REAL SALT LAKE vs MANCHESTER UNITED
17.07.2017

Following on from the win in their opening tour game two days earlier United travelled to high altitude at Salt Lake City for a game against local MLS side Real Salt Lake. Prior to the game Real Salt Lake had announced that they would field three separate sides making a full team substitution after 30 and 60 minutes. Jose Mourinho had indicated that he would make his changes at half time. What lessons could one learn then from this course of events?

Formations

Having utilised a three at the back strategy in the previous game Jose Mourinho set his side up here as a 4-3-3. In the first half that meant Carrick as a holding midfield player with McTominay and Pogba further forward as advanced midfield players, Lukaku as the sole central striker, Lingard to the left and Mkhitaryan to the right. Real Salt Lake set up as a 4-2-3-1 and did not deviate from this whichever set of players they happened to have on the pitch.

Basic First Half Movement

Beyond the basic formation several points sprung out from the first half action. Firstly, United’s wider attackers Lingard and Mkhitaryan tended to run narrow infield towards Lukaku who was usually seen as more of a static link hard up against the oppositions back line. Carrick stayed deep and Pogba and McTominay both pushed on, occasionally at the same time. This all meant that as they attacked United were fairly narrow. Real Salt Lake were also narrow but despite this the game flowed and it was an enjoyable game to watch.

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United’s first half shape and movement and Lingard who had an excellent half

Secondly, in the opening half hour both teams tended to play the ball forward quickly through the middle of the pitch and both teams tended to give the ball away rather too often for their own good.

Thirdly, each teams approach play was subtly different. United used early vertical passes into feet from the back which the receiver would lay off, first touch to another player moving onto the ball. These wall passes often didn’t come off and gifted possession to the home side who would then move the ball forward quickly themselves into the zone around and immediately in front of Carrick. With Pogba and McTominay often moving forward together at the same time this tended to leave Carrick exposed. Real Salt Lake have pace and the difference in their approach was that they ran at the United back line around Carrick and looked to thread passes into runners bearing down on or going beyond the central defenders in the half spaces between centre backs and fullbacks. This was more effective at this stage than United’s play and resulted in the home side opening the scoring in the 23rd minute.

United’s Combination Play

As described Mkhitaryan and Lingard tended to tuck inside close to Lukaku. Usually this meant that the ball from deep was played into Lukaku who layed off a cushioned pass first time into the path of these two or alternatively the advancing Pogba or McTominay. This often didn’t quite come off but as the half wore on it was more frequently a successful strategy. We at www.manuttactics.com think this is a significant development. United’s biggest problem in recent years has been breaking down teams set up in a low block with a particular weakness being our combination play in the final third. In this game United players in the final third were consciously looking to play a first time pass and often did so with some accuracy. Passing in this area of the pitch was more accurate and players seemed far more aware of each other’s position.

All this meant that the pattern of attacking play was a far cry from the usual fayre of recent seasons where we have seen continual side to side passing from one side of the pitch to the other resulting in the opposition’s defensive lines remaining intact but becoming more and more compressed. Here the ball was moved forward quickly with a greater degree of triangulation of player positioning and so passing. As a consequence, it was far more penetrative than we have become used too. We shouldn’t get carried away as this was a game against modest opposition and it didn’t often come off, but it looked like it would with further practice. As stated this aspect of United’s play has been a weakness for some time but what we saw here suggests that Jose is well aware of the issues and has been working on this in pre-season camp as a means of improving this area of our game.

Width

With both sides fairly narrow in shape in was very noticeably that there was plenty of space out wide to be exploited; this was especially the case on the United right where the Real Salt Lake fullback Phillips was all at sea tracking the movement of Lingard inside. Lingard had a really excellent first half. United did not however exploit this space which made it fairly easy for Real Salt Lake to defend and block United’s movement through the spine of the pitch. United’s fullbacks Fosu-Menah and Blind needed to push forward more to stretch the home side across the width of the pitch. When they began to do this after Salt Lake had scored United got on top and soon got their goals.

Goals

So United’s attacking strategy didn’t quite come off in the early stages, but when it did it produced two excellent goals. These came in the 28th and 37th minutes before and after Real Salt Lake had made their first raft of substitutions. The first illustrated what United were trying to do perfectly. A vertical ball forward to Lukaku was instantly laid off into the feat of Lingard running into a narrow position. He played an early through ball into the half space for Mkhitaryan who was then one on one with the keeper. He coolly fired home.

Lukakus first goal for United

Lukakus first goal for United

The second goal was even better, after a period of keep ball in the deep Blind played a pass forward to Lingard who had come deep and narrow. He played a cushioned diagonal pass first time into the feet of Mkhitrayan in a wide left position. His first time cross picked out Lukaku centrally with two central defenders and the keeper in close attendance. He controlled the ball, turned inside out sending one of the defenders and the keeper the wrong way and slotted calmly home for his first goal in a United shirt.

Lukaku as a link

Lukaku played well here. He was strong and quick and took his chance well but the most pleasant aspect of his performance was his ability to stay central and high up against the opposition’s central defenders. This occupied them and pinned them back creating space behind and around him, notably in the channels for the runners, whether that was Mkhitaryan and Lingard from wide or Pogba and McTominay from deep.

Second Half Changes

As planned United made eleven half time changes. With the strategic shape remaining unaltered Andreas Pereira now anchored the midfield with Herrera and Fellaini as the more advanced midfielders. Rashford led the line with Mata to the right and Martial to the left. Real Salt Lake didn’t actually follow the pre-ordained plan, firstly they were late making their substitutions after 69 minutes and then only making five changes.

By that point United had been forced to make two alterations themselves. There were a number of strong challenges at the start of the second half with United being as guilty as the home side of making them. United came off worst however with Mata being forced off after taking an ankle knock in the 55th minute. He struggled on for another couple of minutes before being replaced by Demetri Mitchell who took up his position on the right.

The next change came after Valencia was dismissed in the 66th minute for a silly challenge. This of course forced a reorganisation.

Ten Men

The reorganisation saw Mitchell drop back to play at left back and Darmian switch sides to the right back position. Up front Martial adjusted his position to retain a balance and United played the rest of the game as a 4-3-2. This worked and United were able to see out the result because it ensured that United stayed compact in the spine and operating with two quick forwards ensured that they always maintained a attacking threat.

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United’s shape at the start of the second half an then in a 4-3-2 after the injury to Mata and Valencia’s dismissal

Some might lament that United had to “see out” a friendly, but Jose will see this as good practice and preparations as they may need to do this with ten men in the season.

Scrappy Second Half

Apart from the changes and adjustments after the sending off the second half was a fairly unremarkable scrappy affair. United’s approach did change subtly with the defence and midfield looking to play early balls behind Salt Lake for the pace of Rashford and Martial rather than playing into the feet of Lukaku as they had in the first half. Salt Lake played quite a high line but they got away with this strategy because United’s ball forward usually wasn’t accurate enough. Andreas Pereira had a fairly good game as the holding midfield player but he was unable to release accurate long range passes at the rate that perhaps Michael Carrick would have done. With all the changes this was a bit of a mix-and-match performance, especially in the second half; at this stage of course the priority is giving everyone game time to develop fitness and understanding. It will be interesting to see how things develop when closer attention is given to combinations of players. Bailly with Lindelof? Lukaku with Rashford?