Matchday two saw Manchester United travel south to the Molineux where they faced a difficult away fixture against Wolves. United have struggled against the wanderers in recent times, not winning in their last three attempts against Nuno Santo’s men. The Red Devils were again unable to take the three points as they battled to a 1-1 draw in a tightly contested match.
The home side started in their preferred 5-3-2 shape, a system they achieved an xGD of +2.16 in last season. Matt Doherty and Jonny Castro were the selected full-backs. They were used to make a flat five across the back as Wolves looked to spring in transition from a low block. Rúben Neves was partnered by João Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker in midfield. Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez continued their partnership up front. Jiménez was involved in seven goals against the top six last season.
United opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf continued as the favoured centre-back pairing. Their passing range and ability to step out from the defensive line has already been a useful attacking option for the Red Devils this season. Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay acted as the double pivots in midfield. McTominay’s defensive awareness gave license to Pogba to support the attacking four. Anthony Martial started as the lone striker, he took his goal tally to 50 goals for United.
United started the brighter team, dominating possession and controlling the tempo of the game. This was down to their opponents taking an early defensive approach and sitting deep, attempting to catch United on the break.
Wolves allowed United to move the ball from left to right with ease. The away side averaged 6.3 passes per possession thanks to Wolves’ 12.75 PPDA. Instead of pressing aggressively Wolves blocked the centre of the pitch by condensing the horizontal distances between Jota and Jiménez. The three midfielders also squeezed up creating a congested block in the centre of the pitch to prevent United playing fluidly through them.
As a result, Manchester United only attacked through the centre 17% of the time. United’s attacks, therefore, came from advancing in the lateral areas. Aaron Wan Bissaka and Luke Shaw roamed forward as the midfield pivots dropped deeper to collect passes from their centre-backs. When this occurred Wolves sank into a deeper set position, with the vertical spaces between the midfield and defensive lines condensed considerably. This kept United’s attacks in front of them and restricted crucial spaces in between the lines for Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford to operate.
United’s ball rotations were played at a good tempo and they remained patient in playing direct vertical passes. This speed and patience in their build-up play eventually pulled the Wolves shape out of position and spaces opened up to be exploited. Below is an example of this.
Here, Wolves are set in their organised 5-3-2 low block. Lingard and Rashford are looking for spaces in between the lines but this is difficult due to the organisation and connection between Wolves’ midfield and defence. Notice Shaw’s position on the other side of the pitch is still extremely wide, this is to stretch the Wolves shape as far as possible to create spaces.
The play develops and United stay patient, continuing to move the ball from left to right. The continuous lateral movement pulls Wolves and disorganises their shape as they shift across continually. The strikers also get dragged out of position, as they are used as cover shadows, preventing passes into the midfield. As you can see above, the ball rotations have done their job and opened spaces through the midfield. Lingard uses his attacking awareness and dynamic movement to move into the spaces created to collect the pass.
Above is another example of Lingard causing Wolves trouble by playing in between the lines. Wolves’ centre-backs were wary of Martial’s pace and were, therefore, reluctant to hold a higher line, closer to their midfield. This left a large space for Lingard to operate, which he used to full effect as United went in deservedly ahead at the break.
A second-half revival
Despite disappointing in the first half, Wolves reacted by changing their tactics in the second. They kept their 5-3-2 shape but took more risks offensively. At half-time, the introduction of Adama Traore on the right gave Wolves the required spark to get them back into the match.
In need of a goal, Wolves adopted a more aggressive approach to winning back possession. Instead of looking to break from a low block, Santos’ got his side pressing higher up the pitch.
A man-oriented press was implemented to pressure United in possession. Instead of having the time to pick out players in advanced positions, the United players were forced backwards by the Wolves pressing. This led to more turnovers in possession and turnovers in dangerous areas of the pitch as we see below.
The Wolves press led to repossessions in advanced areas of the pitch. By regaining the ball higher up the pitch Wolves were able to create more chances on goal as they caught United in defensive transition. The man-to-man press meant that when they were successful in regaining possession they had numbers in support to immediately create a dangerous attack.
Above is the recovery map from Wolves in the first half. Their passive approach meant they rarely recovered the ball in promising areas and therefore were not able to use that as a platform to attack from. As you can see from this analysis, 59% of their recoveries occurred in the defensive third.
Compare that to the second half and the contrast is clear. 48% of Wolves’ recoveries occurred in the middle third and 18% in the attacking third, compared to just 4% in the first half. It was this change in approach to regaining the ball that took their xG in the first half of 0.1 to a final xG of 0.53.
The corner routine
The Wolves equaliser did eventually come in the form of a well-worked corner routine finished off by a typical Neves screamer.
The move started with a darting run to the front post. The near post is left clear so this run is not congested or blocked in any way.
Once the run is made, the corner is played short into the feet of the runner, who then immediately drops the ball back to the taker. This simple movement towards the taker draws three United players from their original positions and towards the ball.
By pulling three defenders out of position, Wolves created a large channel of space for the ball to be played into. Manchester United’s defenders cannot step out yet as Wolves still have other forwards in the box, keeping the defensive line deep.
This is so once the ball is fired into the channel of space and into Neves, who is lurking on the edge of the area, there is plenty of time to get a shot at goal. Shaw and Bissaka attempt to charge down the shot but they are too far from the ball and Neves – who has time for a bad first touch- shifts the ball onto his right on his second, and calmy picks his spot in the top corner. The Portuguese midfielder has now scored nine goals from outside the penalty area in his Wolves career.
After a slow start and being considerably outplayed in the first half, Wolves will be content with just a point. Despite not yet winning this season, Wolves have shown they’ve got the ability to score goals and can defend resiliently when required. It’s another good point for Santo’s men, who appear to be ready to continue their rich vein of form against the top six.
United will be disappointed not to break their jinx against Wolves. Pogba’s second-half penalty miss will take the spotlight as United failed to capitalise on their first-half domination. The side is looking energised, youthful and creative, which is something that’s not been said about Manchester United for a number of seasons. A tricky away fixture and another point on the board will please the United faithful who will be happy to have taken four points from a tough opening schedule.
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