting Rashford space to run in behind and Shaw the time to pick a pass. Although those conducive factors should not undermine the technical skill required to execute the ball.
In summation, Roma tactically collapsed in the 2nd half because of lack of pressure on the ball which was antithetical towards other aspects of their play such as extreme ball-sided compactness, man-oriented midfield tracking, man-oriented defender tracking to cover space in between the lines, which often opened more due to centre backs tracking the runs of strikers seeking to vertically stretch. They demonstrated why they had only won 1 game in their last 7 in Serie A which was a 1-0 home victory over Bologna. Nonetheless, Manchester United capitalised ably on the opportunity presented and were terrific in execution in the second half. Choosing a man of the match is an extraordinarily challenging task, on first viewing it appeared Cavani; however, the more I watched, the more crucial Pogba looked because of his press resistance. Nevertheless, whomever was slightly better is irrelevant, with the important aspect being the high quality of performance seen across the pitch.