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25th Oct 2021

Man United’s tactical issues summed up in six screenshots

Man United were an incoherent mess against Liverpool, as shown by these six stills from the goals they conceded in the first half

Reuben Pinder

Nobody knows what the hell they’re supposed to do

It goes without saying that Manchester United were an incoherent mess against Liverpool on Sunday. The visitors barely had to get out of first gear to rack up a four goal lead before half-time, so shambolic was United’s defensive organisation, which is not confined to the back four, but is the responsibility of all 11 players.

It all stems back to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In attempting to transform United into a more dominant team, with his attackers pressing more from the front, he has exposed his back six to being dragged all over the pitch by clever movement.

Examine the screenshot below – United’s number 10, Bruno Fernandes, is in line with their striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, with neither making any effort to close Liverpool’s passing lanes into midfield. This exposes Fred and Scott McTominay to being outnumbered in midfield, unable to handle Liverpool’s combinations.

United’s wingers are not exactly doing much off the ball either. Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford repeatedly stayed high up the pitch, forcing Aaron Wan-Bissaka in particular to push forward, leaving Victor Lindelof with the responsibility of challenging Diogo Jota.

United are the perfect example of the domino effect that occurs when there is a lack of organisation in a team’s off the ball pressing.

So let’s have a look at how this lack of organisation high up the pitch left the defensive players in such a mess that they went into the half-time break trailing by four goals.

Goal number 1

Greenwood has not tracked Robertson, meaning Wan-Bissaka pushes forward to close him down. The right-back doesn’t get close enough before Robertson passes to Jota, who is now Lindelof’s responsibility. The Portuguese passes inside to Roberto Firmino. Already goal-side of McTominay, Harry Maguire has no option but to close down the forward but of course, it’s too late, and Firmino has already slotted a neat pass to Salah.

Shaw, a left-back, is now covering Maguire’s area of the pitch due to the fact all of his defensive teammates have been dragged one position to the right. He’s also far too late in his attempt to play Salah offside, meaning he has to readjust his run twice.

Salah then waits for the perfect moment to play Keita in behind and the midfielder makes no mistake in front of goal. None of the defenders come out of this with any glory, but it would be harsh to lay the blame at any individual. It is a collective failure that ultimately goes back to the manager.

Goal number 2

Watching the goals back, it becomes clear just how similar the first two were. Liverpool used the same move to carve United open time and time again, and United had no answer.

The second goal starts with Greenwood once again not tracking Robertson quickly enough, leading to the same sequence of movements as the first goal, with every defender having to shift across.

Robertson’s cross into the centre then leads to a moment of confusion between Maguire and Shaw, who half-heartedly go into the same challenge, allowing Keita to come away with the ball. Again, there is an ocean of space on the right-wing, which Trent Alexander-Arnold runs into, and squares the ball, teeing Jota up for an easy finish.

Goal number 3

The third goal is probably the best example of what happens when your attacking players don’t fulfil their defensive duties. Bruno Fernandes has ended up on the left wing in this instance, with Rashford in the middle.

Shaw is once again dragged into the middle of the pitch, leading to United’s back four all standing within the width of the goalposts, and captain Harry Maguire facing his own goal. With no midfielders covering the vacant space on the right wing, Keita is free to fizz in another inviting cross, with Salah getting to the ball first at the near post.

Goal number 4

United have six players in the penalty box here and not one of them is within five metres of Mohamed Salah. For this goal in particular, they more closely resembled a bunch of primary school children chasing the ball in a cloud than a team with hopes of winning the Premier League.

Goal number 5

This goal actually began with United recovering the ball in midfield. And losing it immediately. Henderson and Firmino read Fred’s knock back to Pogba so early that as soon as Pogba receives the ball, he is tackled by two players.

Ronaldo, Rashford and Fernandes are all standing still, spectators rather than active participants in the game, as it becomes obvious Pogba will lose the ball and Liverpool will launch a counter attack. Wan-Bissaka changes his mind twice about whether to take a chance making an attacking run which he never should have made in the first place and inevitably has to change course.

Henderson’s assist for Salah is nothing short of majestic, but the ease with which Liverpool were able to steal the ball and immediately expose United’s defensive vulnerability was humiliating.

A lot of focus in the media, these pages included, has focused on Ronaldo’s reluctant to press off the ball. And while that is a significant problem, it is clear that Solskjaer’s inability to coach any sort of midfield spacing or organised pressing are just as much of a problem for United.

For all he’s done with regards to rebuilding the spirit of the club after the toxicity that Jose Mourinho had fostered at Old Trafford, it is undeniable that Solskjaer has hit a ceiling with this United team and will never be able to take them to the next level.