Having won the Community Shield United travelled to Bournemouth looking to carry on their winning ways; they lost this fixture last year but with optimism aplenty most saw this as an opportunity to put down a marker for the league season. New signing Paul Pogba was unavailable as a consequence of a suspension carried over from his Juventus career.


In: Herrera and Mata.
Out: Carrick and Lingard.


  • A strong performance from United, cagey at first perhaps but after the break and with a lead from late in the first half they took control for about half an hour and blew Bournemouth away.
  • In the first half United rushed the ball forward with long passes, many of which went astray. Perhaps being cautious the defence stayed deep maximising the distances between the front and back of the team. After the break the whole team moved up the pitch and then back again in a more compact fashion and so were able to play forward instead of rushing the ball forward with a long pass. The movement of Herrera and Fellaini created passing options and this was far more effective.
  • Ibrahimovic and Bailly grab the headlines but United’s best performers were Blind at the back, Valencia on the overlap and Fellaini who was everywhere; his best performance in a United shirt.
  • There was good balance here. It wasn’t a spectacular show but United under Jose demonstrated that already they have learned how to control space, remain compact in defence and yet still be expansive when necessary.
  • The team exhibited a sense of enjoyment and togetherness not seen in the last two years. Obviously playing for each other, despite the clear competition for places, this is healthy and also speaks of a balance across the squad. How do you fit Rooney in, who will make way for Pogba? These are nice problems to have.


With Lingard failing to recover from an injury sustained in the Community Shield Mata came into the side on the right. He was took up a narrow position which meant that United had no one positioned wide in a high area on the right. This gave United a lopsided shape but left plenty of space for Valencia to attack and of course if Bournemouth’s left side switched off without an obvious opponent to pick up this could be a liability for them.

mata valencia movement  Antonio-Valencia

United’s first half shape and Valencia, a key outlet finding space on the wide right

The opening stages were a fairly tight affair. United tried to hit the ball forward early generally towards Zlatan in order to beat the Bournemouth press. They only really pressed Bournemouth when the home side had the ball in their own defensive third. If Bournemouth had any meaningful possession United sat deep and as a consequence Bournemouth whilst having plenty of possession were unable to create anything meaningful.

Slowly United started to build in the game. They had a lot of possession in their own half and despite the Bournemouth press were usually able to retain possession passing the ball around at the back  before then hitting the ball forward. The problem for United was that most of the forward passes were inaccurate and so for the first half hour United didn’t have any meaningful possession around the opposition’s box.

When United did move the ball forward with some accuracy the space was on the right and as predicted Valencia regularly found himself with space to attack.

Valencia and Shaw action areas - whilst the patterns are very similar in the defensive half, note how much more Valencia got forward. He was exploiting the space left by Mata's movement inside.

Valencia and Shaw action areas – whilst the patterns are very similar in the defensive half, note how much more Valencia got forward. He was exploiting the space left by Mata’s movement inside.

The pleasing thing was that he had an appetite to attack it. This resulted in the games first meaningful shot on goal in the 26th minute. United retained possession and passed the ball well around the left before Herrera released a pass inside the fullback King. Valencia ran on to the ball and cut it back towards the edge of the box where Rooney met it, but shot straight at the keeper.

Shortly after this move a similar pattern resulted in space for Valencia to deliver another cross which was headed away from Ibrahimovic at the far post.

Boom! Mata scores United's first Premier League goal of 2016-17

Boom! Mata scores United’s first Premier League goal of 2016-17

It was ironic that United’s goal came from an inaccurate pass forward, a feature of their first half play. Herrera had time to look up in his own half and hit a long hopeful pass behind Bournemouth’s left hand side. Mata chased this down and picked the ball up after a poor back pass by Francis. His first shot was saved but rebounded back to him off keeper and defender allowing him to slot home. 39 minutes played, Boom! 1-0.

After this goal United sat deep and stayed compact for six minutes preserving their lead at the half time interval.


Mourinho didn’t make any changes at halftime, but United’s play did significantly improve. Was this a consequence of the confidence that holding the lead gave them or a few half time words of wisdom? We will probably never know; but things changed.

The most obvious change was that United were no longer rushing the ball forward with early long passes. Instead they looked to develop play through the spine of the team. You could easily draw the conclusion that this was because holding the lead United didn’t need to show as much urgency but it felt like there was more to it than this. Looking at the way they looked to develop play their method was clearly different. The genesis of this change was in the play of Herrera and Fellaini.

Fellaini passing - he achieved a 99% pass completion rate with only one incomplete pass. Many of his passes were simple but he was composed, neat and tidy and kept the ball moving; that was his job.

Fellaini passing – he achieved a 99% pass completion rate with only one incomplete pass. Many of his passes were simple but he was composed, neat and tidy and kept the ball moving; that was his job.


