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FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United – tactical analysis

One of the tastier ties that the FA Cup third-round draw threw up was the clash between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United at Molineux. However, the resulting 0-0 draw did not quite live up to the billing that was promised and a replay at Old Trafford now awaits the pair.

After a hectic festive fixture list being endured and the knock-out stages of the Europa League coming up, both Nuno Espirito Santo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have had an unnecessary extra fixture as the last thing on their Christmas lists.

While the tie was by no means a classic, this tactical analysis will dissect the FA Cup clash and highlight key areas of the two sides’ tactics, using analysis to explain how they led to the match’s outcome, a frustrating stalemate.


FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
The two sides’ lineups from Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Manchester United

While the graphic from Wyscout lists the Old Gold’s starting formation as 5-4-1, it was actually much more similar to Nuno Santo’s much more regularly used, 3-4-3. Of course, however, the formation does look more much like the graphic shows when Wolves are out of possession. Over the ten games previous to the United tie, Wolves only deterred from the 3-4-3 twice and on both occasions that was for a 3-5-2. Following the 2-1 defeat to Watford in the Premier League, Wolves made five changes. Rui Patricio, Ryan Bennett, Joao Moutinho, Jonny Otto and Raul Jimenez made way for John Ruddy, Max Kilman, Ruben Neves, Ruben Vinagre and Benny Ashley-Seal.

In the opposite dugout, again, the starting formation looked a little different to that as shown on the Wyscout graphic. Instead of the shown 4-4-1-1, Solskjaer used his preferred formation of choice, the 4-2-3-1. A formation which he had used for the 11 consecutive games prior to the tie with Wolves, going back to the 3-3 draw with Sheffield United, where a 3-4-2-1 was deployed. In their lineup, seven changes were made from the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. David De Gea, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial made way for Sergio Romero, Brandon Williams, Ashley Young, Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood.

Wolves’ high-energy press

In any 0-0, there will, more often than not, need to be several tactics from each side that will frustrate their opposition to a large degree. In the case of this 0-0 draw, Wolves’ highly energetic press played a key feature in the outcome of the game. By limiting Manchester United’ time and space on the ball in their defensive and midfield thirds, it became incredibly difficult for them to keep hold of the ball and create meaningful attacks.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Wolves pressing United energetically high up the pitch

As can be seen in this annotation, Wolves’ high energy pressing started from right at the top of their 3-4-3 system. Whenever Solskjaer’s side attempted to play the ball around in any third of the pitch the Old Gold would quickly and intensely close them down, which caused panic and led to mistakes. Here, the movement of the Red Devils’ passes are marked by the red arrows and how Wolves’ players reacted by the yellow.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Wolves continuing the pattern of play in the middle third

In this instance, Wolves show the same pattern of play in the middle third of the pitch. With the ball being shifted across United’s midfield, marked by the red arrows again, the Old Gold quickly and immediately limit the space for the player in possession and this ultimately leads Young to turn possession over to Wolves. This intensity and desire from Nuno Santo’s side to stay tight on United where possible stifled a lot of the away side’s flair and led the Manchester club to reach Wolves’ 18-yard box with possession on only six occasions.

Compactness in the Wolves backline

Another way Wolves influenced Manchester United having a statistically shocking evening in attack, as will be discussed later in the piece, was through the compactness in their backline. As the initial graphic of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ lineup showed, when out of possession Nuno Santo’s side sat into a 5-4-1 formation, with a narrow and compact back five that proved difficult to penetrate.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Wolves’ compact back five

As can be seen in this annotation, when Vinagre and Matt Doherty dropped back deep when out of possession, the back five remained narrow and compact. While Doherty is a little further over due to his awareness of Daniel James and wanting to be able to mark tightly should the ball be switched, the other four defenders are closely bunched. This allowed Wolves’ backline to be difficult to play through due to the small gaps between defenders, meaning that United would either have had to play over them, dribble past them or around the sides of the compact back five.

In the clash at Molineux, Solskjaer deployed inverted wingers, which played into the hands of the Old Gold. Chong and James acted as inverted wingers as James, positioned on the left, is right-footed and Chong, on the right, is left-footed. This means that they looked to drive infield with possession as opposed to giving greater width in Wolves’ final third. This then limited United’s capability to play around the back five and they persisted with struggling to penetrate.

United’s statistically woeful attack

While the blame could be laid with having a youthful attack against Wolves, almost every attacking statistic does not make good reading for the Red Devils – who were nothing other than abject in Wolves’ final third. While emphasis has been placed on Solskjaer’s side having zero shots on target, which is not the first time this season, having done the same against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League, across the board they were poor up front.

When taking a look at passes made during the game the problem may become evident. Between the starting seven players in the defensive and defensive midfield thirds of United, that being the 4-2 plus Romero of the 4-2-3-1, they completed 259 passes. Between the starting front four, the 3-1 of the 4-2-3-1, they made just 90. That totals an average of 37 passes per defensive player and 22.5 per attacking player. While that will, in part, be due to the Wolves’ aforementioned tactics, it does not bode well for United’s young attack.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Manchester United’s crosses

Here, a map of Manchester United’s crosses can be seen. Of the 12 attempted crosses throughout the first and second half, just one was successful. Compared with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nuno Santo’s side attempted 22 during the game, seven of which were successful. Making the home side 24% more successful at crossing.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Manchester United’s map of dribbles

This graphic shows a map of the Red Devil’s successful and unsuccessful dribbles. Throughout the 90 minutes United attempted 24 dribbles, only 11 were successful and two were inside their own half. Adama Traore alone boasted as many successful dribbles (11) as the whole of the United squad from 19 attempts. Across the whole of Wolves’ squad, 40 dribbles were attempted, 27 of which were successful, making the Old Gold 2.45x more successful than their opponents at dribbling, as shown below.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ map of dribbles

United’s solid 4-4-1-1 out of possession

While the Red Devils were less than impressive when on the attack, they were defensively solid and were incredibly difficult for Wolves to break down. Solskjaer’s side controlled possession in the first half with 59%, however, found themselves under the cosh in the second as Wolves finished the game with 67% possession in the second period. Despite this swing in dominance, United remained solid due to their out of possession structure, a 4-4-1-1 as shown by the Wyscout graphic.

FA Cup 2019/20: Wolves vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics
Manchester United’s two lines of four in midfield and defence

Despite Solskjaer selecting a younger-looking side than usual, with some inexperience in these two defensive lines, they were able to remain solid due to the two banks of four. Wolves found the lines difficult to play through due to their compactness which often saw players double up with the defender in front or behind them to nullify any threat.

Doubtlessly, experienced heads such as Young and Nemanja Matic will have marshalled the lines to their clean sheet. The latter of the two acted as the centre point for United in a strong display, boasting more passes than any other player in the Red Devil’s lineup with 48.


As initially mentioned, both managers will be frustrated to have added another fixture to what has, so far, been a choked fixture list. Nuno Espirito Santo will perhaps be the more frustrated of the two due to his Wolves side arguably shading the best of the contest and perhaps should have won if Doherty had headed his superb chance more cleanly to prevent the ball going in off his hand.

However, in the replay, it should be somewhat more of an exciting contest with penalties looming and no replay on the cards. Switching Molineux for Old Trafford will change the dynamic further, as United’s Norwegian boss hinted at full time that they do not like playing in the Old Gold’s back yard.

This tactical analysis has dissected the clash between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United in the FA Cup third round. Key areas of the two sides’ tactics have been highlighted and analysis has been used to show how they impacted the game’s outcome, a 0-0 draw.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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