How Manchester United have improved from set-pieces

Manchester United’s summer transfer window was arguably the club’s best since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. Four players were brought into the club: Tom Heaton, Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane, and, in a sensational return to Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo.

As well as strengthening his squad, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær also brought in a new face to the coaching staff, an appointment that may have gone under the radar. United brought Eric Ramsay in from Chelsea this summer, as a specialist set-piece coach. It is no secret that United struggled both attacking and defending set-pieces last year, and with the addition of Ramsay, United no doubt hope their fortunes can improve this season when it comes to set-pieces.

Although the three competitive games played so far this season is a small sample size, United have shown improvement when attacking and defending both corners and free kicks. Out of the 20 teams in the Premier League, United are one of only 10 teams not to concede from a set-piece.

Whilst there hasn’t been a goal scored from a set-piece in competitive football this season for United, there was success in the pre-season friendly against Everton at Old Trafford. Harry Maguire scored from a corner, and Bruno Fernandes scored directly from a freekick just moments later.

Defending free-kicks

Last season, United conceded some goals from set-pieces which were preventable, and at times cost Solskjær’s men some valuable points. Arguably the most frustrating of these goals came in the Europa League final in Gdansk against Villarreal. Spanish striker Gerard Moreno gave his side the lead after converting Dani Parejo’s freekick.

Moreno, highlighted with a circle, made a late run into the space between Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, after getting past Luke Shaw. Lindelof let Moreno get past him and run onto Parejo’s cross. The centre-back is aware that Moreno is behind him because he looks at the Spaniard before the although it seems like Shaw is marking him.

Paul Pogba, who is in front of Lindelof, almost certainly isn’t aware of Moreno’s run. Arguably, Shaw could’ve tried to stop the run, although this was a risk due to potentially committing a foul.

Bailly’s man, Raul Albiol, gets in between Bailly and Lindelof, creating some extra space because he takes Bailly out of the equation. It is then down to Moreno to exploit the space and finish off the move, which he did.

There was a similar situation in the game against Leeds United this season at Old Trafford. Lindelof was once again the player in question. However, he dealt with the situation easier.

Although Rafinha’s cross wasn’t very threatening, Liam Cooper made a similar run to the one by Moreno in the Europa League final. Lindelof, however, seemed to have the edge on the Leeds captain, and whilst it was Harry Maguire who won the ball, it seems Lindelof would’ve won it anyway.

The Sweden captain did pull Cooper to the ground; however, it was not deemed a foul. If Maguire hadn’t cleared the ball, Lindelof may not have ended up bringing Cooper down because of the need to make the clearance himself.

United seem more compact now when defending a freekick like the one they conceded from in the Europa League final. In the game away to Southampton this season, there was an early freekick taken by James Ward-Prowse.

United seem much more compact and organised in this instance than they did against Villarreal. This is potentially because Southampton had more attackers than Villarreal did, but regardless there is still a more organised defensive line.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka is the player marking Saints defender Mohammed Salisu, who is in a position to potentially make a similar run to Moreno. Wan-Bissaka’s body is positioned in such a way that he can prevent a run from Salisu goal-side of himself, or a curved run in between two other defenders. United’s more compact set-up offers less space to Southampton attackers, meaning one of these runs is harder to make, or just not possible at all. In this sense, United have improved defensively under Ramsay’s guidance.

Defending Corners

Something very noticeable last season when Manchester United was defending corners was the use of zonal marking, where players mark space attackers could move into, rather than the mark attackers themselves.

This cost United at times in the 2020/21 season, with a good example also being at home to Leeds, in last season’s game.

Although it was another phenomenal win against Leeds, finishing 6-2, this was a frustrating goal to concede on the stroke of halftime. In this instance, the goal scorer, Cooper, who is circled, is marked by Fred, which immediately doesn’t seem like a logical match-up. United have committed most defenders to zonal mark.

Aside from Fred, there is no one else from this corner who is not obviously zonal marking. Anthony Martial makes a run into the box to follow full-back, Luke Ayling, so Bruno Fernandes moves to mark the front post. You could argue even Martial ends up zonal marking.

The issue with seven or eight players zonal marking, especially in such a concentrated area, such as which is shown here, is that it leaves a large area of space around the penalty spot and further back for Leeds to attack.

Leeds don’t have to commit many attackers into the ‘zones’ to begin with, nor do many need to make a run into the box. This makes it too easy for opposition teams, in this instance, Leeds.

