With a European final on the horizon, it seems thematic to journey back four years to the last time Manchester United were European Champions. This game marked the completion of the ‘treble’, under the tutelage of José Mourinho and entry to the following seasons Champions League. It can be considered Mourinho’s magnum opus during the 2 and half seasons at the club.
The opening sequence demonstrates a crucial element of the game: aerial supremacy. Notably that of Marouane Fellaini as the ball was swiftly launched forward for contestation of the second ball straight from kick-off.
In Martí Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, he notes Guardiola asking the question “who are our unstoppable guys… We have to use that as a weapon.” The conclusion, Arjen Robben, and Franck Ribéry. And while Fellaini may not have the illustrious career of the Bayern wingers, nor the capacity to transfer the unstoppable aspect with the same degree of frequency which allows long-term holistic tactical planning predicated on the concept; within this particular context, he provided a decisive qualitative superiority. Using the principle of not all situations of numerical equality being equal, Manchester United attempted to manufacture situations where they could exploit Fellaini’s qualities. Opposition adjustment and analysis was a vital component to victory in this game; in possession, Ajax were perceived as a strong pressing side while Manchester United strengths lay in direct play – hence the inclusion of Fellaini and playstyle. Jose Mourinho explicitly highlighted this aspect in his post-match interview “If you want to press the ball all the time, you don’t play short. If you are dominant in the air, you build long.” To diversify, sometimes from goalkeeper consolidated possession Paul Pogba would additionally push forward into the left-wing space to act as another aerial outlet which served to make it more difficult for Ajax to compact for the 2nd ball as two potential outlets horizontally stretched them. The aim when playing to Fellaini was to flick possession onto Marcus Rashford running behind directly or to Juan Mata with Rashford making an anticipatory run in behind.
This means the motivation behind the in-possession playstyle was two-fold. To advance quickly and consolidate deep in opposition territory through exploiting the physical advantage while ensuring Ajax could not use their counter-press as a chance creation mechanism. This partially explains Daley Blind’s presence at centre back, as he provided the quality required to play accurate long balls, while Chris Smalling provided the aerial ability required to nullify Ajax’s direct attacks and physicality to engage in between the lines.
Another alternative common strategy was the direct ball in behind to Rashford who would primarily seek to run the channels and appear in 1v1 situations against the covering centre back out wide. The main intention of this was to progress the ball forward without losing defensive shape deep as holding possession for longer periods would increase susceptibility to Ajax’s press. This happened more often after midfield turnovers. The shape would be altered once progression had been achieved by Rashford as potential turnovers were less dangerous, not demanding as rigid an in-possession shape for protection. This provided opportunities for crosses to be put in as the transition was quick, allowing for runners. This also slowed down potential counters as possession was deep for Ajax and often either wide or cleared which would grant United the potential to re-group or fight for second balls.
Out of possession, Manchester United used a ball as a reference point for a man orientated defensive set-up. This essentially means central man-orientation occurred when the ball was central, and ball-sided man-orientation occurred when the ball was in wide areas, meaning the ball was the primary reference point in how and where to mark. Although this is a slight oversimplification as zonal restrictions applied but largely pertained to the line of engagement as United were man-ball from the second line forward due to lacking the requisite numerical superiority within the effective space to trigger man-orientation on the first line when playing a rigid 4-2-3-1. Thus, movements such as the full back dropping lateral to the centre backs were not followed.
However, Ajax were not particularly machinating or fluid in their positioning as they rarely interchanged horizontally but rather vertically. Hakim Ziyech was more inclined to advance, and Ander Herrera typically stuck tighter to him compared to Paul Pogba on Davy Klaassen who would drop deeper as backwards vertical was tracked by the midfield line in a man-oriented manner while zonal restrictions allowed for dropping meaning they would not track forwards beyond the second line. However, when discussing holistically the approximation of ball-man suffices largely as Herrera for instance would only track Ziyech like that when the ball was central or right (using a thirds approach) and as mentioned previously the system had in built mechanisms for vertical rotations through covering and granting space on the first line to gain extra space to compensate for lost initiative via man-orientation due to allowing backwards actions.
If I were to attempt to codify the instructions, it would be something approximating: the midfield should track their man on the second line and backwards vertically. The full back should feel comfortable stepping out to track the winger under the knowledge the rotation is covered. One centre back, typically Smalling should step out in accordance with Kasper Dolberg. Ultimately preventing progression via the midfield was the main priority and a player dropping deeper did help Ajax achieve that provided horizontal compactness was maintained on the second line through his man not tracking, and all other men on the second line were tightly marked.
