MANCHESTER UNITED vs BOURNEMOUTH
With a trophy secured United returned to league action knowing that a win in this early kick off would see them move up the table from 6th to 4th place. With Arsenal playing Liverpool later in the day they knew that they would drop back to fifth after that game whatever the result. This though did not seem to matter having been stuck on 6th place in the league for so long and that despite an unbeaten league run which stretched back to October.
In: Jones, Shaw, Carrick and Rooney.
Out: Bailly, Smalling, Herrera and Lingard.
- United missed a golden opportunity here to move up the table. They could and should have won this game, they had plenty of chances but one was left with the sense that after it became 10 against 11 United’s approach was all wrong.
- Bournemouth looked nervous in the first half and they struggled in their defensive transitions, but the game changed on two incidents; their penalty and the sending off. After the second of these two moments the game was never the same.
- In the second half and with Bournemouth set up to defend with an intelligent shape which kept strength in the spine. United seemed to lack the nous to open the opposition up. They lacked width and all too often compressed the game and then launched hopeful balls forward.
- Rooney’s performance was disappointing here. He didn’t show often enough for the United player in possession and so failed to fulfil the function of the attacking fulcrum. Pogba and Carrick had poor second halves and were drawn ended up hitting long balls forward.
- Mourinho made three substitutions at once here, a departure from his more usual gradualist approach to changing strategy. It didn’t work.
United started this game in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Rooney in the number 10 position behind Ibrahimovic; Bournemouth matched this shape.
United’s first half shape and Rooney; returning to the side
Almost from the start United were on top in this game, but they weren’t dominating the play in the early stages. They were on top because they enjoyed plenty of chances. We say enjoyed because it wasn’t really a case of United creating the chances but rather Bournemouth gifting them to United. The basic pattern was that United would win the ball in a high position without anything resembling an aggressive press. From there Bournemouth were usually wide open. United contrived to miss these chances and one was concerned that they would not take advantage of the pattern of the match.
This pattern was created by a number of features. Firstly Bournemouth were careless in possession working the ball out from the back. That meant that United often won the ball without having to press aggressively. Secondly one or other and occasionally both of Bournemouth’s pivots, Surman and Artur were too eager to get forward as Bournemouth looked to move forward. As a consequence they were often too high and out of position when United won the ball. Fortunately for Bournemouth United’s usual failing of a lack of co-ordinated play in the final third meant that United often failed to make a clear cut shooting chance. United did have shots but the chances when created weren’t comfortable shooting chances or were speculative shots. It looked like despite all these opportunities United were not going to take advantage.
Rooney’s role here was interesting. When Bournemouth had the ball he tended to drop deep and especially to the United right. He covered space here rather than contributing to any press. Players tended to press individually with other, notably Rooney cutting off passing angles and covering space. This led to Bournemouth giving the ball away. When United Had the ball he tended to push on looking to add to Ibrahimovic’s threat in the areas rather than coming shorter and showing for the ball. Playing the role of the attacking fulcrum he should have been showing for the ball and linking play; he let his strikers instincts take over.
Then fortunately United scored. After a chance for Martial United took a corner which was headed clear to Carrick on the edge of the box. After an exchange with Pogba Carrick played a square ball to Valencia who played a low diagonal ball across the face of goal; Rojo still up from the corner prodded home Boom! 1-0 on 23 minutes.
After the goal United continued to have chances but failed to increase their advantage and perhaps inevitably Bournemouth then got a penalty and equalised. This was awarded after Phil Jones stuck out a leg in the box to block a cross but caught the player making the cross. Joshua King stepped up to score the penalty and make the score 1-1 with 40 minutes played.
Not soon after this came the incident which has caused all the column inches since. The facts are that Ibrahimovic and Mings had been having a tough running battle throughout the half. After a Mings tackle on Rooney Ibrahimovic tumbled over Rooney and Mings who had scrambled back to his feet quickly ran over Ibrahimovic stamping on his head as he did so. Was this deliberate? Probably. Shortly after Mings and Ibrahimovic jumped together for a header in the box. Ibrahimovic caught Mings with his elbow. Was this deliberate? Probably. In the ensuing fracas Surman who had already been booked raised his hands and pushed Ibrahimovic to the floor. He was sent off when the referee belatedly realised he had booked him twice in the match.
Half time 1-1, 10 vs 11.
It was inevitable given that they had lost a player at the end of the first half that Bournemouth would adjust strategy. Previously they had utilised a 4-2-3-1 shape and they most obvious thing to many would have been to change to a 4-4-1 and adopt a more cautious approach. This of course would have surrendered the initiative to United. If Bournemouth had set up using this shape in two banks of four they would have been presenting United with the task of breaking down a low block; that is something United have not really been very good at in recent years. Bournemouth didn’t do this however but instead made a substitution with Gosling replacing Pugh and changed their shape to a 4-2-2-1. This worked well for them throughout the second half and was perhaps the key reason they survived to claim a draw.
