ARTICLES Tactical Analysis

Manchester United in August – The Monthly Breakdown

Hey reader, welcome to August’s edition of The Monthly Breakdown. Our aim in this series is to deliver unique insight into Manchester United‘s performances in the last month through the lens of a professional football analyst.

August oversaw the Red Devils’ opening Premier League games; at home versus bitter(sweet) rivals Leeds United, and away at both Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the closing phases of this summer’s transfer window, United still did one piece of unexpected business – namely signing a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who will join the team for training after this season’s first international break. Here’s the Monthly Breakdown:


Manchester United’s training schedule for August most likely echoed the one below:

For better understanding, the following paragraph explains every training “block”.
Recovery days are quite self-explanatory – usually the recovery day comes second behind the off-day in a normal match-week cycle, but in pre-season the latter is often left out.
Acquisition days are broken down in Strength (tension), Duration (endurance) and Speed (velocity) days (in reference to the main muscular contractions used in football). These preventive trainings are combined with the tactical training of the game model – which we call tactical periodization.

The Activation days materialize the findings of the team’s video analysts – the players are put into short match situation which the staff envisage for the upcoming game.

Footnotes: (1) Burnley visited Old Trafford to play a friendly game behind closed doors on the 11th of August. (2) Every squad member ought to report back for team training did so on the 18th. (3) Marcus Rashford started individual recovery training on the 25th. (4) Ole Gunnar Solskjær reveals Scott McTominay has undergone surgery after a niggling injury pestered him.


Carrying through the pre-season fitness

Solskjær’s Reds returned to England after spending their first week of August at the St Andrews training camp in Scotland, where they prepared for their final official pre-season game versus Rafael BenitezEverton side. You can read the full match report here.

Reminiscent of United’s July match-ups, fitness was once again at the centre of attention. Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire, Luke ShawAnthony MartialVictor Lindelöf, and Scott McTominay were the big hits to get their first minutes of the new season in front of the 55,000 present at Old Trafford.

As the Preston North End game was cancelled due to COVID-19 worries, this was the last game Manchester United would get in before the season opener exactly one week later.

Embed from Getty Images

This would leave the coaching staff with a few selection headaches for the remainder of the week. Solskjær’s main tactical quality is his nous for picking the right profile for the right occasion. This became obvious especially in the 2019/20 season – the first season of the Fred & McTominay partnership, which was originally used for end-to-end games, with balls to be won in the middle of the park: think of not only the match-ups versus United’s top four rivals, but also the recent battles versus the unique Leeds United side of Marcelo Bielsa.

As the European Championship and the Copa America shortened the pre-season formalities, the players were not only short of fitness, but the coaches also, once again, had little time to work on principles of play with the first names on the team sheet.

The onus was then on the coaching staff to find the sweet spot in terms of profiles suited for a match-up versus Leeds United, yet also have a fit core capable of keeping up with Leeds’ notoriously high fitness levels.

Opening the season with five stars

Marcelo Bielsa, however, still played into United’s hands by sticking to his rigid man-marking scheme – the fine undoing of Leeds on a tactical level can be read here.

It was clear the coaching staff had identified Leeds’ tactical weaknesses, and worked on methods to progress the ball to their goal. Paul Pogba, who started the game from the left wing, made a handful of runs in behind, together with Daniel James. When sending the ball to Pogba, the aim is rather to hit his head – for him to lay it off to a nearby teammate. The team has worked on this pattern a few times ever since the final few months of the 2020/21 season.

Daniel James’ route is more to send the ball into space. The coaching staff have always believed in James’ ability to stretch the pitch vertically (and horizontally for what it’s worth, but that’s a conversation for another day), hence the Welshman has often featured against high blocks.

Another ball progression method came through the carrying prowess of the centre-backs. It is of no secret that central ball progression via the ground is arguably Manchester United’s kryptonite – and during the Premier League opener they spaced the midfield differently in order to not shoot themselves in the foot.

