Very early in fact; after two games it seems too early to be looking for patterns and trends in United’s play but United’s approach and the outcome of the two games played has been so similar that already a number of patterns have emerged. The games have been similar, although not identical and we will of course have to wait and see over the next month or so whether these patterns are in anyway significant but it is worth picking out a few points
Played two, won two, eight goals scored and none conceded. Three goals for the main striker, one for a defender and the rest from midfield. That’s all good but let’s look behind those headline facts at the underlying strategy.
United’s starting shape against West Ham, (left), and Swansea, (right), using a 4-2-3-1
In both games played so far United have fielded the same starting eleven and set up with the same basic formation; a 4-2-3-1 shape with a double pivot of Pogba and Matic. Matic has usually been the deeper of the pair with Pogba given more licence to push on. Matic then has usually adjusted his position in relation to Pogba maintaining a reasonably short distance between the pair although always mindful of any gaps to be filled.
Pogba and Matic, forging a strong partnership in midfield
United have circulated the ball well in this shape and have generally dominated possession in both games, but both games have been fairly tight spatially until the opening goal. In both games United have taken the lead whilst using this basic formation, but have then changed to a 4-3-3 after the opponent has adjusted to try and get back into the game. United scored a second before West ham adjusted so this means that United have scored 3 of their 8 goals utilising a 4-2-3-1 and 5 whilst utilising a 4-3-3 shape. On each occasion United have made the change in shape around the 75th minute mark which means that they have scored 5 goals in 30 minutes of 4-3-3 and 3 goals in an hour and a half of 4-2-3-1. Perhaps more interestingly 6 of the eight goals have come from counter-attacks after the transition of possession whilst the other two have come from set pieces.
United’s shape late in the games against West Ham, (left), and Swansea, (right), whilst utilising a 4-3-3
What this tells us is that United have controlled both games using a methodical approach rather than going for the jugular from the off in a manner that might overwhelm an opponent. Fortunately, in both matches they have scored in the first half to break the deadlock but have continued with the same approach until the opponent changed has changed theirs. In both games United have been on top but they have both been tight matches. They when the opposition has changed, in both games as they looked for a way back into the contest United have picked them off with break-aways to run away with the contest late in the game.
But there are other aspects of these two performances to consider beyond this basic summary.
Our Opponents Approach
In our first league game against West Ham at Old Trafford the visitors set up initially as a 4-3-3. The most interesting thing about this is that with only one central striker against four defenders United were likely to be outnumbered in midfield. They were still able to dominate midfield possession however because Rashford and Mata, the two wide midfield players tucked in and came deep into central midfield. Mkhitaryan in the number ten position stayed close to Lukaku which ensured that the forward was not isolated. West Ham’s fullbacks reluctant to track Mata and Rashford’s movement away from their defensive line being concerned that they were not to leave Lukaku with his strength and pace against their two centre backs whilst Mkhitaryan was in relatively close support.
The consequence of this was that Obiang, West Ham’s deepest midfield player sat deep which mean’t that often the West Ham central midfield triangle did not function well together. United dominated possession even though they didn’t break through West Ham’s shape until Lukaku’s opening goal in the 33rd minute, a breakaway cleverly engineered by Rashford after Matic had won the ball in his own half. An important point is that United did not however is that United did not overcome West Ham’s low block to take the lead but actually did so from a breakaway goal after a quick transition move.
Perhaps having watched this game Paul Clement chose to go with three at the back strategy in United’s second game against his Swansea side. This ensured that if Mkhitaryan stayed close to Lukaku he still had three fairly narrow defenders close to them with the conventional defensive numerical advantage maintained. His wing backs could then cover Rashford and Mata wherever they went, which again was often narrow in the first half. In front of them were stationed three narrow midfield players who were then able to cover Pogba and Matic.
What this meant was that with Rashford and Mata coming inside the play was fairly narrow and the space available was on the outside. One of two things were then needed as the game became congested down the spine with United trying and failing to play through the centre of the pitch.
These two things were that the fullbacks needed to push higher into the wide areas to stretch the attacking space and the Swansea defensive line maximising the opportunities for Pogba and Matic to outnumber players in the centre as Swansea players tracked wide. The other factor that would have helped was if one or other of the two central defenders had moved into midfield areas creating numerical equality against Swansea’s midfield three. This though could have left only one central defender against Swansea’s two forwards, (they were basically a 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape). Of the two factors the fullbacks pushing on was the preferable option but it didn’t really happen. Why?
Ball circulation and caution away from home
Perhaps the answer is as simple as the fact that this was an away game and away from home teams tend to be a little more cautious. Valencia as a former winger often gets forward on the overlap from deep to stretch play when United attack and this has been a recurring feature of United play over the last few years especially as Mata has tucked inside. On the other side of the pitch Blind tends to stay deeper and deliver diagonal balls forward; he isn’t as quick as Valencia over the ground of course and this different approach tends to ensure he isn’t caught up field unable to recover position. These patterns often mean that United’s attacking width is usually more likely to come from the left than the right but at Swansea even this was rare.
