HULL CITY vs MANCHESTER UNITED
United on two wins from their first two league games travelled to Hull who were also on two wins from their first two games. Something had to give. With the Derby coming up after the international break United would be keen to maintain a maximum point’s record going into that game.
- A late last gasp winner, but United deserved this. They played positively on the front foot with energy and an increasing intensity as the match wore on.
- United’s defence looked solid and this gave United a platform from which to try things, safe in the knowledge that if they didn’t come off United would not be exposed; a change from safety first. Blind and Bailly complemented by Fellaini were excellent again.
- United struggled to make a breakthrough trying to play through Hull because the final ball, a pass or cross was poor. It didn’t help that Rooney appeared sluggish playing behind the deliberately more static target man. United needed more dynamic movement and energy behind Zlatan.
- In the first half United were slow when it came to picking up the loose ball. After the break they were sharper and more alert so that the ball just kept coming back at Hull.
- Despite this United didn’t make the breakthrough until Jose changed things, shape and methodology with Rashford and Mkhitaryan running at Hull instead of trying to play through a massed defence. Their movement and directness made the difference.
The personnel and formation were unchanged from that seen against Southampton in United’s previous game. After an initial phase where both teams were full of running and space was at a premium United quickly got on top. They were passing well and at a good tempo and all the patterns of play seen in the last few games were repeated here.
United’s first half shape and movement and Ibrahimovic whose movement or positioning changed across the course of the match
Before we look at some of the issues from this game we should say a thing about Hull City. They were excellent throughout; okay they were conservative in their ambitions but executed their game plan with great discipline and so made it a tough task for United to get through. Playing A rough 4-4-1-1 they dropped back as a 4-5-1 whenever United had any periods of sustained possession and then looked to hit United on the break. Several times in the first half they caught Fellaini out of position on the break and got behind him. He committed a couple of fouls to limit the potential damage and was eventually booked for this. There is a danger here for United when the other player, Pogba, has more licence to push on, the holding player needs to be alert and vigilant at all times.
As the game wore on United began to dominate possession but in the opening twenty minutes Hull had one or two good spells. Then United dropped back into a low block, but with a subtle difference than in earlier fixtures. The difference was that in this game the fullbacks stayed quite narrow; close to their centre backs. This surrendered space in the wide areas which was usually covered by Mata and Martial dropping deep.
Overall though United had most of the ball and did the majority of the attacking. In view of this one has to ask the question why they did not made a breakthrough. At the start of the game Zlatan stayed quite high, but the service up to him was poor; he was feeding off scraps. Some of the approach play was good but Hulls two lines stayed solid and United’s efforts foundered on this barrier. To describe United’s play one would point to the usual characteristics already emerging this year. Mata came narrow towards Rooney, Pogba pushed on to the left and Valencia with acres of space pushed forward at any opportunity. Martial looked to cut inside whenever possible and Shaw then pushed up. There was less space for Shaw because on the left Pogba was tending to drift this side whilst on the right Fellaini stayed deeper and more central than Pogba so creating the space and allowing Valencia to push into.
It wasn’t working out for a number of reasons. Firstly Rooney looked very sluggish. He was dropping deep to involve himself but he got caught in possession several times when he seemingly couldn’t decide what to do. His play looked more ponderous than that of everyone around him. Secondly United’s final pass or cross was poorer than in other games this season. More accuracy was needed to make life harder for Hull. Thirdly as the half wore on Ibrahimovic dropped deeper. Perhaps this was because of the poor service but it made life easier for the Hull back line. His presence as a static link up front was lost as a consequence. Finally the other consequence of all these characteristics of United’s play was that the number 10 area of the pitch became very crowded. Five players, (Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mata and Martial), were all potentially converging on the same area.
This meant that United, whilst dominating possession and playing at a good tempo were ineffective as an attacking force. Halftime; 0-0.
