When United went 3-1 up, how many people thought the game was done and dusted? I did and as Louis van Gaal mentioned in his post-match comments, we should have killed the game off with possession.
Yet, that’s not what happened as Leicester found a lifeline through a dubious penalty call from Mark Clattenburg. Swinging the momentum of the game into a place where United no longer seemed comfortable with the proceedings.
A Recurring Theme
What’s interesting about our loss to Leicester is these type of “collapses” have often been seen over the past few years. One can even point to the way we crumbled to Liverpool at home in 08/09 season, where for a second, United fans thought the unthinkable would happen in the title race.
Then there was the 3-3 draw to Everton away. When United were 3-1 up in the final minutes of the match, yet somehow found a way to capitulate allowing Everton to score two quick goals in succession.
The Bayern quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford (2010) where United went on an early surge to go 3-0 up only to see the tide change with an Olic goal before half-time with Rafael’s second yellow to follow. Once again, United were stunned and it wasn’t long until Arjen Robben stepped up to slot home the vital blow as United were eliminated from the Champions League on our own ground.
And who can forget? The pulsating 4-4 draw with Everton at the Theatre of Dreams. Going down 1-0, then forging ahead with 2 unanswered goals, back to 2-2, and then another surge to bring it to 4-2. This was it! The title was within our grasp! And then we let it slip away again allowing 2 goals in the space of 2 minutes within the last 10 minutes of the game which disrupted our late season momentum. It was the moment where United fans felt we had gifted City a chance to come back into the hunt. While we slammed on our breaks after that Everton draw, City went full speed ahead.
Leicester City 5 – United 3; what went wrong?
But let’s not carry on this vein any longer. The big question is how do these collapses relate to the one against Leicester City? We have a lot of new players in the squad which boasts one of the most star-studded attacks in the league let alone the world. What could possibly go wrong?
As the story goes, football can be an unpredictable sport and it’s why managers stress the importance of killing the game off when you have the chance, because you may not get to again.
Against Leicester, Manchester United’s collapse looked to be another case of déjà vu with Clattenburg’s penalty call changing the feel of the game. It’s in times like these where fans, managers and staff alike, learn about their team. The easy route is to point fingers, shift the blame and oversimplify. Yet, if we want to paint an accurate picture of what we see, should we not ask the relevant questions to help us get there?
That’s what this analysis is about, finding the main reasons why what looked to be a step in the right direction, turned into utter calamity.
Analyzing the Goals
The main themes present in the goals we conceded were severe lack of defensive organization and compactness. Compactness essentially means what it says, few gaps in a team’s defensive shape (to be discussed in more depth in a forthcoming article). Reduce the number of gaps between players in the same line, backline, midfield lines, forward lines; horizontal compactness. Reduced the number of gaps between the backline, midfield, and attacking players; vertical compactness. Both themes seemed to become more exacerbated as the game went on.
One could suggest this all points to the mental frailty which is still present in the team. Maybe we can take some solace in van Gaal’s post-match words; he wants the team to take full responsibility and stop looking to hide behind a referee’s decision or a substitution they don’t agree with.
1st Leicester Goal
One of the rules defenders are usually taught as they develop is not letting the ball bounce as it creates more uncertainty. Pictured below, Rojo takes a swipe at the long ball intended for Vardy. Not only does Rojo miss, but the ball bounces past him, meaning Vardy has now got behind our defence with an opportunity to set up a goal-scoring chance.
The third picture here illustrates what went wrong as well as what our players could have done better.
What’s important to keep in mind is the goal occurred seconds after Di Maria scored a beauty of a goal. United looked to be cruising to a comfortable win. Credit to Leicester in adhering to their gameplan of isolating the fullbacks and creating chances through long balls to the channels, but we didn’t seem to have an answer to it and it is concerning we switched off so quickly after going 2-0 up. Another issue I’m sure van Gaal is looking to address.
2nd Leicester Goal:
The screenshot below highlights another issue present throughout the game: bouts of passive defending.
The red line indicates the distance between Herrera and Konchesky. One of Leicester’s strategies was hitting long balls to the channels to try and exploit the space between the centerback-fullback pairs. Hence, it’s important the other players recognise this so they can close down players to limit these sort of opportunities. The elephant in the room is why they didn’t.
For the most part, our backline dealt well with these long balls. However, applying a band-aid isn’t the same as finding the source of a leak in your sink and fixing it. Since, United did not do the latter, the band-aid kept falling off.
The red line indicates the space between Blackett and Rafael. This is the area Leicester tried to exploit repeatedly throughout the game. The yellow circle highlights not only the lack of compactness but a break in the defensive structure. Notice the United player behind Rafael and Blackett is Smalling. It begs the question, ‘Why is he so separated from the backline?’
