Since the return of the Premier League after the COVID-19 outbreak, Manchester United have continued their wonderful form; Ole Gunnar Solskajer’s side stretched their unbeaten run to 20 games in all competitions, their longest unbeaten run under the Norwegian manager.
This good form has allowed United to qualify for the Champions League next season, after their 2-0 win away at Leicester City confirmed their spot amongst Europe’s elite next season. But despite the team’s form continuing to follow a similar trend from before lockdown, there have been noticeable differences in the performances between now and before the break.
Shape in Possession
Since the restart, United’s shape in possession has changed. Firstly, United have been forming a back three in build-up play; this is usually constructed by defensive midfielder Nemanja Matić dropping either between the two centre backs, Victor Lindeløf and Harry Maguire, or to the left of United’s skipper.
This has often manifested itself as a diamond, as Paul Pogba, Matić’s partner in the double pivot, sits at the tip of the pivot behind the opposition’s first line of press, offering a short, progressive passing option. This helps create overloads versus the opposition’s first line of press.
One advantage of utilising a back three in build up is that it stretches the opposition’s first line of press and therefore creates gaps to progress the ball through. Allowing Matić to drop into a back three essentially means the first line of attack is wider and thus the defensive team must stretch wider in order to cover each progressive passing lane.
However, as a result of this, gaps begin to open up between opposition players, and the ball can be progressed with greater ease. In addition, this allows the full backs on both sides to push on and advance into higher positions. When Matić initiates the movement and drops into the defence during build-up play, he is often seen instructing Luke Shaw to move forward into a higher position, enabling United to maintain width in attack and helping stretch the opposition.
Matić has been key to United’s successful restart; he offers great stability on account of his superb understanding of positional play and ability to maintain balance whilst in possession. With the ball at his feet, the Serbian can break the opposition lines and connect United’s midfield to attack, something that Solskjaer’s men have struggled to do on numerous occasions this season.
When United have sustained possession closer to the half-way line, or in the opposition’s half, their back three has remained and a 3-3-1-3 formation has often been formed. This is composed by Matić slotting into the defence to create a back three, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Shaw operating on similar horizontal lines to Pogba who remains central, attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes operating between the lines and attackers Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial spreading across the opposition’s last line of defence.
This formation is very similar to the one that Hansi-Dieter Flick has deployed at Bayern Munich since his arrival. For comparison, Joshua Kimmich often drops into the defence to form a back three in possession, full backs Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies advance forward, whilst attackers Serge Gnabry and Thomas Müller drift inside in between the lines, searching for pockets of space within the opposition’s defensive structure.
The image below comes from the match against Sheffield United at Old Trafford; United can be seen in a clear 3-3-4/3-3-1-3 shape – in this case, it looks more of a 3-3-4 formation because the position of Fernandes is higher than usual. However, he is still a dangerous threat between the lines thanks to his vision and movement.
In this shape, United have become more dangerous and more difficult to contain from an opposition’s point of view, as demonstrated by their 19 goals in the Premier League since the restart.
Firstly, United’s width has improved vastly. This new system allows both full backs to advance into higher positions, and therefore they can operate close to the touchline.
Consequently, they can provide width in attack which is exceedingly important to the success of United’s attacking formula and breaking down opposition low blocks; it stretches the opposition’s defensive shape as there is simply a larger amount of space to cover in order to stay in touch with all attacking threats.
As a result of this, spacing issues begin to materialise within the opposition’s shape and gaps begin to appear. This means there is more space for the likes of Fernandes, Greenwood and Martial to operate in and when they receive possession, they have more time as the opposition are spread out wider and the distances between them and the player in possession are larger.
There is also an immense improvement in the number of progressive passing options each player has when in possession. This is mainly down to the amount of players who operate between the opposition’s defence and midfield lines.
The back three allows the full backs to operate closer to the touchline, which in turn allows the ‘wide attackers’ to drift inside and operate more centrally, in between the lines. This is difficult to defend against because attackers such as Martial, Greenwood and Fernandes are constantly on the move, attempting to open up passing lanes to receive the ball on the half turn.
Consequently, there are too many passing lanes to block, which causes gaps to appear from which the ball can be penetrated through. This has helped United’s ball progression from the second phase to the final third because the player in possession has more vertical passing options available. It’s no coincidence they have been able to connect midfield to attack on a frequent basis since the restart.