As now seems to be the norm Jose Mourinho made no half time changes, in personnel at least. A number of things did change however. Firstly Ibrahimovic tended to stay higher and more central. This had been the way at the start of the first half of course but it was good to see because it ensured that Hull’s central defenders were always occupied so creating more room for players behind him. The other change was that the intensity of United’s play seemed to go up a notch. Now they was an even greater sense of urgency and this seemed to increase as the half wore on.
In his after match press conference Mourinho said that at halftime he told his players that they had to win the ball back quickly to keep the pressure on Hull constantly. This is exactly what United did. Whereas in the first half United often lost out in a 50/50 situation or weren’t first to a loose ball now everyone in the team was alert, focused and ready to regain possession and quickly get back at Hull. Bailly and Blind stepped up a little higher and Fellaini in front of them worked in tandem with them to form what was almost a back three. Pogba tended to stay central and he drove the team on from this position, directing and constantly redirecting the angle of the attack. He was perhaps a little too desperate at times, leading to a number of wild second half shots when perhaps a pass would have been the better option. He appears desperate to score his first senior United goal. The two fullback Valencia and Shaw stayed wide but moved higher, almost playing as wingbacks either side, often ahead of Pogba.
The breakthrough though didn’t come and so on 59 minutes Mourinho made his first substitution replacing Martial with Mkhitaryan.
United’s shape stayed the same after this substitution with Mkhitaryan occupying a very similar position to Mata in the first half, Mata moving to the number 10 area and Rooney moving to the left. These three however were fairly narrow and interchanged positions quite a lot in the centre of the pitch with the fullbacks pushing up to provide the width. Still the breakthrough didn’t come as Hull remained resolute. The game was now almost a siege with the intensity of United’s play increasing.
Then on 70 minutes Mourinho made a second change replacing Mata with Rashford. Now Mourinho changed things radically. The team shape became almost a two three three two with Pogba behind Rooney on the left and Mkhitaryan on the right in a narrow triangle. Outside these three Valencia and Shaw pushed as high as wingers to stretch the Hull defence out across a wide front. Ahead of these players United now had a forward two of Ibrahimovic and Rashford. Rashford tended to drop deeper and wider on the left from where he could run at the Hull defence. Mkhtaryan, whose positioning was very fluid started to do something similar in the inside right channel.
United’s shape late in the game and the excellent Mkhitaryan
United’s attacking play was now far more fluid, but there was a greater tendency for an individual player to run, carrying the ball at the Hull defence. This fluidity and directness troubled Hull and disturbed their defensive shape. Players were pulled out of position to cover runners with the ball. Hull tried to break out when they won the ball but usually couldn’t do so as United instantly pressed the whenever possession was lost. Blind, Bailly, Fellaini and Pogba seemed to instantly win it back.
It felt like a goal would come but as the clock ticked down you began to imagine it might not come. Then in injury time Shaw pushed a ball towards the left corner flag, Rooney picked it up and ran past the Hull fullback, Elmohamady, apparently surprised by the audacity of this. He passed the ball firmly across the six yard box for Rashford to prod home from close range. Boom! 1-0 in the 92nd minute. Game over!
This is a completely different side than the United of the last few years. Defensively well organised and solid they have the confidence and will to take the game to the opposition, try things and if their performance here is anything to go by, the conviction to stick to the task even when it isn’t working out. It worked out in the end and they were well worth that win because of that conviction, matched by a traditional last gasp United urgency.
Not a lot has changed in terms of team shape; although Mourinho did change it here in the last 20 minutes, but the approach is significantly different. More energy, more positivity, playing the game at a good tempo. The classic example of this is when rather than passing to the next man players miss out the next man and pass further, earlier and firmer, therefore stretching the opposition. Firm and quick passes require understanding and anticipation, which isn’t always there yet leading to some disjointed play, but watching this performance you get the feeling it will come.
It’s fair to say that Hull are a modest side and it would have been points dropped if United hadn’t won this game so we shouldn’t get carried away, but you could imagine this sort of game petering out into a 0-0 last year as a well organised side frustrated the reds. It’s significant progress that this didn’t happen.