The double pivot of Fred and McTominay placed themselves higher up the pitch, between and sometimes behind Leeds’ second line – not only to offer their centre-backs more space and therefore time in possession, but also for the team to be a compacter unit whenever there’s a second ball to be won higher up the pitch.

If neither of the centre-halves launched the ball (potentially causing second ball situations) they carried the ball through the channels, before releasing it to one of the wider players. In order to grant these progressive carries, the ball-near midfielder (in the frame below Scott) would rotate inwards, luring Leeds’ man-marking midfielder with him.

In other game states, Manchester United started with equal intent – pressing in a much higher block than usual. They kept this tempo up for about 35 minutes, when they lifted their foot of the gas pedal after Bruno’s opening goal.

They moved their block back a little, and tried their hand at containing space, rather than intensively pressing the ball.

Manchester United’s medium block naturally stuck to the same tactical sub-principles (the practical implementation of principles of play), yet also only slightly concealed the root problems exposed by their very own high-pressing.

As this article will not go in depth on the Red Devils’ pressing concerns, the cherry-picked case of “McFred” is what will introduce us to the next segment:

Midfield complications

In a 4-2-3-1 formation, it is paramount the double pivot cover the midfield well during defensive phases – whilst providing enough cover to the back four. This means, in return, that the wingers support them too. Solskjær’s sub-principles tell a slightly different tale.

As some of you may know already, I’m no big fan of McFred’s jumping habits in *especially* defensive transitions. As aforementioned, the double pivot is ought to contain space in these situations, while Fred and Scott jump to wide areas to press the ball, even when their partner is not in place yet to cover the opened space.

This pressing tactic could be less harmful when there’s great spacing and understanding of cover in the team, a feat where Manchester United have fallen short in recent times.

This, however, doesn’t seem to be identified as a problem by the coaching staff – perhaps even it’s their tactical vision for the midfield. After both Fred and McTominay, midfield veteran Nemanja Matić has also followed this trend – most notoriously in 20/21’s exit of the FA Cup at Leicester City:


Unfortunately, this worry is not the biggest midfield woe giving our coaches headaches. Manchester United’s spectacular summer transfer window eventually ended without any midfield incomings.

Embed from Getty Images

While the deep midfield position should’ve been much higher on United’s transfer priority list due to last season’s struggles to consistently build attacks through the middle, the injury and subsequent surgery of Scott McTominay should’ve rung more bells. Despite Ole’s reported interest in West Ham‘s Declan Rice, his prayers weren’t heard.

So what is currently on Ole’s menu at home? There is Fred – an erratic footballer who likes to stick in a leg, yet has some loose passing habits. Solskjær’s persistence with the Brazilian signals, however, that he is rated and appreciated by the coaching staff – which of course counts for more than anything else.

Premier League winner Matić is also still around – his legs less so. The coaches still like to select him in games where United expect to dominate possession, as Nemanja is a brilliant line-breaking passer. The Serbian can pick a pass through precision, but also by deception – think of his famous reverse ball. It’s unfortunate Ole met him about five years to late – as the midfielder regularly is unfit and can’t cover as many blades of grass as the Red Devils currently require.

Another is Donny Van de Beek, of whom the coaches think he is better in and around the opposition box combining with other players. The Dutchman has featured in the pivot before though during his stay in Manchester – most memorably against Istanbul in the 20/21 season. Due to his particular skillset, his partner is often the aforementioned Nemanja Matić, who gives him more license to go forward.

Last but not least, there is a certain Paul Pogba, who found his best role in a Premier League team yet under Solskjær’s tenure. That role off the left bolsters Pogba’s strong suits, while also covering downsizing his weaknesses previously on show in chaotic Premier League match-ups.

While the business end of the 2020/21 tells me that Pogba is envisaged to be a left-winger rather than a central midfielder, I believe Paul will still be deployed there when necessary – for example against Wolverhampton on the 27th of August.

What else was new on the grass?

The Reds altered their tactical approach to the away games, considering they had just played the team that plays into their hands the most, yet now faced a high-pressing compact block of Southampton – something United don’t like facing.

