Tactical Analysis: Why Manchester United are well suited to playing Leeds

Leeds use a man-oriented defensive set-up while employing the +1 principle defensively, whereby a player, typically a forward, is subtracted from the man-oriented equation to provide better coverage on the first line. This often results in a the far-side centre back becoming free as the forward responsible for both centre backs pressures the ball carrier (It is slightly more sophisticated at times, with rotations between the ball-side midfielder and forward for coverage of a centralising pivot player for instance – but generally, the attainability of far-side CB through numerical superiority is the common feature). This encourages wider possession positioning from the defenders to reduce the ability for Leeds players to work in tandem to reduce the effective space available by more easily cutting passing lanes and options to the ball carrier through compact positioning. Essentailly, the wider the positioning, the greater the space forward Patrick Bamford needs to cover, increasing the space upon reception for the far-side centre back when Bamford initiates ball-sided pressure. This principle should not be extrapolated ad absurdum however; the inertia period of ball movement (the time it takes for the ball to move from passer to receiver) makes important the maintenance of strong connections to help possession circulate quickly, to expose opposition ball-sidedness, in addition to overly wide positioning encouraging the wide players to press outside to in, cutting the passing lane to the full back while pressuring the centre back, while all passing options are covered in a man-oriented fashion due to the forward covering the ball-sided centre back resulting in conditions conducive to a turnover. A way to counteract this potentiality is to have the full backs hug the touchline, to reduce proximity between centre back and full back and overall reduce forward line compactness. In essence, when the man is the defensive reference point, the team off the ball make themselves susceptible to positional manipulation and play a predominately reactive game, allowing the team in possession a greater degree of control as to where space is manufactured through positioning. This predicament suites the skill set of Manchester United’s centre backs, Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire, both of whom are comfortable carrying the ball out when space is afforded and can play penetrative direct passes.

The dynamic off finding the uncovered centre back from circulation occurred consistantly throughout the game, and I think Lindelöf can be considered an unsung hero of the victory, with the performances of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Greenwood understandably generating a great degree of praise, potentially directing it away from Lindelöf. Nonetheless, the defender demonstrated an excellent passing range to frequently pick out dangerous runners and identify opportunities where Manchester United were better placed to win second balls.

This paradigm could lead to a succession of wall passes via the defensive midfielders (likely Fred in this instance) to free the centre backs continually to consolidate possession and attempt to expose any defects in Leeds’ man-oriented coverage caused via ball circulation or present the opportunity to exploit the time afforded to try something more ambitious, such as Lindelöf in this sequence, who plays a direct pass to Mason Greenwood. (The former option was rarely taken, with ball carrying and penetrative passing being prefered, and something which looked to be worked on prior)

Going more direct encourages defensive compaction to win the second ball and force a turnover. It reorients reference points, as although the man remains crucial long term to Leeds configuration, the change in depth encourages more compact positioning to prioritise the box in addition to the short-term aim of producing conditions conducive to winning the second ball.

This incentivises ball-orientation, both initially as pictured in the still but additionally to prevent Daniel James from having time.

This resulted in Scott McTominay being on Mateusz Klich’s blind side, with James narrow positioning drawing the full back inwards, resulting in their being space to infiltrate after Bruno Fernandes receives. It should be noted, James is in a better position to receive because of a common theme against man-orientation which is the gaining of the dynamic superiority, whereby he initiates his movement earlier, thus has a time advantage in addition to having generated more momentum due to earlier acceleration which is crucial when covering small distances. The concept of the dynamic superiority was pertinent throughout, as it is what gives the possession team the edge against man-orientation, as it seeks to use superior timing granted by the opposition’s reactivity (other things like automatisation can be used to generate the dynamic superiority, although that was not particularly relevant in this game).

Overall, Manchester United in the sequence before Luke Shaw’s give and go above used the numerical superiority granted by Leeds defensive scheme to generate the time required to play an accurate direct ball, to subsequently exploit the ball-orientation that causes as defensive players attempt reconfigure, allowing for McTominay to run into the space generated through James narrowing with the dynamic superiority being on Klich’s blind-side. The longer ball generates such circumstances because the defending players are running backwards facing the ball contrasted to the attacking players running forward, which means to reposition, they must lose sight of their man. This is what makes man-orientation weaker during transitional phases. In consolidated phases, they can effectively position themselves to a player and prevent easy ball reception, and limit attempted progression through being tight behind their marker. The one free man in possession cannot effectively open new angles himself as the defensive players can frequently react quickly. This has a compacting effect if short progression is attempted, as the only options the player receiving has is backwards, where the possession players will drop to support, but be tightly tracked causing the same dynamic to repeat, but gradually reducing the space available to the ball carrier. Conversely, when the ball is active and moving quickly, it is easier to become disorientated as you (the defender) are having to constantly adapt to the opening of new passing lanes which alters the optimal angle to get tight at.