To disambiguate – what I mean by second line is where the full back and defensive midfielder are positioned to the space in between the 1st and 2nd vertical lines (Manchester United midfield and defence) hence, the first opposition line is the centre backs positioning – so positioning lateral or somewhat lateral to them is the first line and would not be tracked through the man-marking scheme. However, movements beyond would, leading defensive vertical rotations. The ball element is pertinent because of the requirement to remain compact which means it only applied when the passing option is accessible which is at all times in the centre whereas when it is moved to the flanks, the available passing range is reduced meaning fewer options need to be covered directly via man-marking but rather far-side and central spaces should be protected by compacting horizontally – only to change once the far-side becomes the near-side via a switch.
Therefore, the ball-sided full back typically tracked the winger coming deep to receive, the ball-sided winger oriented himself around the oppositions full back, Fellaini stuck tight to Ajax pivot, Lasse Schöne and the ball-sided midfielder tracked his opposing midfielder while the far-sided midfielder, because there was a lack of direct passing option would move centrally to compact horizontally rather than focusing on the man.
This sought to make short ball progression difficult for Ajax through tightly marking all possible progressive passing options thereby limiting time and space upon reception, except wide options when central to funnel play down the flanks.
I think part of the efficacy of this defensive plan was its simplicity because instructions were primarily individualised due to the nature of man-marking. It is the least abstract of all the potential positional reference points off the ball (space, opposition, the ball, teammates). These always function simultaneously; however, different approaches place differing levels of emphasis on each and the man (opposition) was the important in this instance. United used the opposition as a reference point to control the effective space they were in through tight marking. The space that was deemed important to control was the midfield to destroy Ajax’s typical game and force them long. The ball positioning instructed when to tight mark compared to zonal as mentioned previously while teammates also covering in a man-oriented fashion facilitated more aggression from the back line because any potential rotations were covered (often effectively as United weren’t high pressing hence, deep full back reception was not an issue meaning the winger often had territory on the full back as he began making his run meaning he could be more easily tracked). The vertical rotations are what make me reticent to call it zonal-man orientation because the basic formational responsibilities could alter while ball-man encapsulates that aspect better as you got tight to your respective man when the ball reached a particular area while also implicitly denoting a zonal aspect because what how players were influenced by ball movements depends on positioning.
Centre forward, Marcus Rashford was given a funnelling responsibility. His pressing was designed to have a pistoning effect, showing Ajax to wide areas rather than attempting to generate a turnover directly. Disproportionate emphasis was placed positionally on Matthijs de Ligt, the more comfortable of Ajax’s two in possession. This in conjunction with the ball-man set-up on the second line meant Davinson Sánchez became the free-man as Manchester United did not attempt to contest the 2v1 numerical superiority of Ajax’s centre backs directly.
Rashford would press laterally, to consistently cut the passing lane to de Ligt, showing Sánchez further down the ball-side as he progressively came closer to force a decision, successfully limiting options and showing Ajax into the ball-sided, man-oriented pressing trap. A pressing technique of Rashford’s would be to allow Sánchez to step forward, ahead of him in possession, to subsequently increase in intensity. This served to cut the backwards pass to André Onana, forcing Sánchez across the Rubicon to pass it either wide or direct depending on his body orientation.
The efficacy of this set-up links back to the aforementioned aerial superiority which applied outside just Fellaini as Chris Smalling was tasked with dealing with direct balls. The strategy sought to produce direct balls through limiting short passing connections to the ball-carrier to subsequently control those direct balls. Without aerial supremacy, centre back possession becomes increasingly dangerous because of the potential for balls over the top which would have negated the efficacy of Manchester United’s press as maintaining man-orientation in accordance with the ball when an additional player becomes relevant would have required a more aggressive approach, likely with the centre backs stepping out frequently to cover spaces in between the lines.
In central areas, the wingers would not get tight but rather maintain an effective pressing distance to their full backs as they sought to maintain compactness to limit space in between the lines which allowed for possible convergence should Ajax attempt to progress centrally, allowing for the creation of a central pressing traps, punishing any heavy touches or ball dwelling. Thus, deterring potential attempts at central progression.
This sought to show play down the flanks where pressing could be initiated similarly to Rashford and an attempted turnover more likely because Manchester United could use the constraining effect of the touchline to generate numerical equalities as the far-side centre back is no longer a potential possession actor. Their initial central positioning moreover facilitated in-to out pressing meaning they continued the funnel to wide areas as they were pressing towards the touchline. While the continuing deepening of Ajax’s players to support the ball-carrier serves to compact their and United’s shape vertically, meaning space was being compacted horizontally and vertically
The full backs direct vertical pressing is pertinent here, as quickly getting tight to the full back allows for compaction to occur. This makes the space in behind ineffective thus negating the need to cover it directly, until it is potentially made effective again through a rotation which is covered for in the system. Although, the hypothetical ideal would be the intense vertical pressure of the full back successfully prevents progression through limiting options, rushing a decision in the process. Additionally, all movement is going down the flank and being tracked with a player behind meaning holding the ball if possession is maintained is difficult as the pressing player can easily hem in the ball carrier, essentially limiting him to vertical movement through the exploitation of the touchline.