It is arguably safer for an attacker to hold their run, or potentially to not even make one at all, due to the lack of defenders who could challenge them. Cooper shows this when he makes a very late run towards the penalty spot, and, with only Fred as a challenger, wins the header and scores.

United have seemingly rectified this issue this season. In this season’s home game against Leeds, this was demonstrated on the corners United conceded.

This image demonstrates United’s new tactic when it comes to defending corners. There are now 5 players who zonal mark, in this instance Pogba, Fernandes, Scott McTominay, Maguire and Lindelof.

Dan James stands level with the penalty spot, prevent a potential cut-back. If Leeds were to take a short corner, you would see James mark the man who has gone to receive it short.

There are then four players who will pick up the runners into the box or close down a player on the edge of the area should the ball fall to them.

This method is a lot safer when it comes to defending corners. It means that attackers have to think more about their movement when looking to win a header or find space for a shot, rather than holding their run and letting the ball come to them. This is mainly because United have covered a greater surface area in the box, and don’t overcommit to zonal marking.

Aside from the five players who are zonal marking in this image, other players including Varane, Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford mean United have a lot of players capable of doing a good job when zonal marking.

This is useful because, with the size of United’s squad, and the likely rotation we will see this year, Solskjær will always have several players on the pitch who can be part of this system. Similarly, with the likes of Sancho and Donny van de Beek, who also do not feature on this image, there will always be players on the pitch who can man-mark attackers.

Zonal marking certainly has its flaws, and attackers could even find space in between defenders making in the ‘zones’. This was an issue we saw occur in last season’s home game against Sheffield United, although there was arguably a foul on David de Gea which led to the goal.

However, this new system undoubtedly offers a much better balance to how United defend corners. With Ramsay’s influence, we will hopefully see United concede fewer goals from corners than in previous seasons.

Attacking corners

When it comes to attacking corners, Manchester United have had a couple of different methods under Solskjær. Last season, you would usually see a man on the front post, and at times on the back post, along with three or four players in a line on the edge of the area, all ready to make a similar run into the box. This was impactful at times, but there was still a lot left to be desired by United when attacking corners.

Since Ramsay has joined the club, the corner tactic has seen an overhaul, and a more effective system is now in place. Effectively, United’s whole corner tactic now has a big focus on creating space for others to attack. A good example of this was at Molineux, in the last game before the international break against Wolves.

First off, it is important to identify the four players who will be making runs into the box. In this example, they are Fernandes, Varane, Pogba and Maguire. For this corner, Varane makes a run that curves around the defenders and towards the front post. Fernandes also goes in that general direction. Maguire attacks the middle of the goal, meaning Pogba moves last and attacks the back post.

Immediately, the first three players drag the defenders with them. This creates space for Pogba at the back post, as well as for another player on the edge of the area. Even if the runners to the front post and middle of the goal are only there to create space for others, there is always the option of finding them with a cross. The players in question here are exceptional at heading.

The other key thing with this is that the same players don’t always make the same runs. This means that, for opposition teams, whether in pre-match analysis or during the game, they cannot necessarily predict who will be making what run. The uncertainty of this plays right into United’s hands.

Another important factor of United’s corner tactic is the movement of players who are taking up positions further inside the box. The next two images show the importance of these movements.

Jadon Sancho, who is circled, starts almost level with the front post. As the corner is delivered by Mason Greenwood, and the four players mentioned earlier make their runs into the box, Sancho makes a small run himself, towards Greenwood.

As the image above, which is from just after the corner is taken, demonstrates, Sancho has dragged two Wolves defenders away from the space they were in. This means that a United player, in this instance Fernandes, can attack the area they have just left, which increases the likelihood of him impacting the corner. This would either be because he touches the ball or creates some space for others.

Although the corner didn’t amount to anything in the end, this is just one example of how Ramsay has implemented clever movement into United’s corner tactics. These types of runs aren’t something we have seen regularly over the last few seasons. The movements of these players, and others, helps to create vital space for United players to attack. Every movement links into another. If one player doesn’t make the correct run or time it correctly, there is a decreased chance of a goal from the corner.

Overall, it is clear to see the improvements in how Manchester United approaches set-pieces following the appointment of Eric Ramsay. Ronaldo and Rashford are still to make an appearance this season, and Cavani has only played a handful of minutes. Therefore, we can surely expect to see a better outcome in terms of conceding less and scoring more from corners and freekicks this season.

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