Perhaps that is as a consequence of Valencia being caught out of position in the first few minutes when Pogba lost possession and Jordon Ayew raced away to hit the bar with a shot from the United right. Was Valencia more cautious than usual because of this early chance or is the more expansive Pogba who has featured on the right hand side of midfield in both games from the start a factor? Is Valencia staying deep to accommodate more freedom for Pogba?
It could just be all about a desire to keep the game tight in the first half when playing away from home but it would be interesting to see how this aspect of United’s play might function with Valencia on the right and a fully fit and firing Luke Shaw on the left to provide greater balance. Would this help United if they were to be able to worry opponents set in their defensive shape with an ability to stretch play wide on left and right in equal measure?
Rashford and Martial
The ever excellent Edikan Umana, (a former contributor to our site; @FBWoB and @EdikanDUmana), made an excellent point after the Swansea game, (his post-match tweeted analysis are well worth a follow). His basic point was that you can over-focus on team shape when if you really want to understand what is going on in a match you need to focus more on relationships between players. This is of course very true and the emerging relationship between Pogba and Matic as a midfield pair clearly illustrates this but as in everything a balanced consideration is needed.
Team shape gives structure and promotes relationships but relationships and the co-ordination of teammates play and their roles and movements really does matter. A look at player relationships in United’s two opening games might also shed some light on the varying effectiveness of Martial and Rashford in those games.
Rashford and Martial
Both are young players of course although Martial is a little older than Rashford; Martial is significantly more experienced however. Currently both are playing well but in terms of effectiveness in goals scored and ability to combine with teammates Martial seems to have the edge. That said Rashford’s through ball to Lukaku for United’s opening goal against West Ham was a sublime pass which set United’s early season fortunes off in the right direction.
Mata and Mkhitaryan action areas against West Ham; both tended to the right
In the game against West Ham we would put forward the view that in the first 75 minutes the key player relationships in the United team were Pogba and Matic as already mentioned, but also Mata and Mkhitaryan who constantly interchanged positions. Mkhitaryan started as the number 10 centrally behind Lukaku with Mata on the right. A look at their action areas for the game shows that they both tended to feature on the right or in the centre and only occasionally moved as far as the left hand side. Lukaku also exhibited a tendency to move to the right. That left Rashford as the more isolated of the forward players on the left. Of the two pivots Matic generally featured to the left and as he was the deeper of the pair this further resulted in Rashford’s relative isolation.
We have at times described a weakness in Rashford’s ability to combine well with players around him; his strongest moments come when he powers forward running at people to cut inside and shoot early but often recently he has tended to run into cul-de-sacs; this isn’t a fair criticism if there is no-one around him. We tempered our criticism of his display when he was equally isolated in the Europa League final because of this and are heartened by his contribution to Lukaku’s first goal against West Ham which demonstrates he has the potential to develop this aspect of his game and relationships with others in the team when the opportunity presents itself.
It could be that the key relationship in his game at the moment is a more defensive one, that of helping to cover for Blind’s lack of pace by sitting deeper than one would expect a natural forward to do? His contribution to Lukaku’s goal came from a situation where he received the ball having dropped deep into his own half. Rashford has also tended to stay wider on the left than Mata has on the right, this could also be to help screen United’s left back rather than simply because Mata has a more natural tendency to come inside. Again we are left to ask whether a quicker fullback on the left would significantly strengthen United’s balance?
But what of Martial; why has he been more effective, at least in a goal scoring sense? We would put forward the view that this is not necessarily to do with confidence or form but actually is as a product of both player relationships and team shape, demonstrating that both matter.
Rashford has featured in games when the team shape has been predominantly 4-2-3-1 and as previously described United’s general movement and attacking tendency has been to the right leaving Rashford more isolated on the left. When Martial has been introduced the team shape has changed to a 4-3-3, but that hasn’t been the critical factor in itself but critical in combination with two other factors.
Pogba action areas in the first 80 minutes against West Ham, (left), and the last 10 minutes, (right) – a switch towards Martial’s position on the right in the last ten
The first of those two has been that the opposition has been chasing the game at this point and so has been committing more players forward and adopting a more adventurous higher position on the pitch. There has then tended to be more opportunity to hit them early immediately upon winning the ball.
The other factor though which is perhaps less obvious is that United’s midfield shape has usually changed with Pogba critically moving to the left, Fellaini coming in on the right and Matic completing the three in a deeper position. This has given United a more even midfield balance and a broader midfield coverage which has meant that when introduced on the left Marital has tended not to be as isolated as Rashford was earlier in the game. Pogba is higher and closer to the wide attacking player than Matic was and Pogba’s presence on that side with his pace, strength, deft touch and passing ability occupies the opposition and means that the need to cover United’s left back position seems slightly less of an issue. Martial then seems to have a greater freedom and opportunity, because of all these factors than Rashford earlier in the game.
To date Pogba has provided one assist for Martial and Pogba has provided one assist for Pogba.