The most pertinent demonstration of the danger of allowing centre backs time and space in possession occurred for the fourth goal: It is a tactical maxim that time and space are the elements which allow for exploitation of space; whilst in conjunction, defensively, if there is no pressure on the ball, the defensive side should consider dropping to protect said space.

Bruno starts his run upon seeing Lindelof free (something United do frequently, working under the aforementioned maxim), which Leeds do not do, but rather stick to their man-orientation, with Bruno Fernandes having the dynamic superiority over his marker – thanks in part due to the reactive nature of man-oriented, and partly due to Greenwood obstruction. More advanced static possession can therefore be dangerous because of the threat for infiltration in behind which does not exist, at goal kicks, for example.

If I were to attempt to reduce the question of what makes Manchester United effective against Leeds to a single concept, it would be that playing against man-oriented defences is predicated to a greater degree on player movement rather than ball circulation as the primary method to create space. This is highlighted by this sequence occurring at around the 5th minute. (if this concept interests you, I would advise reading: » Tactical Theory: The strategic potential of the blind side (spielverlagerung.com)

The here space is created through the confluence of the wide positioning of Aaron Wan-Bissaka combined with the centrality of near-side pivot McTominay. Lindelöf holds possession while orienting himself in a manner which suggests a pass to David de Gea is likely before quickly pivoting once Bamford has sufficiently committed. Note that player rather than ball movement is cruical.

This progression creates a microcosmic numerical superioirty against Klich, who becomes ball oriented, and moves to cover Lindelöf while preventing diagonal access to McTominay. However, his passing lane coverage is cut by the common pattern of an up-back and through. This is where a player plays a vertical pass to a tightly marked teammate, who because of previously mentioned dynamics has his progressive options cut, but can still play the ball quickly backwards. Aware of this dynamic, a third man run is initiated by the ‘through’ player upon the ‘up’ player passing the ball, so he has the dynamic superiority over his marker. This happens commonly against man-oriented set-ups because of their prioritisation of player coverage over compactness in between the 2nd and 3rd lines resulting in exploitable space becoming present to run into. Therefore, tight marking can be circumvented through opening a new passing lane to run into, where previous tight marking is nullified as the body positioning the possession player requires is altered (with the tight marking only working under the context of preventing the up vertical available to the player), which while not relevant in this sequence because of the numerical superiority, applies in other less fortuitous circumstances.

It should be noted moreover that the ‘back’ player also has the dynamic superiority over his tight marker, as he is the proactive initiator, whereas the defender is reacting, meaning he cannot get as tight as when play is static, opening a small progressive window for flick on’s, which occurred here, and adds to the strengths section, as Scott McTominay is a strong runner, whilst Bruno Fernandes is a flick on specialist. The opening of new passing lanes via player movement is the important aspect, and while the ball should not be disregarded as it is the movement of the ball which moreover aids in access to these new lanes, it is the preceding player dynamics which are most important in creating the conditions favourable to progression.

Against more zonally oriented sides, ball circulation is more important because that acts as a reference point for shuttling, with the potential of moving side-to-side as the opponent attempts to compact on the ball side being imperative for finding the underloaded far-sides, or pockets in between the lines when they appear. Manchester United are weaker at this aspect comparatively. I am not trying to create a false dichotomy as both on and off ball methods are space creation are important against all defensive styles, the question is the extent, with man favouring positional manipulation generated through rotational sequences like up-back and throughs. Ball movement, for example, facilitates the discombobulating movement by allowing for the introduction of new passing angles via ball reception for example which is difficult to replicate without quick circulation. And it should be mentioned United seldom (if ever) played short from goal kicks, which highlights the deterring constraining effect threatened by Leeds, who could get tighter to their man thanks to the static game-state preceding. The goal kicks that were played short to Lindelöf were from quick restarts where Bamford was more isolated, so far-side CB switch/goalkeeper threat could be used to create a path of progression through dribbling.

