Manchester United’s risk box. Is it sustainable?

Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez’s arrival to the Premier League 17 years ago had a long lasting effect on the English sides. Even before Pep Guardiola’s influence on football and the German school, led by Juergen Klopp, re-popularizing pressing, the influence that the Iberian duo had on England was and is still clear to the naked eye.

It’s so clear that it became part of the furniture. Yours eyes got used to it, year after year, that it no longer stands out. The Iberian duo influenced how English teams defend. Defensive organization was the new toy back then. Time has passed though, moving from possession to pressing to a mix of both.

By now, the majority of the teams in the Premier League know how to set up a compact defensive unit. 17 years is a long time, the evolution has become the norm.

It’s the attacking structure needed to breakdown these defensive units now that differentiates the elite from one of the bottle. As well as, pressing schemes that catch the opposition out before they retreat back into the defensive shell.

Ironically, a lack of an effective attacking structure is one of the reasons Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur fell off the top of the league. A weird inclination to shut-up shop against lesser oppositions resulted in dropping point after point. The Golden Goose in Harry Kane has been carrying Spurs’ attack this season apart from a vague appearance of an attacking game plan here and there. Mourinho, the influencer in 2004 can’t keep up with the influenced in 2021. He brought evolution, yet evolution has passed him.

It was the same in Mourinho’s previous job at Manchester United. A lack of a cohesive attacking structure, coupled with toxicity straight out of a Botulinum toxin bottle saw his end even before the infamous third season finished.

His successor though, for all his flaws, has steadied the ship. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign saw improvement and consistency in performance from multiple squad members, namely Luke Shaw, Fred and Marcus Rashford and the overall mood at the club is clearly happier after the smothering tenure of the previous two managers. The flaws though bring us back to the previous talking point, attacking structures.

Manchester United have been impressive in one-off games. Dragging Leeds all over the field, using their wing backs in a 3–4–1–2 shape to create space behind Liverpool’s full backs, and previously nullifying Mourinho’s changes to get three points on the previous Manchester United manager.

The problems though, has been in the conviction of the wins this season. Sitting in 2nd place, seven points ahead of Leicester City and eleven behind Manchester City, Manchester United have accumulated 18 wins. Some have been of convincing displays, but most of the time it has been individual brilliance. From Rashford, to Shaw to the ethereal Bruno Fernandes. Individuality has lifted Manchester United to the skies.

The lack of a functional attacking structure is one part of the puzzle that is stopping Manchester United from being good to the best. And Sunday was the clearest example of how individual quality moulded inside an attacking structure gets the better out of these individuals.

In the first half, it was the same old 4–2–3–1 with Paul Pogba at times moving inside. As we have come accustomed to Manchester United this season, it was sterile. Tottenham’s aggression in midfield didn’t help as well

Come the second half, it was totally different for the men in red. Moving away from the 4–2–3–1 with Pogba going inside to a clear an obvious box midfield behind Edinson Cavani and Rashford who moved inside to create space out wide for Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

The box midfield provided Manchester United with an extra free man in the center of the pitch. Most of the time, that free man was either Fernandes or Pogba.

The shape wasn’t the only differentiator here, Manchester United’s passing combinations were specifically aimed at utilizing that free player. Early in the half, you can spot Tottenham’s midfield three lopsided towards the far side of the pitch due to the presence of Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Fred there. Lingering behind them is Pogba who is completely free but ineffective as there’s no direct passing option into him.

However after Wan-Bissaka combines with Fernandes down the touchline, Pogba comes into play with all three of Tottenham’s midfield on the other side. Wan Bissaka chose to play the ball into Cavani….

….who quickly passed it to Rashford before the English player played it quickly into Pogba’s path. All quick one touch passes to find the free man in the center.

Pogba bypassed Serge Aurier, bringing us to the situation below. Rashford making a run into the space behind Tottenham’s defence, Cavani offering a passing option into the box as Rashford’s run drags Joe Rodon inside and out wide is a free Wan-Bissaka offering a crossing option. Activating the free man in Pogba using quick passing combinations put United in a favorable position they had rarely encountered this season. Pogba then found Rashford, but the striker slowed down allowing the Spurs defenders to retreat.