The only “mistake” Rafael made was giving Vardy a chance to exaggerate whatever contact he felt to get the penalty. It was a slight moment of rashness as the better decision would have been to pass Vardy off to Blackett who is already in position to handle the situation.
The yellow box denotes the zone Blackett is accounting for relative to Vardy’s positioning. As you can see with the red line between Blackett and Smalling, there is some space between them which could be exploited.
Therefore, it would have been better for Rafael to disengage and plug up the remaining gap in this situation (black line). Nonetheless, it was still a horrible call from Clattenburg and it stands as a lesson for our players to learn how to react better in such situations.
3rd Leicester Goal:
This goal was interesting as it was the first time we conceded after gifting possession in our own half. Smalling made an errant pass which was headed to a Leicester City player. Rojo stepped in for a tackle leading to a throw-in.
From the ensuing throw-in, Leicester looked to exploit the space in our backline which led to Blind and Smalling both going for the same ball. Then Rooney’s poor clearance ended up at the feet of Hammond whose shot then deflected to Cambiasso (unmarked). He wasted no time in dispatching the ball into the net bringing Leicester level.
What you will notice in these following screenshots is not only the gaps in our defense but the amount of spaces we either left open or players we just seemed to refuse to mark.
4th Leicester Goal:
One of the key hallmarks of a van Gaal team is being able to attack whilst thinking about defence. What this means is attacking in a way such that when you do lose the ball, you know what needs to be done defensively so your defensive organization is not taken advantage of.
However, it’s clear to see from the following screenshots that United are not at that point yet. The reason I keep highlighting a lack of compactness is because it’s an important feature of maintaining defensive structure especially in the fast paced Premier League. If you are too open, you are giving room for your opponent to take advantage of the gaps you have allowed them. Once this happens, it becomes harder to take full control of the situation from a defensive standpoint.
Therefore, because we are not in good defensive shape when we attack, there’s no surprise our defence looks so weak. However, what we are seeing with our backline is mainly the consequence of this lack of compactness and good defensive transitioning/organisation, not the cause.
5th Leicester goal:
The nightmare is almost over! The screenshots speak for themselves.
So what do we take away from this match?
The easy conclusion is to say United lack proper leaders on the pitch and we need more dominant centerbacks. While there is some credence to this conclusion, perhaps we should consider the disparity between our conclusion and what van Gaal has been known to do with his teams. This is not to discount the importance of leadership (however important that is) or to discount having better defenders who would most likely help the situation. It is to highlight that when things go wrong, we like to look for the quick fix, rather than spending time thinking about alternative solutions and what they might entail.
What is clear is the team is not singing from the same hymn sheet defensively and from a more tactical point of view, it won’t really matter who is in your backline, if your defensive shape as a team is terrible, you will most likely suffer the consequences. It will be interesting to see how van Gaal looks to make United a more cohesive unit over the next few weeks.
Another point to consider is how van Gaal will address the mental frailties which have seemingly appeared again. While Clattenburg’s decision to call the penalty against Rafael was bad, it was even more alarming to see some of our players lose their composure. The game wasn’t over, but the players’ reactions seemed to suggest as much. Even though it was a decision which didn’t go our way. Clattenburg didn’t cost us the game, but his decision definitely shifted the momentum. Nonetheless, it does not excuse the response of the team. There will be matches where the circumstances aren’t in our favour; this calls for a sense of mental fortitude to remain calm, trust in the system and find a way to get something out of the game. While there is still time on the clock and points at stake, our focus should be on winning those points rather than focusing on how we were wronged.
In a way, Leicester gave us a taste of our own medicine as we have become so accustomed to United comebacks under Sir Alex. United comebacks seemed spontaneous under Sir Alex but the team actually went through different scenarios in training to address what they needed to be do in cases where we do find ourselves behind. Moyes didn’t do this so now we have to pick up the pieces, and under a new regime find a way to restore that mentality. It’s important to remember that while David Moyes took over a team who had just become champions, Louis van Gaal took over one who had a confidence-shattering season. Even though he had a late start due to the World Cup, with the help of Woodard and the negotiating team, United were able to make some key signings as well as trim the squad numbers to better suit van Gaal’s plans.
For van Gaal, this was a good opportunity to see how the team responded to adversity. It is also a good opportunity to show players where they are wrong and use this experience as a catalyst to say, “Remember this moment. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.” For the players, this is an opportunity to stop hiding behind refs, a manager’s failings, or a player being subbed off and just take full ownership and responsibility as an individual and also as a member of the team. The players will need to learn to rely on each other and it will be difficult to do that if they keep getting caught up in the moment instead of remembering they need to cross the finish line too.
On the bright side, there were enough positives from the match to not feel down-trodden about our future. Adversity is a great teacher and as long as we learn from it, we shall become better in the end. With van Gaal at the helm, I’m confident we will.
Article by Edikan Umana
You can follow him on twitter @EddieTrulyReds