There is great contrast between United’s vertical passing options between the lines now and earlier on in the season; this was evident in the visit to Newcastle in October where United struggled massively to connect the second phase to the final third and failed to penetrate through the rigid, defensive structure of the hosts. Newcastle would go on to win 1-0, in a match that demonstrated several of United’s early season issues.
Wide Rotations and Combinations
We have also seen an increase in dynamism in wide areas during United’s attacking play. Since the resumption of domestic football, there seems to be a greater understanding between the full back and wide attacker on each side, and this can be seen in United’s wide rotations and combinations.
Wide rotations can be largely effective because they allow players to occupy different positions, and the constant movement of players into different positions can cause confusion within the opposition ranks. As a result, wide rotations can create a yard of space within the opposition defence which can be exploited via intricate combinations.
Firstly, on the left hand side of attack, Shaw and Rashford started together in 7 Premier League matches since the restart which has only boosted their understanding. However, it’s clear to see that these rotations have been coached.
Typically, when Matić drops into the defence and instructs Shaw to proceed forward, he advances towards the touchline, meaning Rashford can operate in a more central position, typically within the half space.
Firstly, this allows Shaw to advance into a higher position. Shaw is a full back who likes to affect the game in the final third, so moving him forward into a more advanced position enables him to pin back the opposition full back, which in turn allows Rashford to operate more centrally, often in the half space.
This gives the opposing centre back a predicament; allow Rashford to receive the ball, turn, and attack the defence head on? Or step out of the defensive line, engage Rashford and risk United exposing the space in behind created by the vacated position? By the movement of attacking players into more dangerous positions, this creates problems for the team without possession.
However, we have also seen Shaw operate in inverted positions on multiple occasions when he has advanced forward; simultaneously, Rashford drops deeper and operates extremely close to the touchline. This seemingly basic rotation is effective because it drags opposition players out of position as players are taking up different positions and complicating the defensive structure.
In addition, Shaw’s position during this rotation allows him to perform his trademark underlaps, which are now constantly being found by Rashford. Rashford seems to have this type of pass locked down; the out-to-in-pass in order to find the underlaps of Shaw. This rotation has been an effective source of chance creation since the restart for United.
The dynamic on the right is perhaps less flexible, but arguably more beneficial to the team. United’s right back Wan-Bissaka pushes forward into a wide position, allowing Greenwood to drift inside and operate in the right half-space. This is extremely effective because firstly, it allows Wan-Bissaka to hold width on the right and create balance across the pitch.
Wan-Bissaka has often been criticised for his ability to affect the game in the final third this season, but there have been signs of improvement throughout the season and this more advanced position he has taken up since the restart will only enhance his attacking potential.
Secondly, and more significantly, this allows Greenwood to operate in areas he is most effective. Operating in these areas enables Greenwood to produce his trademark effort; pick the ball up in the right channel, drive inside, open up the angle to shoot towards the far post, before shooting at the near post when the goalkeeper moves in the opposite direction.
We have seen this strike on multiple occasions this season, most recently against Brighton. Greenwood is ambipedal, making him even more unpredictable when he receives possession in the final third simply because he has so many solutions as he can use both feet, thus allowing him to go inside or outside no matter what flank he’s playing on.
As such, operating in the half spaces will allow him to pick the ball up in these areas and cut inside and shoot, or drive inside with the ball before cutting back onto this equally able right foot. Despite the positioning on the right being more rigid, the pair did show great understanding of balance against Bournemouth at Old Trafford.
For the majority of the game, Wan-Bissaka held width on the right, allowing Greenwood to slot into the half spaces, but in the above image, a rotation between the two positions threw off Bournemouth’s defensive structure, and as a result, Wan-Bissaka is able to exploit the space.
Furthermore, there has been an increase in progressive passing options for the full backs when they receive possession. For large parts of the season, United have struggled to progress play when the full back has the ball close to the touchline, which consequently often resulted in the ball moving backwards to the centre backs (where the ball came from originally, more often than not).
This futile recycling of possession was mainly down to a lack of understanding of positional play from the attacking players. For example, in United’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle in October, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira, the ‘between the lines’ players that day, showed a terrible understanding of effective positioning when the full back received possession.
