For this last “non-competitive game” of pre-season United travelled to Dublin for a game against Italian side Sampdoria. If selected this would be the first chance to see new signing Nemanja Matic in a red shirt and so to assess how he might be used and what his qualities could do to those around him.

First half selection and strategy

Jose Mourinho did chose the new man and reverted to the 3-5-2 shape he used in the first tour game in America. Here though it was being used against a side more tactically and technically accomplished than the LA Galaxy. Perhaps with an eye to the imminent Super Cup game Mourinho omitted Bailly and Jones from his first half side; both those players are suspended for that match, but he did select Daley Blind who is also selected.

1ST HALF   gettyimages-825638940-e1501702837370

United win in Dublin and Matic, making his debut

The back three to start the game were Lindelof to the right, Smalling centrally and Blind to the left. Valencia was the right wingback and Darmian the left. Matic featured as the deepest midfield player positioned centrally with Pogba ahead of him to the left and Pereira to the right. Lukaku was the furthest forward in attack with Mkhitrayan as the second striker, but usually as high.  Sampdoria’s starting shape appeared to be a 4-4-2 with a diamond but this changed subtly throughout the first half in response to the game situation, so at times it was like a 4-1-3-2 and at times like a 4-3-1-2.

Sampdoria’s narrow shape

The key point about Sampdoria’s shape in the first half was that they were very narrow. This is usually a criticism of a 4-4-2 with a diamond, but here the defensive four that were often as narrow as the midfield. This presented United with lots of space in wide areas for the wingbacks to attack; especially on the right.

In the opening few minutes United had lots of possession and scored after 5 minutes but the goal was bizarre in its genesis. Blind played a very loose back pass diagonally across goal; it was goal-bound but well saved by De Gea. The referee awards Sampdoria a free kick on the six-yard box against De Gea for handling a back pass. United filled the width of the goal with their whole team to defend the direct free kick. Sampdoria blasted this against the ball but it was blocked and United were first to react picking up the loose ball and moving it quickly up the pitch to score on the break. The lesson here is that even if the entire team is defending the attacking team still needs to consider it’s defensive shape to limit its exposure to the attacking transition. Coming out of defence United moved the ball to Valencia who attacked all that space on the right before switching the ball across to the other wingback Darmian. He controlled the ball and crossed, Lukaku missed it but Mkhitaryan arriving behind him didn’t. 1-0.

The General Pattern of the Half

The general pattern of the half was that United controlled the game and always seemed to have lots of passing options. When Sampdoria had the ball United pressed them but when United had the ball Sampdoria sat deep and covered space. They were defending the width of the penalty area and that allowed United losts of space in wide area. The consequence of this were two-fold. Firstly United always had time on the ball to look up and pass. Secondly there was always plenty of opportunities to switch play, something United did very well, notably with Pogba switching play from left to Valencia advancing on the right. Darmian at right wingback was also prominent in advanced areas, far more than one usually expects from a player previously considered quite cautious. Pereira also took plenty of opportunities to switch play from right to left.

The other feature of the half to pick out was the freedom that the inclusion of Matic afforded Pogba and Pereira. Pogba especially enjoyed this freedom and was generally playing far higher than in his time since re-joining the club. Both players were playing a closer approximation of a box-to-box midfield role. It’s fair to say that this was because of the role being played by Matic.

Matic Debut

Matic has been characterised by some in recent weeks as a player who is god, but slow and not especially mobile. That wasn’t the impression we got here. What he did really well was shadow the attacking play. He was usually between about 10-15 to 20 yards behind the ball and he tracked the play laterally across the field so that he was always staying reasonably close to the line of the ball but in depth. If United lost the ball he would move closer to the action cloing down the space as those ahead sought to win the ball back. If the ball ran free he was on hand to quickly pick it up and move it on or get it out of play. This worked well in the first half and usually prevented Sampdoria from getting holding the ball and developing play. His positioning and reading of the play and his judgement of when to cover and when to engage gave those ahead of him a solid secure base from which to attack.

Half Time Changes

United made four half time changes; Carrick, Herrera and Fellaini replaced Matic, Pogba and Pereira in midfield and Mata replaced Mkhitaryan as the “second striker”. The shape remained broadly the same.

Sampdoria also adapted and their changes changed the game. They made several substitutions themselves but crucially changed to a 4-3-3 shape and played much higher up the pitch. This did too things. Firstly it compressed the space and meant that United had less time to pick their passes. Secondly it put three forwards up against three defenders and so forced United’s wingbacks to sit deeper. Initially they didn’t do this and Sampdoria looked to play diagonal balls into the space outside the United centre backs and behind the wingback.

2nd half 1    2nd half

United at the start of the second half and then after substitutions and a switch to 4-3-3

Suddenly United looked vulnerable and it was no surprise when Sampdoria scored in the 62nd minute. The goal came from a swift break with the ball being fed behind Valencia. The ball was pulled back with a low cross/pass into the feet of Praet arriving late. He had time to side foot the ball home.

Just before the goal Jose Mourinho made substitutions in the 60th minute. He changed the teams shape as well as personnel reverting to a back four; Martial replaced Blind and Rashford replaced Lukaku. United were now a 4-3-3 with Darmian and Valencia dropping to the fullback positions and Rashford leading the line with Mata to the right and Martial to the left. The changes didn’t do anything before the goal which came as United were effectively still adjusting but thereafter United looked more solid. United made further changes in the 75th minute with Joel Pereira replacing De Gea, Jones and Bailly replacing Lindelof and Smalling and Tuanzebe replacing Darmian at left back.


Martial has looked excellent in pre-season and after his reintroduction here he looked excellent again attacking on the left. What he is doing well at the moment is dropping deep to join in the play and to be the obvious out ball and then on receiving a pass he is running at people. It doesn’t always come off of course and he often fails to look up and pick somebody out instead running into a cul-de-sac, (Rashford has also been guilty of not getting his head up to look to link up on the break), but it is great to see him taking people on.

Mata goal after excellent run and cut back by Martial

Mata goal after excellent run and cut back by Martial

In the 80th minute his efforts paid off. Fellaini won the ball in midfield on the left hand side of the pitch and passed the ball quickly on to Martial who ran directly at the left hand side of the Sampdoria defence before squaring the ball across goal towards the edge of the penalty area into the feet of Mata who side footed home. The important thing was that he looked up and picked somebody out. On another couple of occasions as United broke he hadn’t done that and nore when he had had the chance did Rashford. This is something United have to work on but with pace in the side if they do it should reap dividends.