Manchester United: The value of balance and width 0

 

This point has been made before on this site, so I’ll do this quickly…

Before the international break, Manchester United gave one of their bluntest, least imaginative performances of recent years and spent ninety minutes against Burnley labouring against the restrictions placed upon them by their tactical system.  The structure, in principle, was fine, but the use of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia as a wing-back pairing was not.

Below are two graphics from that Burnley game (from Squawka) showing the areas in which United touched the ball and the origin/destination of their passing.  United are shown as playing from right to left:

The area to focus on - in both graphics - is that bottom left-hand corner.

Not only did United fail to occupy that part of the pitch, but their attempts to penetrate it with their passing were relatively scarce.  Why?  Because with only a right-footed wing-back on that side, the team lacked a player whose natural instinct was to carry the ball into that zone or run into it off-the-ball.

Burnley may be a newly-promoted side, but they were smart enough two weeks ago to realise that by remaining behind the ball, congesting the middle of the pitch, and over-committing their defensive numbers to preventing Antonio Valencia from having clear crossing opportunities, they could stop Louis Van Gaal’s side from hurting them.  United had no variation to their play, and with so little space existing either inside or within the fifteen yards outside the penalty-box, they had no choice but to keep feeding Valencia and hoping that one of his crosses made it through the forest of attending defenders.

Now compare that with today - the same graphics, but with United playing from left to right.

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Marcos Rojo and Rafael started as orthodox full-backs, and in combination with the players ahead of them they guaranteed a certain level of width throughout the game.

It really doesn’t matter if wide players are in possession or not - the threat is enough.  If a defence is facing an opposition who are employing a pair of players on opposing touchlines, their own full-backs have to play that bit wider to prevent the defensive-line from being compromised.  In turn, that maximises the gap that reasonably has to exist between a covering full-back and the centre-half on each side of the pitch - and the larger those gaps, the more space there is for playmakers to exploit.

Think about the moment at 0-0 when Marcos Rojo broke to the byline and crossed for Robin van Persie/Ander Herrera in the first-half.  The genesis of that move was Angel Di Maria’s lofted pass into the space behind QPR’s defence - and that wouldn’t have happened against Burnley, because Di Maria wouldn’t have had an overlapping Rojo outside of him.

The respective defensive performances of Burnley and QPR was of course relevant to the differences between those two Manchester United performances, but the shape was far more balanced today and much more conducive to the kind of football Van Gaal wants to see his side play.

It doesn’t really matter if that shape is a 3-5-2 or a 4-1-3-2 or anything else, just so long as the formation provides that same level of width and opportunity.

 

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