They often occupied positions where the ball simply could not reach them and as a result, the ball often went backwards to centre backs Harry Maguire and Axel Tuanzebe. Consequently, United struggled to penetrate Newcastle that day, and the attack rarely featured in dangerous positions.
However, since the alteration of the team’s shape in recent times, there is a great increase in progressive options for the full back when they receive possession close to the half-way line.
These options are almost all diagonal, progressive options, which is effective because a down-the-line, vertical option can often be ushered out by the defender because they are so close to the touchline. As a result, possession is often lost when the full back plays a pass directly down the line to a wide attacker.
Due to the new shape, United have numerous options between the lines that the full back can find when he receives possession. This helps with ball progression because it means there are constantly progressive passing options.
Without these options for the player on the ball, United’s possession would become stagnant against rigid, well-organised low blocks, which was a huge problem earlier on in the season.
Patterns of Play
At the beginning of the season, it was clear to all viewers that Manchester United were reliant on individual quality in order to break down an opposition defence. And due to the amount of injuries to first team players, along with the lack of quality in the squad, United often dropped points to the teams in the bottom half of the table who sat back and formed a rigid, defensive shape.
It was evident that no patterns of play in attack were being coached; however, since the restart, it’s clear to see this has changed. In recent weeks, United have showcased a few predetermined attacking patterns in the final third, which has helped the break down opposition defences.
These patterns have occurred many times since the restart, which indicates they have been coached on the training ground in order to get the best out of United’s attack. In this section, I will look at two patterns of play we have seen occur on many occasions since the restart.
The first phase of play manifests the great understanding between Fernandes and Martial. This pattern of play consists of a line-breaking pass to find Fernandes operating between the lines, followed by a flick around the corner by the Portuguese midfielder, which the centre forward (usually Martial) receives by dropping deeper. Fernandes then spins away from his marker and continues his movement forward.
This was perfectly represented in the game vs Sheffield United at Old Trafford:
This pattern of play has been extremely effective since the restart. Firstly, it shows the great understanding between Fernandes and Martial. Fernandes has shown great spatial awareness since his arrival and therefore is able to understand the position of his teammates. This makes it easier to evaluate whether or not the ‘around the corner flick’ would be appropriate and efficient, depending on the positioning of Martial and also the opposition defenders.
Often, Martial is operating on the same wavelength and Fernandes, and we often see him drop deep and in proximity with the Portuguese, ready to receive the back heel flick and continue the attack from there.
However, perhaps the main advantage of this particular pattern of play is that the positioning of Fernandes in between the lines of the opposition often drags a defender out of position into a higher position. Fernandes often positions himself in between the lines, however, closer to the last line of defence (not including the goalkeeper).
Consequently, from a defender’s perspective, they are more susceptible to stepping out of the defensive line and engaging Fernandes if the ball reaches him. When they step out of the defensive line, this leaves a gap within the opposition’s defence and United can exploit it via quick, intricate combination play after Fernandes’s flick and spin.
The second pattern of play I will analyse in this section is a mixture of wide rotations and quick circulation of the ball into a dangerous position. We have seen this many times since the restart which indicates it is a pattern which has been coached, and it was most prominent in the game vs Brighton.
The ball begins with a player in the back three during build up play, usually the player on the left of the three (Maguire). As the back three has been formed, this allows Shaw to advance into a higher position, however, instead of moving closer to the touchline, he moves into the half-space and pins an opposition midfielder. This creates the space for Rashford to drop deep and extremely wide to receive possession from Maguire.
From then, Rashford performs a first time, diagonal, lofted pass into the feet of Martial, United’s centre forward. To ensure the attack continues, Fernandes operates close to Martial and often spins off him, running in behind the defence in order to exploit the space in behind that has been created via Rashford, typically the winger, dropping deep.
The main component that this phase of play is the lifted pass from Rashford. In order to successfully break down a defense and lead to a chance on goal, the pass from the English forward must land at the feet of Martial in order for United to retain possession and continue the attack.
If the pass is inaccurate, it is likely United loses possession and concede a counterattacking opportunity, because the pass is high-risk due to its height, weight and distance. However, Rashford’s passing has improved greatly this season, and he is well-equipped to find Martial nine times out of 10.