The Spurs midfield always thought it was a 3 v 3 battle, but in reality it was a 4 v 3 because Pogba or Rashford kept positioning themselves inside the field as a free man. Here, Fred finds Pogba with a simple pass while Fernandes is making a run inside.

Putting himself in a position away from Spurs’ midfield three and free from any marking.

From that position, Fernandes can pick his pass under no pressure. He played the ball into Wan-Bissaka’s path, resulting eventually in a corner despite the pass being short. One reason behind the regular option of a free Wan-Bissaka on the right was Rashford’s inside movement that dragged Sergio Reguilon with him. Combining that movement and the utilization of the free man in midfield, Manchester United had a designed path towards the opponent’s goal. A functioning attacking structure.

The scene was set for Manchester United and it was time for the application. A free man in Pogba or Bruno in midfield….

…..before Rashford’s runs inside provided a threat behind Spurs’ defence while also freeing space for Wan-Bissaka out wide. Pogba here went with the Rashford option, but the Frenchman’s pass could have been better.

Another example illustrates how United’s structured attack penetrated Spurs’ block. It started with a McTominay pass into Fred as the midfield box is occupying their correct positions.

Once Pierre-Emile Højbjerg moved out towards Fred, the Brazilian put him in his back and rolled around him to take Hojbjerg out of the equation. Now with all three Spurs’ midfielder occupying 3/4 of the vertices of the box, Pogba is free to receive into space. Fred plays the correct pass into Pogba…..

…..and with Rashford moving inside, the path is clear for a ball into the overlapping Wan-Bissaka. The right back’s cross was cleared into a corner kick that eventually turned into the chance Pogba missed from three yards out.

Two out of the three Manchester United goals originated from this attacking set up. In the build up to the first, Pogba’s positioning on the far edge of the box drags Hojbjerg all the way up to the edge of the penalty area. As a result, Bruno is free on the other side of the box as Heung-min Son who theoretically is in place of Hojbjerg is a couple of yards away from the Portuguese midfielder.

Fred found the free Fernandes before three quick combination passes around Son — who was completely out of place — put Fred again in a decent position in the D area. Utilizing the free man on the edge of the midfield box worked here, but also the presence of Rashford inside allowed for more combination play that United heavily miss.

Fred then played the ball into Cavani who made an excellent run in the space Aurier had left, before Fred put the rebound into the back of the net.

The second goal also features the box, however with different players. Victor Lindelof’s forward run and Mason Greenwood’s inside positioning completes the midfield box alongside Pogba and Fred. Meanwhile, Reguilon is marking Fernandes.

Once the ball moves wide and Greenwood makes a run in behind, it frees Fernandes of any marking. Add to that Moussa Sissoko and Eric Lamela’s gravitational pull towards the other side of the box due to the presence of Fred and Pogba, and Fernandes is free to receive in between the lines. The attacking structure put the United players in a place where they can use their individual quality. Fernandes nutmegged Reguilon, Greenwood put in a perfect cross for Cavani, and the latter didn’t disappoint.

For 45 minutes, Manchester United had a clear attacking structure that not only brought them the three points but might also have been their most convincing display this season to date.

The build up was directed towards one side, dragging the Spurs midfield three before United found a pass into their free man in midfield. Then Rashford or Greenwood moving inside allowed for more combination play centrally, runs in behind the Spurs defence and the pull to drag Reguilon inside to create space for Wan-Bissaka.

A voice from the bench in the 73rd minute while Harry Maguire was on the ball — probably Michael Carrick — summarized United’s intent to find the free man. “Next one Paul, can we get in Paul”

The other side of the coin is that Manchester United left spaces in behind that Spurs could have used more smartly on the counter. There was also obvious tactical fouling from Manchester United resulting in yellow cards to Shaw and Maguire, begging the question of how sustainable this attacking structure is. Perhaps with a plan on defensive transitions it might work.

Overall, the approach was risky from Solskjaer and Manchester United but it worked. A risky attacking structure is better than none at all, just ask Jose Mourinho.

English Football. United