“Everything is going wrong” – David De Gea, Man United

A brutally honest assessment from Man United’s number one in his post-match interview following Manchester United’s sorry defeat to Newcastle on Sunday. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men continued their dismal away form, extending their time without victory even further from that magnificent night in Paris – which seems a long time ago now. United have now lost their third game in the Premier League this season, slumping to 12th in the table. The 1-0 victory for the Magpies lifted them out of the relegation zone.

In this tactical analysis, we look at the tactics deployed by Steve Bruce and provide an analysis of where the attacking issues lie in this Man United team.

Lineups

Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Newcastle have used their defensive 5-4-1 formation 62% of the time this season.

Steve Bruce opted for a familiar defensive shape, with the intention of frustrating the visitors. He implemented a rigid 5-4-1 system, consisting of Jerome Lascelles, Ciaran Clark and Fabian Schär as the centre-backs. This additional centre-back assisted in covering the movement in the half-spaces and also prevented overloads on the wings. Homegrown brothers Matt and Sean Longstaff started as the central midfielders. Their role was to provide stability to the defensive shape and use their narrow positioning to block passing lanes into the front men, which they did expertly. New signing Joelinton started as the lone striker- he was used as a target man during an offensive transition, supported by Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin.

Wholesale changes were made to the United team as Solskjær looked for solutions to his mounting injury troubles. Diogo Dalot and Ashley Young started as the full-backs. Youngster Axel Tuanzebe continued to impress as Harry Maguire’s centre-back partner. No Paul Pogba offered a place for Fred, who operated in a double pivot with Scott McTominay that lacked any creativity or expansive thinking. Marcus Rashford continued as the number nine, his obvious isolation up front coupled with a lack of instinctive movement led to a frustrating afternoon for the England international.

Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Newcastle’s most common combination came down the right flank, between DeAndre Yedlin (22) and Schär (5) (12 combinations)

Newcastle’s gameplan became obvious from the first minute as they implemented their defensive strategy expertly. Out of possession, their full-backs stayed tight alongside the centre-backs, who sat deep to prevent exposable spaces in behind. The Longstaffs protected the defensive unit by reducing the vertical spaces between the lines. This stopped Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira occupying dangerous pockets of space in front of Newcastle’s defensive line. The pair also supported each other as they worked in tandem to shift across to block passing lanes in Man United’s build-up. We can see how close they were positioned to each other, which stopped passing lanes from opening up through their midfield line. The young duo made 7 interceptions and 14 recoveries between them throughout the match.

From the low defensive block, Newcastle looked to spring into attack with fast offensive transitions. Their two tactical techniques to counter effectively was using long passes into Joelinton and then play off him. The Brazillian won 55% of his aerial battles, which is impressive against a defender like Maguire. Almirón’s positioning was key to this tactic, as we can see above how closely to Joelinton he played to connect the attack cohesively and pick up on second balls.

The second tactic used to transition up the field effectively was using Saint-Maximin to travel through the phases. The Frenchman was a constant thorn in the side of Dalot who struggled to restrict the dribbling ability and flair of the Newcastle winger. Saint-Maximin made 6 progressive runs in the match and attempted 9 dribbles which demonstrates his effectiveness in the match. We can see from his advanced position that he also sought to use his pace in behind United’s back four.

Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Maguire (5) and Tuanzebe (38) linked 32 times in total throughout the match

Man United continued with the approach play we’ve become accustomed to seeing this season. They built up their attacks by playing short passes through each phase of the pitch. The centre-backs linked with the double pivot who dropped deeper in search of the ball. It was from this point in their ball rotations that Man United struggled to develop the attack into anything meaningful. Their slow horizontal passes combined with each player taking too many touches on the ball allowed the Newcastle players to get set in their defensive structure. This then made forward passes into dangerous areas much harder to find as the spaces were constantly blocked by the Newcastle defensive unit. Man United’s centre-backs touched the ball 197 times between them as they struggled to develop attacks higher up.

