Whilst the performance in United’s 3-1 league win at Bournemouth on Sunday may not have been of the highest quality there were promising signs for United fans. Jose Mourinho has clearly already had a significant impact on the training field as there are some interesting patterns of play emerging. The display was still a little rough around the edges but you would expect that at this early stage of the season whether the manager was new or not, but we could pick out clear patterns of movement and passing which were not present in Louis van Gaal’s United side last year.
United set up in what was basically a 4-2-3-1. Nothing new in that as Van Gaal employed that team shape last year. The differences are subtle. In both this game and the Community Shield United passed the ball forward more quickly and down the spine of the team. Under Van Gaal United tended to play the ball squarer and this resulted in a compression of the play as our opponents retreated in two blocks of four. That then created a problem with United struggling to find space in the final third and to play through opponents.
United’s basic shape and Mata brought in to replace the injured Lingard
On Sunday in the opening stages United still found space to be at a premium with Bournemouth pressing and full of energy and they responded to this in two ways; by playing a long early pass towards Ibrahimovic or by attempting to pass the ball centrally in a tight area to draw opponents into the centre of the pitch before releasing a pass to Valencia on the overlap. They had varying degrees of success with each tactic.
Mata and Valencia
Another repeated pattern from the Van Gaal era was Mata notionally on the right hand side of the 3 in the 4-2-3-1 but coming inside or even at times almost permanently in a narrow position. This was very notable in the first half and left a lot of space on that side which could be exploited by the passing of Herrera from the right side of midfield and Valencia’s running.
Valencia’s movement as Mata came inside was a significant feature of United’s play
We have pointed out before in the days when Valencia was operating as a winger that he is a far more effective player when he runs from deep with space in front of him. Valencia beats opponents with pace rather than with a trick and seems to need the momentum that a run from deep can generate to overpower an opponent. Whilst the Mata moving inside and Valencia overlapping from deep manoeuvre is nothing new, but the difference is that now he appears to be allowed to get beyond his man and deliver a cross whereas under Van Gaal he always seemed to double back and recycle the ball back inside.
Perhaps the key difference now is that United have a big target man in place in the middle in the person of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It is noticeable that whenever the ball went wide in the first half towards Valencia Ibrahimovic would invariably move over to the left, which is effectively the far post area from where he would attack the ball moving in from behind the centre-backs.
Blocking the half spaces
United had the better of this game but they did not have it all their own way and had to do their fair share of defending. Under Van Gaal United defended by controlling possession and adopted a high defensive line. Under Mourinho when the opposition has any meaningful possession United drop back into a low block and defend the edge of their penalty area. They did this well on Sunday apart from in one instance which resulted in a goal conceded. Great credit should go to Blind and Bailly for their displays. Bailly was aggressive and energetic and Blind read the game superbly. Blinds positioning was excellent; he only made 3 tackles but won them all, he also made 4 interceptions and 8 clearances.
Mata and Martial blocking the passing lanes and Blind who was excellent
The other key part of this strategy was the way the midfield moved in front of the defence when United settled into a low block. Herrera and Fellani screened the defence. They didn’t just sit their however but harried and constantly adjusted their position to ensure that the Bournemouth midfield rarely had a chance to look up with space to pass. In addition Mata and Martial the two wide players in the 3 sat deep and narrow in these situations and closed the passing lanes in the half spaces. This meant that Bournemouth had nowhere to run or pass other than into wide areas. United appeared happy to let them do this safe in the knowledge that the goal is in the centre of the pitch. Time and again as Bournemouth approached the edge of the United box their moved foundered on this defensive organisation.
It went wrong on the goal conceded because Martial switched off and allowed Smith to run off him. Grabban was allowed to run across goal without a challenge as the defence and midfield, including Martial ball watched. This was a rare aberration however.
4-2-3-1 becomes 4-4-2 with a diamond
As previously stated in the first half United moved the ball forward quickly with an early pass towards Zlatan. With the defence sitting deep the distance between the front and back of the team was too great and most of these passes went astray. When they did find Zlatan there was no one around him to help develop play; usually Rooney had dropped to deep leaving the Swede isolated. Ironically United’s first goal came from just such a long inaccurate pass and was scored in spite of this method rather than because of it and as a consequence of Mata’s dogged determination.
This all changed after the break, perhaps this was as a consequence of a few halftime words or perhaps it came as a consequence of United playing more patiently because they now had a lead. Whichever United now took their time and moved the ball forward more deliberately playing through the middle of the pitch rather than hitting a pass through it.
United create a diamond in midfield via Fellaini’s movement and composure
But it was the movement of the players when United had the ball which enabled them to more easily do this. All the players beyond the defensive line made a contribution here but Herrera and Fellaini were the key. Most usually when United had the ball Fellaini would move higher on the left. Herrera would stay deep but move into the centre. With Mata in a high position coming narrow this formed a central triangle space. The diamond was completed by either Rooney or Ibrahimovic moving into the number 10 space. This diamond created a triangulation in the centre of the pitch and so passing options. Valencia and Martial were able to run-off this on occasions creating width or attacking the half spaces outside the diamond. On occasions it was Herrera who came high and Fellaini who shuffled across. Fellaini had perhaps his best game for United, he looked comfortable doing simple things and in his positioning he co-ordinated well with Herrera. Both gave very disciplined displays.
Rooney and Ibrahimovic
There has been many column inches written on this issue over the last few weeks. The main question appears to be where Rooney will fit into the side. The answer from this game seems to be on some occasions in front of Ibrahimovic and on some occasions behind him. In the Community Shield it was a fair criticism to say that Rooney and Ibrahimovic seemed to want to occupy each other’s space. In this game their movement was far more co-ordinated.
Rooney and Ibrahimovic movement was much more co-ordinated that in the Community Shield
It all seemed to hinge on where the emphasis of United’s attack was. If United attacked in wide areas Rooney would go high, past Ibrahimovic who would drop deep or wide to arrive in the box late. This was the reason Rooney was in the box to benefit from a miss hit shot from Martial resulting in the second goal.
If United attacked down the centre Ibrahimovic would stay high and act as an attacking pivot, a more static central link who could bring others into play. Then Rooney would be deeper to help develop play; in truth sometimes he came to deep. Ibrahimovic staying high didn’t always work well here but there was a clear pattern and it will be interesting to see how this works in the coming weeks. There is a relationship developing and of course they both scored.