At the time of writing this (24/01/2021) Manchester United are currently placed 1st in the 2020-21 Premier League.
At the start of the season probably nobody would have guessed or predicted that come end of January 2021, Manchester United would be sitting on top of the league. Ole’s job was possibly made even harder with the added pressures from fans and media when the results were different but it’s taken a few tactical tweaks for Manchester United’s form to improve. These tactical tweaks would of course depend on the opponents, against the top sides you could see Manchester United shaped in a 4-2-3-1 but this would quickly turn into a 4-4-2 to make it more difficult for the opponents to break them down. Against Liverpool, their most recent big game in the Premier League, they managed to get a 0-0 draw and previously, they have drawn with the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, all ending in the same result which is 0-0. These are matches that Manchester United could’ve easily lost before but against the “weaker” sides, Manchester United tend to go for a more controlling approach to try and get those 3 points.
Bruno Fernandes has been the star, no doubt. His goal-scoring form certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed but maybe his creativity in this side doesn’t receive the same attention or praise. Bruno so far has racked up 7 assists and has xA of 6.4, only De Bruyne and Grealish have a higher xA. Fernandes also has played the 3rd most key passes in the Premier League (54) with only one other player in the league with more, Grealish has 61. As an advanced player on the pitch, it should make it difficult to play passes into the final 1/3 as you are already positioned there but Fernandes is a player who likes to roam around, 105 passes into the final 1/3, numbers maybe a deep-lying midfielder should be getting. My praise for creativity doesn’t just stop there. For a team who like to counter, it’s important to get the ball into spaces for players to run onto and 15 through balls is the most in the league with both Fernandes and De Bruyne level on that statistic. His goal-scoring record goes without saying has been superb for a midfielder.
Fernandes hasn’t been the only player to perform for Manchester United this season as Ole seems to be getting more from his players in recent times. Luke Shaw also deserves a mention for his recent performances as many thought Alex Telles would come in and cement his places as the main LB but that hasn’t exactly been the case in recent times. Martial and Rashford have also seen their performances improve and over the last couple of games, Paul Pogba's role in midfield could be a sign that things have finally clicked for Manchester United.
Whilst I like to look at the positive side of things, it’s worth noting my opinion, Manchester United are far from the finished article and improvements could be made. For example, their approach to the bigger games. Whether it’s down to the players OGS has at his disposal or just his tactical approach, but I believe there’s a place for them to be a little braver in their approach to create scoring chances.
The 4231 Shape
Though this screenshot does not include Paul Pogba in the team, in most recent matches I have identified Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes as the playmakers in this side. There are two players who often get a lot of touches on the ball and play the most passes in the team and that would suggest Manchester United use those players as a focal point. Against Fulham (20/01/2020), Paul Pogba had 106 touches on the ball whilst Fernandes had 93 touches. The two full-backs also receive a lot of touches on the ball and are important to this system as they provide Manchester United with width.
From Bruno Fernandes heat map, we can see he's far from stationary. This drifting and roaming is difficult for opponents to pick up and he often operates in spaces that forces defenders to be pulled from their defensive positioning.
Paul Pogba can also be seen popping up in various positions on the pitch. Often Pogba tracks the play, where the ball goes he's not too distant from it. Most of his touches can be seen in the middle 1/3 and defensive 1/3.
Manchester United are a forward-thinking team. They like to play the ball forward and attempt risky passes in order to try and break the opposition down. In the Premier League so far, they have played the 5th most progressive passes (744) and 199 key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot) but are less direct on the flanks. Often when the attacking wide players receive the ball, they look to come inside with the ball rather than wide and the full-backs don’t send in many crosses when they receive the ball out wide, in fact, Manchester United are ranked 19th with getting crosses inside the penalty box (23). Luke Shaw played 100 passes against Fulham and that’s the most by any player on the pitch. Aaron Wan-Bissaka played the 2nd most passes (94) so this could suggest United use their wide players in their build-up but they work the ball back inside rather than running wider to get crosses in.
The full-backs positioning is key for Manchester United as they are a tool to stretch the play. Once Manchester United have possession of the ball, they push forward and stay wider.
On the ball, Manchester United attempt a number of dribbles towards the opponent's defence and because of this, they draw in many fouls and this is a chance for Manchester United to be effective from set-pieces which they haven’t exactly taken advantage of so far. 30 times (1st) they have drawn in a foul that’s led to a shot attempt and 5 times they have scored from it. Not an awful statistic but with the quality of players they have from dead ball situations, this number could be improved and this also could be a way to beat the big sides when Ole takes more of a counter-attacking approach.
Manchester United slightly favour their left side when attacking and building but this can actually depend on where Paul Pogba is playing. When he is on the left side of central midfield then a lot of play seems to happen on the left and this is evident in their most recent match, 3-2 victory against Liverpool in the FA Cup. 50% of Manchester United's action happened on the left. Against Burnley and Fulham recently, Pogba played to the right side of central midfield and no surprise the see the action on each flank was equal. The action in the middle can be seen as low as 21%.
Manchester United are also not afraid to shoot with players like Rashford, Fernandes and Paul Pogba. How can you be?
FM21 heat, average positioning and heat map
Just like most of the top sides in Europe, Manchester United like to press high or at least have some aggression whilst pressing for the ball. So far, they have pressured their opponents 621 times in the opponents attacking 1/3, 5th most in the league and this helps them create chances on the counter-attack with their counter movements once they have won the ball. Only Leicester has more defensive actions that led to a shot than Manchester United, 14 times is the amount for Ole’s side. Generally, the defence line is a high one for Manchester United but against difficult opponents, this defence line and also line of engagement would drop to make them more of a counter-attacking side rather than try to control the game.
Manchester United prefer to defend using a high-block but then can drop when they take their more counter-attacking approach. So far, Manchester United have pressured their opponents in the attacking 1/3 621 times, just one less than Manchester City. It’s possible this number could be greater if Ole didn’t take a more reserved approach against the top sides. Their number of pressures in the defensive 1/3 (761) is relatively low which could defend the observation that Manchester United defend with a higher block. Playing with a higher press doesn’t necessarily mean they always engage in tackles; they can be patient and wait for the opportunity to intercept the opponents play.
Most of Manchester United’s pressures and tackles so far have come from Wan-Bissaka and Bruno Fernandes. The two have been ever present for United and that shows the importance of the two players in the current squad. But it’s also very evident whoever central midfield partnership is, both players can be seen trying to put pressure on the opponents and put tackles in to win the ball.
In A Nut Shell
Because there are so many games left to play and the fact the table is always changing, it’s almost impossible at this point to say whether the numbers and style of play is good enough for Manchester United to win the title. Impossible? Absolutely not. There are things they do so well like the ability to draw in fouls but this could be taken advantage of as an added weapon. They also create a lot of shot creation actions but at times they have not been clinical or do this enough against the bigger sides. And finally, with a striker like Cavani, maybe they could get more crosses into the box to become a little less predictable. Not that that are predictable at this moment, but it maybe wouldn’t hurt to try and take advantage of Cavani’s physicality by getting one or two more crosses into the box.
FM21 OGS 4-2-3-1 UTD Tactic
1st place finish in Premier League
USED CAUTIOUS MENTALITY FOR AWAY GAMES AGAINST TOP 6 SIDES
BRUNO FERNANDES PERFORMANCE