A counter to this strategy which I do not was tried often enough by Ajax on the night was accepting the initial regressive pass in an up-back sequence for the future progression it offered them. This would look something like Davy Klaassen receives the ball vertically from Sánchez who can then play it into space to De Ligt. The tight marking does not negate this because it only prevents progression, while the space afforded to de Ligt means technical proficiency which is inhibited by tight marking additionally is not required. This would free de Ligt in space as Rashford by this point has committed to his pressure of Sánchez, allowing for him to dribble forward and generate midfield superiorities.
On occasions where this did happen however, Manchester United’s solution was to have Fellaini step up to pressure de Ligt, and funnel similarly to Rashford; however, he would have to continue cutting the passing lane to Schöne. Retrospectively, movements such as Schöne moving deeper when this occurred to generate time and space centrally in possession would have potentially been advantageous, performing the common manoeuvre of dropping into the back three to create a numerical superiority once United’s pressing line had been increased to two players for central access and horizontal stretching of Manchester United’s front line from the time and space. In essence, poor far-side centre back coverage was the weakness in Manchester United’s set-up, and one not sufficiently exploited by Ajax.
Following the first goal, Ajax switched to a back three build-up with right back Jaïro Riedewald tucking in allowing Sánchez to move into the right half space and progress with greater ease creating a worse predicament for United because the right flank could now be more easily overloaded in midfield, discombobulating the defensive structure. Prior if Sánchez progressed into the second line, Paul Pogba would instruction Daley Blind to cover Klaassen, now pushing forward as he sought to block the run and delay to converge with Rashford. However, afterwards, he would track Klaassen, allowing Sánchez to progress forward into Manchester United’s compactness while Rashford continued to track making the centre backs forward movement ineffective as he lacked passing options once he progressed and dribbled into a cul-de-sac. Peter Bosz noticed this quickly and predominately readapted the shape to be a two afterwards, although Riedewald would tuck in if Sánchez progressed and was funnelled by Rashford.
Additionally, Manchester United began dropping deeper which altered the defensive structure as they transitioned from primarily defending in a mid-block to a low block. Because of the increased necessity to defend space the defensive mode transitioned into something approximating more a zonal-man configuration which was predicated less on getting tight and more on patrolling space their man would potentially move into meaning there was greater distance between them despite the man nonetheless acting as a reference point. Ander Herrera dropping into the defensive line was common here. The second line which is indicated by opposition positioning became less pertinent accordingly as maintaining compactness in between the lines became more important for the midfielders making them even less inclined to follow their opponent backwards as the zonal restrictions were more severe.
This coincided with Ajax’s offensive play becoming more fluid as they sought to exploit the horizontal manipulation potential associated with man-marking but because Manchester United dropped into the low block more zonal mode, this was largely nullified as attacks were funnelled down the flanks. Nevertheless, despite the interchanging, Ajax very rarely sought to create overloads and short connections to contract, then expand during the mid-block phase of defending for Manchester United which often meant defensive rotations exposing space were not particularly dangerous as direct access was still cut by midfield compactness in between the lines for Sánchez. Their playstyle remained rigid and concerned with constant pitch coverage despite player positional fluidity and lack of connections to access the covered areas of the pitch.
Sánchez ineffective dribbling continued as he consistently meandered into Manchester United’s compact centre, progressing sufficiently to limit himself of backwards options due to the time it would take to alter body orientation and passing being far too dangerous because United could adapt with Rashford waiting to pounce while lofting a pass with reduced space for the ball to go up and down became too difficult. Hence, failed link-up in the congested centre as the forward received tightly marked with backwards reception and few options being converged upon. Ultimately, Jose correctly analysed Ajax would get frustrated with the centre back as a free man as they were not able to capitalise by playing directly. He anticipated the problem of advancement through allowing to happen while the CB’s overzealously progressed by simply cutting off all options until the entered the compactness hence triggering the pressing trap.
The second goal substantiated the assessment of aerial supremacy and direct attacks being the path to victory as a long ball to Fellaini and onto the second ball contesting three of him, Mata and Rashford won the corner where Smalling would knock it down for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
In summation, Ajax lacked the possession quality required to deal with Manchester United’s tight marking mid-block structure, nor the zonal-man deep block. This can largely be put down to lack of short passing connections required to expose space left by opposition tracking when the ball was deep in addition to lack of space exposure to due poor and often lacking horizontal interchanges. Their brand of possession football focused too much on coverage and not enough on connections. The lack of ingenuity was displayed by the consistent progression of Davinson Sánchez to no avail. In possession Mourinho knew United’s strengths lay in the air and exploited them subsequently, taking minimal possession risks while consistently being able to consolidate in advanced areas. And because of the Ajax’s inefficacy in possession against United’s structure, ceding possession was not a worry.
“There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many titles.”