We can see from the pass map how the majority of United’s possession occurred between their defence and midfield, with little link-up play occurring higher up the pitch. Another interesting point to note is the reduced vertical spaces between the backline and the attacking players. This clearly shows how well Newcastle contained the attacking plays in non-threatening areas, preventing them from developing higher up the pitch. The Man United midfielders dropping deeper to find space isolated Rashford who struggled to touch the ball in dangerous areas or penetrate the defensive line with sharp runs. The Englishman only touched the ball in the opposition area 2 times in the entire match.
As a result of their stifled approach play, the Red Devils failed to create freely, only managing an xG of 1.1, with their defenders having their best opportunities from set-pieces. Below we look in more detail at the problems faced by the Manchester club.

A creative block

Since their opening match, Man United have only scored a maximum of one goal in any of their following seven games. Their build-up play is slow, unimaginative and lacks any dynamism which is key to breaking down rigid opposition formations.
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Tuanzebe finished the match with a 96% passing accuracy due to the majority of them being square or backwards
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Young touched the ball 109 times – more than any other player on the pitch. He finished the game with an Expected Assist (xA) figure of 0.74
Above is a common scenario that United found themselves in. The Newcastle defensive shape is set in two rigid banks as Man United have failed to move the ball quickly enough through the phases. Alongside Matt and Sean Longstaff the wingers have also tucked inside to create a solid unit which is near impossible to play through. The only solution from this point is to play into the wider spaces and look to go round the opposition block.
United obliged as they struggled to find their creative attacking players centrally through the lines. Mata, Pereira and Daniel James struggled to impact the game in any meaningful way as they were unable to pick up the ball in areas they are most dangerous in.
Once the ball went wide, Man United’s lack of an instinctive, natural number nine became apparent.
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
A map of Man United’s crosses in the final third, the red marker indicates the successful crosses
As you can see, the away side attempted numerous times to attack with crosses from the wings – 14 times in total. However, despite this aerial bombardment, United only had a success rate of 7.14% – just one cross found its intended target. This is due to a combination of poor crossing and a lack of penetrative movement as we look at below.
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Rashford touched the ball just 22 times – fewer than any of his starting teammates
Above, Young has the ball on the wing and is making one of his four crosses he made in the match. Rashford is the target, with space available near the front post for a bursting run to be made across the defender to poke the ball towards goal at close range. As the ball is delivered Rashford hesitates on his run, meaning the timing is skewed and this allows the defender to easily intercept and make a clearance.
The same happens in the next two pictures. The ball has been funnelled wide as discussed earlier. The winger does their job and gets a half-yard from which they can deliver the cross. Rashford’s run is again delayed due to a lack of instinct and awareness of what space needs attacking. The England striker drifts towards the penalty spot instead of bursting into the near post area again. The result is the same and United lose the chance to get an attempt in on goal because of the subdued movement of their striker.
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Rashford averages an xG per game of 0.35 when playing as a centre-forward
Premier League 2019/20: Newcastle vs Man United - tactical analysis tactics
Rashford only won 30% of his duels on Sunday
That was the story for the Manchester side’s lone striker who didn’t register a shot on goal and therefore achieved a worrying xG of zero.

Conclusion

Solskjær has called for calm following his side’s third defeat and is urging the fans to stay faithful in this period of uncertainty. The fans cannot question the effort of the players and having a depleted squad is acting as a shield for the Norweigan. However, not scoring again after a midweek fixture where not a single shot was registered has shone the light on the Manchester legend and it is beginning to magnify. With Liverpool next on the fixture list, things may just go from bad to worse.

Steve Bruce will be delighted with not just the three points on home soil but the manner of the victory. He saw energy, commitment and grit from his side that will be absolutely necessary if they want to keep their Premier League status. Within that Bruce has uncovered another homegrown talent, with Matt Longstaff putting in an exemplary performance and grabbing the winning goal on what will be a truly memorable day for the 19-year-old. I have a feeling we might be seeing more of the youngster from now on.


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