Premier League 2018/19: Cardiff City vs Man United Tactical Analysis Statistics

Manchester United put in their best display of the season away to Cardiff City on Saturday night, thrashing the Bluebirds 5-1 in a superb attacking display. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival at the club has been a breath of fresh air, with the United players looking liberated and actually enjoying their football. The headline statistic from this game is, of course, the fact that United scored five goals in a game for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in charge, that madcap 5-5 draw with West Brom all the way back in 2013. It looks like Solskjaer will give his players the freedom to go out and express themselves, having said as much in his pre and post-match interviews, and there are already visible signs of the differences in approach under him and Jose Mourinho.

Lineups

Neil Warnock made just one change to his side, with Greg Cunningham replacing the injured Joe Bennett at left-back.
Solskjaer, on the other hand, brought back Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba from the wilderness, while Phil Jones partnered Victor Lindelof in defence. In Romelu Lukaku’s absence, Marcus Rashford started up front, alongside Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

United push up high

One of the biggest criticisms of Mourinho’s United side was their failure to stretch opponents by utilising the width of the pitch – while the attacking players would drift infield, the full-backs would not bomb forward into the vacant space, under strict instructions from the Portuguese manager to maintain the side’s defensive shape. An example from the Champions League game against Valencia illustrates this clearly:

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Look at United’s fullbacks here – Rojo has enough space to run into but chooses to stay back, while Antonio Valencia is not even visible on the opposite side.

Contrast this to United’s approach against Cardiff and both full-backs were clearly instructed to stretch the play and get high up the pitch, with Young and Shaw happy to oblige.

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Young and Shaw are both high up the pitch, stretching Cardiff by forcing their wingers back. This meant that the half-space between the Cardiff centre-backs and full-backs was always open, and Lingard is making a run into that very space here.

This was not just limited to the full-backs – the entire team looked like they had been told to push up the pitch, instead of dropping deep as had been their tendency under Mourinho. United’s midfield shape demonstrates this well:

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Matic drops into the defensive line, allowing Herrera and Pogba to move into advanced positions and look to find space in midfield.

Matic dropping deep to effectively become a third centre-back allowed the full-backs to bomb forward, which in turn let the wingers come inside to combine with the midfielders. A simple tactic, but extremely effective.

Movement, movement, movement

United looked like a completely different side against Cardiff, and this was also down to the fact that there was a lot of intelligent off-the-ball movement. Players moved around looking to open up spaces, usually, in the wide areas – the wingers were dropping deep or moving into central areas, which would open up gaps for midfield runners or for the full-backs to take advantage of. The key here was the cohesiveness of the team; the United players were trying to create space for each other, and it looked as if they understood their roles perfectly – something which had been lacking under Mourinho. Once again, a relatively simple tactical approach was deployed, but it was executed almost perfectly.

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Martial comes deep here, bringing the Cardiff defender out with him. This creates the space for Pogba to run into.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
As the move progressed, Shaw’s positioning drew a defender towards him, while Martial remained infield – Pogba now had the freedom of the left flank to move into.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
This was not just restricted to the left – here, Lingard comes deep, which allows Young to bomb forward down the right flank.

A key individual who made this tactic work even better was Jesse Lingard. He did score two goals, but arguably as important was his movement off the ball. A comparison of his touch map with that of Martial, who played on the opposite flank, will illustrate just how much ground the Englishman covered:

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Ostensibly playing on the right flank, Lingard popped up all over the pitch.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Martial, on the other hand, was more tethered towards the left flank, with sporadic movements infield.

Lingard kept coming short and into central areas, dragging Cunningham out of position which would then create space for teammates to run into. He did this for the entire game, and on this evidence, it looks like he will be one of the first names on Solskjaer’s team sheets.

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Lingard’s central positioning has opened up the flank for Young to run into.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Instead of staying out wide, Lingard comes inside, drawing a defender out before playing a one-two with Lindelof, of all people, who ran into the space vacated by the Cardiff defender.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Once again, note Lingard’s positioning, and how far up the pitch Cunningham has come to keep track of him

United press intelligently

Under Mourinho, United were one of the only top sides in Europe to not have any sort of strategy designed to press opponents. The Red Devils would routinely sit back and invite pressure, to the extent that opponents could usually walk the ball into United’s half of the pitch before encountering any sort of pressure on the ball. Moreover, on the rare occasions that Mourinho deemed it necessary to press high up the pitch, the complete lack of practice and the absence of a cohesive strategy would be immediately obvious – the opposition would easily be able to play around United’s attempts to press, with the further downside that they would now have ample space to break into.

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Juventus away, in the Champions League, was one of the few occasions that United pressed under Mourinho. However, it was poorly executed, as can be seen here – the United players failed to block passing lanes, and just aimlessly followed the ball, leaving them with too much space to cover.
Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
This repeatedly led to the above scenario, where Matic was left outnumbered in midfield, not aided by the fact that his defence was playing extremely deep, opening up acres of space in midfield.

This was a tactic completely at odds with the way modern football has progressed, and Solskjaer looks like he is slowly getting the side to press their opponents high up the pitch, in conjunction with a high defensive line to compress the space and make it easier to win the ball back in midfield if required.

Cardiff City Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
The pressing is a lot more intelligent here – United use the touchline as a natural barrier, while not committing too many men to the press. They attempt to cover passing lanes and options rather than blindly race after the ball.

Conclusion

Rarely has one game showcased such a change in mentality and approach over the previous regime. The obvious caveats do apply here – it was only Cardiff, at the end of the day, and United did concede a few chances as well. However, Solskjaer’s impact with a little over two days of full training was undeniable. The hope now is that he is able to instil his methods in greater detail over this month, as a relatively benign fixture schedule should help him find his feet. There is still an extremely long way to go, but green shoots of recovery seem to be sprouting around Old Trafford in these winter months.


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