So why did this work so well? Basically Bournemouth seemed determined to retain a strong spine down the middle of the pitch. Their defence remained in tacked and they retained two pivots in front of their central defence. Putting two more advanced midfield players in front of them retained connection through the spine to the front man which ensured that Bournemouth retained a meaningful threat on the break. This ensured that Carrick, Pogba and the two central defenders behind them could not push into high areas without having to consider this threat. That eased the pressure on the Bournemouth back six to a degree.
That back six was also now more disciplined and particularly the two pivots did not commit forward with the haste they had occasionally shown in the first half. Essentially Bournemouth were defending on a narrow front and surrendering space in wider areas. United did not exploit this well. Mata has a natural tendency to come inside from the right whilst Martial might start wide on the left but generally carries the ball diagonally inside. This might have created overload in the middle with Rooney and this pair around the two pivots. It didn’t in part because of that lack of co-ordinated play in the final third and in part because United were not alert to this possibility.
Second half passing – Carrick (who was withdrawn in the 70th minute) left, and Pogba right. Both played long forward passes, many of which did not reach a United player. Other did but were fairly easy to defend.
There was plenty of space in wide areas for the full backs to attack. Shaw didn’t attack this space well and whilst Valencia did, (he was often seen in acres of space waiting for the ball to be switched to him), United were slow to channel the ball across. As previously stated Carrick and Pogba tended to stay deeper in the pivot roles and rather than one or other of them moving forward to also look to overload down the middle they rather started to hit longer earlier passes to the front. These were either straight balls or slightly diagonal balls hit from slightly wider positions towards the centre. These passes were invariable inaccurate and were swept up by Bournemouth. It was almost like kicking the ball against a brick wall.
Despite all this United should have taken the lead when they were awarded a penalty in the 71st minute. This came from an over hit forward pass which Pogba on a rare foray forward chased to the bye line. He tried to hook it back and it hit the outstretched arm of the Bournemouth defender at point blank range. A harsh award maybe but United have been denied countless stone wall penalties this season. Unfortunately Ibrahimovic’s penalty was saved by Boruc to keep the score at 1-1.
Just before the penalty Jose Mourinho had made a triple substitution on 70 minutes introducing Rashford for Rooney, Lingard for Shaw and Fellaini for Carrick. This all saw Pogba push forward more with Fellaini staying deeper as the other pivot, Lingard slot in at left back and Rashford replaced Ibrahimovic at centre forward with the Swede dropping back into the number 10 position. The consequence of this was that United now had more width with Rashford making early runs into the outside right channel and looking to create overlaps with Valencia. On the left United were looking to Lingard to push forward and supplement Martial, this worked less well on the left whilst Rashford had some success on the right. Rashford moving right created space for Ibrahimovic and occasionally Pogba or Fellaini to make late runs into the box.
United’s shape late in the game and Bournemouth’s second half shape. Note the space in the areas hatched in yellow. United di not successfully exploit Bournmeouth’s narrow shape.
One other point that should be made about Bournemouth’s second half strategy relates to their time wasting. It is a long time since I have seen a team waste so much time or feign so much spurious injury at Old Trafford. That’s not a criticism of Bournemouth, it was an inevitable part of a logical strategy but one has to question why the referee did not deal with this?
The penalty came just after the substitution and perhaps was as a consequence of Pogba having greater freedom to get forward. The substitutions certainly yielded a number of chances after the penalty miss including several late chances as United showed greater urgency getting the ball into the box. The difference was that playing with more width they were now delivering the ball either diagonally or from high areas and so were more likely to turn the Bournemouth back line towards their own goal. The problem for United was that the ball never quite fell for them in the box. United were playing the percentages at this point rather than trying to deliberately craft clear cut opening. The percentages went against them.
The consequence was that the final score was 1-1. United hadn’t done enough.
This was a significant missed opportunity for United; a win here would have seen them move up the table but they failed to make the most of a lead and then a numerical advantage. Jose Mourinho will have learnt a lot from a game like this. This isn’t the first time that United have failed to take advantage both in the match itself and by an opportunity presented by the fixture list. When the moment arrives the best teams size the opportunity.
This will no doubt highlight two things in his mind. Firstly that perhaps some in his team lack the ultimate ruthlessness and determination of winners at the highest level and secondly that when a team sits in position to defend as Bournemouth were bond to do after the sending off, United often still struggle to break them down. This is a pre-existing issue which dates back to the Louis van Gaal era and perhaps even further back than that. It is a problem however that hasn’t yet been properly and fully addressed.
There are a number of factors in this. United did not do enough to get between the lines of Bournemouth’s defence and pivot line, (regularly supplemented by one of their pivots dropping back). Rooney must take a share of the blame for this as he rarely showed for the ball in this area, the area where you are expecting your number 10 to be the fulcrum of the attack. Secondly with Mata and Rooney in the side United’s front four lacked genuine pace until late in the game. Of course Martial is quick, but Ibrahimovic isn’t. That leaves one quick player for the opposition to deal with. United need more than one pacey threat to create balance across the line. Thirdly United didn’t use width well enough throughout and seemed to overlook this option until too late in the day. Bournemouth wanted to defend on a narrow front; United let them when they should have been trying to stretch their defence out across the pitch.