Southampton’s 4-2-2-2 block confused the away team enough to make them alter their building structure a few times, without any success throughout the 90 minutes.

The narrow front two of Southampton meant pivot players Fred and Matic were inaccessible due to the rigid 2-2 structure a 4-2-3-1 naturally offers. Throughout last season, the stop-gap solution to this problem was a simple formation change – usually a pivot dropping out to join the centre-backs in the first building line.

A back three presents not only faster and easier ball circulation – albeit at the expense of a body in front of the ball – it also offers newfound angles in possession to penetrate the opposition.

Manchester United never really grew into this game, struggling to progress the ball with purpose all afternoon, but there were some bright sparks, namely in the shape of Paul Pogba, who went on a dazzling dribble to find the wrong side of the post, Mason Greenwood, who scored his 8th Premier League goal in 10 games, and Jadon Sancho – whose qualities we could not capitalize upon.


The game away at Wolverhampton Wanderers was the first Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane would start in United Red, which showed once again that Ole kept his cool and resisted his temptations to start either ahead of schedule, when they were not yet up to speed of the XI.

Sancho and James were tasked with providing the runs into depth, while Pogba, who provided that outlet run against Leeds, was put into midfield. Together with Fred, this proved tricky against the transitioning power of Wolves – and in particular Adama Traoré, who bulldozed his way through our midfield on a couple of occasions.

United, much like on the South coast, struggled to ease themselves into the game, and came across as very erratic, with the game being as open as it could be early on. They then settled in a 4-4-2 mid-block (as they often do) with the wingers a little higher than usual, to almost make it seem a 4-2-4.

For the second game running the away team encountered difficulties getting the ball through the thirds consistently. The reoccuring struggles when playing the ball through and around the opposition is something the coaches should surely look into over this international break.

One thing United should not change, however, is definitely their new set-piece coach Eric Ramsay, who has certainly been busy on the training ground during recent weeks.

Set-pieces

Amidst the chaos away at Ralph Hasenhüttl‘s Southampton, the set-piece work done by the highly rated Eric Ramsay offered United many chance to snatch goals in the first 15 minutes – albeit without any success. The main takeaway, however, should be that the Red Devils are dangerous on set-pieces and will continue to be – it’s only a matter of time before it bears fruit – and here’s why:

Old Trafford’s Reds still prefer the zonal marking on the six-yard line, while protecting the first post. Last season, they would not man-mark the targets (2v3 in the second frame), but rather use their players to block the runs of the corner targets. This season, they opt to not get underloaded there anymore – they drop another body in there.

Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes have been picked as the designated set-piece takers, and rightfully so, as they usually put in dangerous deliveries between the last line and the goalkeeper.

New on United’s lateral free-kicks is the use of the blind-side: notice Pogba creeping up in the backs of every player. Of course, he doesn’t go unnoticed, but there’s still a body between him and the nearest opponent for blocking purposes. The Reds found a lot of success down this route, and were unfortunate to not grab at least one goal in the second game of the season.

On offensive corners, Manchester United always opted for the “train” routine – consisting of the XI’s three strongest players in the air, who all covered different zones (first post, goalmouth and second post) if Harry Maguire was not present. The space was created for them by deceiving runs by two forwards in the six-yard box, who took off towards the ball in order to pull along the deepest defenders.

Manchester United’s main corner routine in 2020/21.

Eric Ramsay hasn’t steered away from this – the “train” being Varane-Pogba-Maguire during the Wolves game; a trio I believe we’ll see more of. As hinted at, these corners are usually aimed at our captain Harry, for whom the others create space, and also distract markers.

Conclusion

August marked the dawn of a new Premier League campaign in which United, as the fourth best team in the country, should aim to challenge the top three for a “podium” come May. This month also included many promising signings, with star names such as Sancho, Varane and Ronaldo arriving to improve the current squad.

The team performances on the pitch were not exactly promising, but August was always going to be a tricky month, due to the lack of pre-season training work and game time – the onus is now on the coaches to work hard during the international break and provide a clear framework for the players to perform in. Let’s see what they come up with!

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