Greenwood’s goal illustrates this concept further: getting tightly marked, it is his movement that manufactures the space, meaning his deep-to-wide movement draws the centre back out of position in what could be considered more conventional tracking seen by many teams attempting to compensate for lacking numbers in defensive transition.

But his pivoting movement to wide areas is additionally tracked, which opens the space in between the lines requires to a play the pass. A more typical defensive style would likely result in attempted compaction of the centre while keeping Greenwood is his purview; attempting to win the ball in a deeper region and funnelling the forward out wide rather than engaging in a footrace. The dynamic superiority can also be viewed here because Greenwood always has the edge in decisive actions, meaning has generated more speed. Nevertheless, it was excellent pass by Pogba to exploit the space and a fantastic finish by Greenwood. But that qualitative aspect needs to be considered a strength with regards to the exploitation of exposed space – and thus crucial in answering the question, why Manchester United are well suited to playing Leeds.

Moreover, tactical off ball elements should be considered, with intense pressure on the goalkeeper in particular forcing errors from distribution, where upon winning duels, the space in between the lines could be exploited. This element can more be categorised as the vicissitudes of verticality, whereby to provoke a transition deep the team in possession attempts to generate space through vertically stretching the opposition; however, from situations of turnover, these advantageous transitional conditions are reversed. In deeper regions, United’s players were ball oriented in their pressure, with outside-to-in winger pressure following from the full back being common in an attempt to funnel play to the other flank to engage in ball-side pressure if short progression was attempted or otherwise force a long ball where competition for first and second balls ensued, but where the risk/reward favoured Manchester United due to Leeds lack of compactness to both compete initially, and to respond to possession turnover. Ball orientation additionally led to a high degree of off ball positional fluidity, because of elements such as wingers following their press leading to them being out of position if the far-side pass was executed, with either Bruno or Greenwood covering to pressure the changed position of the ball, while the winger then occupies their role. This ball orientation required maintained intensity to force the long ball then challenge in between the lines, and as mentioned, United were Leeds superiors in this respect individually – thriving in the duelling environment.

 Man-oriented marking of nearby options was another theme to aid in the ball-oriented pressure by limiting short options due to a wall pass/risky progression via turning in a duel being the alternative, with the increased supporting of the players resulting in greater space constrainment. Going long or engaging with the intense pressing players were often the only options available to the Leeds player in possession.

This ball orientation highlighted another aspect worth noting which was Pogba’s roaming, both out of possession to maintain compactness, compensate for attempted wide defensive overloads centrally, and to receive possession away from marker Luke Ayling, who was understandably reticent to track tightly knowing vacation of space would likely be met a Luke Shaw overlap, who has momentum over his marker, and thus would be well placed to meet a through pass.

Therefore, Pogba’s drifting into the half-spaces often resulted in Robin Koch being overloaded, having to also track the meandering movement of Bruno Fernandes, which resulted in Pogba being open to receive frequently. Particularly, as stated from turnovers, where Ayling would be in his wide possession position and Pogba in field, with such a sequence leading to the 3rd goal.

In summation, less sophisticated possession machinations are required to exploit man-orientation, which may initially appear as a backhanded compliment. However, the difficult conditions generated by the defensive style require quick and precise execution of actions to create transitions in addition to physical capability to contest the space in between the lines. The development in this regard under Ole Gunnar Solskjær is commendable. Leeds style meant the increased importance of duelling suited, which Man United stylistically, particularly the battleground like conditions in the midfield where McTominay proved his worth, and where players such as Bruno Fernandes and Fred’s intensity are highlighted. When the space in between the lines is increased, and forward momentum is used to attempt to win possession, while the opponent frequently looks to compact to compensate, being capable to win duels becomes a more valuable asset. I do not watch enough Leeds to imply that Manchester United are their superior in this aspect overall; however, in this game at least I think a claim of physical supremacy can be justly claimed. This intensity and physicality provided the qualitative element to maximise the effects of the frequently cited dynamic superiority offered in possession in addition to being key defensively to prevent Leeds from playing out of defence successfully, as contests when the ball was played long were paramount. Intense ball-oriented pressure prevented Leeds from ever looking comfortable in their own half and frequently generated dangerous turnover opportunities, with the intense pressing game being I would suggest the biggest development Manchester United have made under Solskjær. To summarise, games against Leeds highlight an two key consistent abilities fostered by Solskjær: An intense pressing game and efficient attacking of space.

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