In the first half they had stayed deep and screened their defence but now one or other, usually Fellaini stepped further forward whenever United had the ball. If this was Fellaini with Mata coming narrow on the right and Herrera moving to a central holding role in front of the defence this formed a central diamond with either Ibrahimovic or more usually Rooney in the number 10 space. This diamond created passing opportunities which enable United to retain the ball and develop play.

rooney and ibrahimovic  4842187

United’s shape and movement in the second half and Fellaini who ad arguably his best game in a United shirt

This brought Martial into the game on the left and he saw far more of the ball with players around him to give support. Shaw tended to stay deeper behind him than his opposite fullback who continued to bomb forward. Further forward whenever the ball went out wide Ibrahimovic tended to drop deep or wide beyond the far post and Rooney went high. Zlatan was coming deep to involve himself in the play but stayed high when the ball came through the centre to act as more of a target man for the out ball. United’s second goal after 58 minutes came from United playing higher.

Herrera sent the ball out to Valencia on the overlap, he pulled a cross/pass back towards Martial who mishit his shot into the ground. This bounced up towards Rooney who deftly cushioned a header across the keeper into the far corner. Rooney was in the position he was in because when the ball went wide he had gone high as Zlatan had dropped towards the far post. Boom! 2-0.

United were now in complete control of the game with the early second half pattern of United passing through the centre of the pitch before releasing players in the wide areas, usually Martial on the left and Valencia on the right. When they lost the ball they tended to drop deep into a low block which meant that whilst Bournemouth saw their fair share of the ball they made little impression.

Mata action areas - frequently coming inside, but also blocking the half spaces in the defensive areas to cut out passing options.

Mata action areas – frequently coming inside, but also blocking the half spaces in the defensive areas to cut out passing options.

In their defensive shape United’s pattern was a constant throughout the game. Herrera and Fellaini were generally positioned close to each other in front of the defence as Bournemouth came forward. Mata and Martial on either side occupied the half spaces so blocking the passing lanes between fullbacks and centre backs. This meant that United’s back line could defend on a wide front with the midfield line defending on a narrow front. The presence of the players in the half spaces allowed Herrera and Fellaini to proactively close down the Bournemouth player who had the ball denying him time and space. Bournemouth had nowhere to go except out wide and United seemed prepared to surrender pace in those areas. Ibrahimovic or Rooney generally looked to press the player in possession from behind if they took a long time on the ball.

Eric Bailly, a robust and solid display

Eric Bailly, a robust and solid display

A word about United’s central defenders. Eric Bailly was by far the most aggressive of the pair. He was assertive and resilient. Blind defended with vision and intelligence. His positioning was excellent, covering and intercepting. A defensive display like this often goes unnoticed and here Bailly picked up the man of the match award but Blind defending in a different way was at least as good and certainly as effective. Bournemouth’s attacking endeavours usually floundered against the defensive wall.

Blind defensive dashboard key

Blind’s defensive performance – 3 out of 3 successful tackles, 4 interceptions and 8 clearances

Then United scored again. This goal came after 65 minutes. Again as the ball went wide Ibrahimovic dropped deep, but as was often the case a move on Martial’s side resulted on a diagonal run inside rather than a cross. Martial ran from left to right and slipped the ball off to Ibrahimovic. This deep he had time to settle himself and shot low diagonally into the far corner through a clutch of players. Boom! 3-0.

This should have been game over but United went to sleep, or more to the point Martial did allowing the fullback Smith to run off him and collect a ball threaded diagonally into the full back area from substitute Grabban. The whole defence, including Martial were ball watching. This goal came after 75 minutes.

At 3-1 United were still comfortable and initially continued to play in the same manner. Bournemouth however found a second wind so after 75 minutes Mourinho made his first change removing Mata and introducing Mkhitaryan. This was a straight swap although Mkhitryan stayed deeper and wider than Mata. On 84 minutes United made a second change with Schneiderlin replacing Martial. United’s shape stayed as a 4-2-3-1 as they looked to close out the game with Rooney going wider and Herrera moving to the number 10 position with Inbrahimovic up front; Shneiderlin partnered Fellaini in the double pivot.

On 88 minutes Memphis replaced Rooney but at this point the game was all but over.


This was a good solid win for United, unspectacular in many ways but effective. United’s are still a bit rusty but they are well organised defensively. After an initial period where Bournemouth pressed and denied them any space United got a lucky break to take the lead. They used that luck however in the second half and a more composed considered display saw them go 3-0 up. United could and perhaps should have gone on from there and scored more, sending out a message. Instead one lapse saw them concede. In his post-match press conference Jose Mourinho suggested this goal opened the game up. It didn’t really with United always looking comfortable.

Match statistics - United not dominating possession and passing combinations as they did under Van Gaal

Match statistics – United not dominating possession and passing combinations as they did under Van Gaal

United controlled the game because they controlled the space and this is a very different strategic approach from that preferred by Van Gaal. Van Gaal looked to control possession. Instead Mourinho’s strategy is to control space both in and out of possession, whether via a low block when without the ball or via the use of good movement creating passing options through the pitch when in possession. Add to this that United played at a good tempo and were assertive and you have a different recipe than that presented last year.

Where will that take United? Who knows.