The predominant advantage of this phase of play is the quick ball circulation into the centre forward’s feet. Essentially, the higher you move the ball, the closer the ball will be to the goal and therefore the attack will be more dangerous.
This rapid ball circulation into a more advanced position takes the opposition’s midfield out of the game, and if possession is retained between the lines by Martial’s hold up play, United are attacking the opposition’s last line of defence, again, excluding the goalkeeper. This phase allows United to bypass the opponent’s midfield and move the ball forward at a faster rate than usual.
As mentioned before, Rashford’s deep positioning means the opposition’s full back is free and has no player to mark/track. Therefore, they advance into a slightly higher position which opens up the space for Fernandes, who remains in proximity with Martial throughout the move, to exploit. This is how United unlock the defence and move in behind, where they are most threatening.
Return of Pogba and the Midfield Dynamic
There’s no denying it in football: individual quality is needed in order to break down opposition defences. The extent to which it is needed will be debated for a long time, but there is definitely no denying that a certain amount of individual quality or brilliance is imperative in breaking down deep blocks. Since the restart, United have had this in abundance which has only enhanced their performances.
The new shape that Solskjaer and his backroom staff are implementing is important, but it is perhaps refined by the individual quality United have in their squad. Pep Guardiola, a manager who has enjoyed remarkable levels of success in his career, admitted he ‘completely agreed’ with the journalists that claimed he would struggle to win the Champions League without Lionel Messi, which only highlighted the importance of player quality when breaking down low blocks.
Perhaps the biggest advantage from the Premier League’s suspension was that it allowed star players Pogba and Rashford to return from injury and play key roles in the run-in at the back end of the season. Since returning to the side, Pogba has been partnered by Matić in the double pivot.. The Frenchman’s role in this side is clear to see; a deep progressor of the ball.
Pogba has shown many times he can play in a variety of positions in midfield, including in the double pivot, a free 8 in a mezzala type role, or even a number 10 who operates close to the centre forward. However, this position seems ideal for Pogba; the attributes that he possesses completely matches the attributes required to play the role effectively.
He has often been involved in build up play and in the second phase since the restart in a relatively deep position. Pogba forms the tip of the diamond in build up play in the second phase, and he has used his phenomenal passing range to connect United’s second phase and final third together. This has only benefited the attacking quartet, who have taken all the plaudits, as they are beginning to receive possession in dangerous positions on a frequent basis.
It is evident that Pogba is thriving in his deep ball progression role when you look at the ‘progressive distance’ statistic. Progressive distance is the total distance, in yards, that completed passes have travelled towards the opponent’s goal. Per 90 minutes, Pogba possesses a progressive distance of 370.2 yards, which is much larger than his teammates who play in the same position, Fred (302.9), Matić (290.9) and Scott McTominay (208.1).
Pogba seems content in this role of a deep progressor, even though it does decrease his influence in the final third when United attack. This is mostly because the responsibility falls on the attacking quartet of Rashford, Greenwood, Fernandes and Martial. Although Pogba is given the license to move forward into the final third to support attacks on some occasions, this is usually when Fernandes drops deeper to receive possession.
Fernandes has added 8 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League since his January arrival, and he has a strong tendency to drop deep and receive possession in the second phase as well as drift into wide areas to create overloads. He constantly wants to be involved in every phase of play, which only enhances Pogba’s attacking influence despite his deeper role.
The Portuguese’s arrival has caused much needed rotation in midfield because when he drops deeper to receive possession, another midfielder must advance in order to maintain balance and confuse the opposition.
When Fernandes drops deeper to support the second phase and offer a different option to the player with possession, Pogba often advances forward onto a similar horizontal line that Fernandes would usually operate on. This helps maintain team balance and also increases Pogba’s potential for attacking returns.
Despite the deeper role, Pogba’s attacking influence in the final third has been far from negated.
It is clear as day that Ole and his backroom staff had put in the work in order to improve performances over the break. For the majority of the season, United struggled to break down deep blocks and often dropped points against teams lower down in the table due to a lack of understanding of positional play.
However, it seems Ole is well on his way to implementing the correct system against the teams who look to sit behind the ball and absorb pressure. United’s final performances before the break have underlined the importance of a system, and a clear idea of how to play against lower blocks.
By: Ollie Himsworth
Featured Image: @GabFoligno