The wait is over, in more ways than one.
Manchester United scored a goal for the first time since their last victory, over Chelsea on the 6th of December, having failed to score for four straight games in between. Rasmus Højlund finally broke his Premier League duck with an excellent finish to complete United’s dramatic 3-2 comeback against Aston Villa.
It was a game that felt like United heritage, and given the news release two days prior that Sir Jim Ratcliffe will, subject to approval, be taking a minority stake in Manchester United and be granted full sporting control, it felt appropriate that this was the case.
Behind the win, though, were some key tactical elements, which UtdDistrict break down here.
Midfield construction & Diogo Dalot’s role
With Luke Shaw out due to a minor knock, Diogo Dalot lined up at left-back for Manchester United, as he has done on a few occasions. Some would have expected Sergio Reguilón, a natural left-back, to start, but the intention behind starting Dalot was clear.
Aston Villa play a 4-4-2 nominally, but in possession, their wide midfielders come inside to create a box shape in midfield, overloading the centre of the pitch. Diogo Dalot inverted into midfield alongside the number six Kobbie Mainoo, forming a double pivot which allowed Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes to advance higher up the pitch.
This saw United match up against Villa’s shape in midfield, not allowing them to control the middle. It also gave United an extra central option when building the attack, and Dalot being a right footer coming in from left back was something that Villa had to take into consideration when pressing United.
Eriksen and Fernandes were afforded more freedom due to Dalot and Mainoo’s presence deeper, and this brought the best out of both playmakers. They also did a good job at pressing Villa’s double pivot of Douglas Luiz and Leander Dendoncker, particularly in the second half. Alejandro Garnacho’s opener came from Fernandes pickpocketing Luiz.
Direct running and speed behind the Villa line
Marcus Rashford, Rasmus Højlund and Alejandro Garnacho was the front three that Erik ten Hag went with, and it was very clear even before the game began what his intention was with that front three, with Fernandes and Eriksen behind them servicing.
The three forwards are United’s most potent threats when running into space. Aston Villa are a side that play with a particularly aggressive high line – looking to catch players offside – and Ten Hag wanted to try and catch that out with constant quick, direct runs in attack.
United were found offside six times in the first half and nine times in total, one of them being for Alejandro Garnacho’s disallowed goal. Going into the game, Emery’s side were averaging 4.76 offsides against them per game this season, comfortably the most in the Premier League.
United were caught offside practically twice as much as teams usually are against Villa, showcasing just how aggressive and direct Ten Hag’s approach was against them. Only Chelsea have had more offsides against the Villains this season [FBref]. However, United took their chances in the second half, so this tactic from Ten Hag paid off in the end.
What helped was the fact that all three players in the attack are dangerous runners, Villa’s backline were often found stretched due to the fact they couldn’t just focus on any one player. They had to be aware of all three players at all times, as well as deeper runs from the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot. United’s dynamism in attack was a key part of this comeback win.
Pressing tweaks at half-time
In the first half, as has been seen many times this season, United’s press was beaten in the wide areas. In the second half, United consistently committed their fullbacks to the team’s press, and (shockingly!) the pressing was much stronger as a unit.
Emery’s men were unable to move the ball through the wide areas as they did in the first half due to the good work of Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka stepping onto Villa’s spare men out wide. United suffocated Villa out of possession, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas, and it was from a turnover in the middle that United were able to score their first goal.
The last part is particularly important, United’s intention in their pressing was clearly to create transition opportunities. This is what Ten Hag’s idea with Manchester United seemed to be in the opening games of the season before he changed his approach, and he looked to be going for a similar method in this game.
Throughout the game, Raphaël Varane was tasked with man-marking Ollie Watkins – one of the most in-form strikers in English football right now – and, as he has done so many times throughout his illustrious career, kept him completely silent. Jonny Evans had to act a few times too, and did so in excellent fashion, whilst also blocking what would have been a certain goal. The experience and leadership of the two centre-halves was a massive part of United’s defensive organisation.
Saturday’s early kick-off away at Nottingham Forest will pose a very different test for United, but the team presses better when the fullbacks join the press than it does when they stay back, and United should replicate this to prevent Forest from being able to transition through the wide areas.
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