Manchester United fans were in for a bit of a rollercoaster ride last season. All of the issues under José Mourinho finally came to a head, with the club finally sacking him in December, when United were a full 19 points behind then-league leaders Liverpool.

The club eventually finished sixth, a massive 32 points behind winners Manchester City, after having appointed former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjær as Mourinho’s replacement. While the Norwegian managed to provide an initial pick-up in terms of results, with United winning 14 of his first 19 matches in charge, including a scarcely-believable comeback against Paris St Germain in the Champions League, there was an immediate drop from the moment he was confirmed as permanent manager on a three-year deal.

United limped, rather than sprinted, over the line, and it was evident that the new boss had to offer a lot more than just throwbacks to the glory days of the Ferguson era if the Red Devils were to re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent force in English football.

Solskjær is definitely a more attacking manager than his predecessor, and more inclined to give young players a chance as well. In terms of tactics, there are a few key ideas that he will look to establish, and this tactical scout report will look at those ideas and how Manchester United could potentially play in the coming season.

With United 5/2 with most betting sites to finish in the top four, it promises to be a difficult season ahead for Solskjær. He is currently odds on with many of the UK’s major bookmakers to not be in charge of United come the end of next season.

This tactical analysis will also look at the potential role that the club’s new signings could make on the side – and what that might mean to United and Solskjær’s future.

Solskjær’s tactics

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Formations used by Manchester United last season

As the above image shows, Manchester United did not really use a particular formation prominently last season. While this is influenced by the fact that the club went through two different managers during the season, it is still important to note that there was a lot of chopping and changing going on. Despite this, there are a few core tenets that the Norwegian will attempt to implement this season.

Use of width

Solskjær is a firm believer in the use of width while attacking to stretch opposition teams. However, last season saw United usually play quite narrowly, with a diamond formation in midfield being used which meant that the width had to be provided by the full-backs –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
The attackers are all central, with Ashley Young providing width from right-back
Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
A similar story here, with Juan Mata having come inside from the right flank

This term, one can expect similar tactics from the Red Devils. United do have a lack of traditional wingers, with all of their current wide players identifying as strikers or attacking midfielders. While Daniel James has been brought in from Swansea, the Welshman is unlikely to find himself in the starting XI, at least at first. Thus, once again, the onus will be on the full-backs to push on and provide width. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s acquisition could be crucial in this regard –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Notice how all four attackers are in central areas, with both full-backs stretching the play

While the young English right-back’s defensive game shall be looked at further in this piece, he will also have a crucial role to play in an attacking sense. Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw are Solskjær’s first-choice full-backs, and both will be expected to venture high up the touchline when United have the ball. This will also allow for another of Solskjær’s tactical ideas to be implemented…

Attackers in central areas

With the width being provided by the full-backs, the wingers will come inside and play in the half-spaces, looking to combine with the striker and midfielders. United have played with a 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season, which suggests that Solskjær wants to solve the creativity issues that bogged the Red Devils last season by using a central playmaker. The club already have a ready-made man for the role in Juan Mata, with Jesse Lingard also capable of playing in the hole behind a striker. Intriguingly, new man James has also been used in this position, albeit as part of a rotating cast of three behind Anthony Martial –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Lingard playing as the number 10, with James on the right and Wan-Bissaka looking to overlap as well
Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Rashford and James staying out wide here. Notice how Matic is the only midfield player behind the ball; this will be discussed later

Paul Pogba will also look to venture forward from his central midfield berth, increasing United’s options in the middle –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
With James coming inside to play centrally, Martial, Lingard and Pogba all make forward runs to support him. Rashford is coming inside from the left, allowing Shaw to overlap as well

The logic behind this is sound – Solskjær wants his attackers as close to each other as possible to facilitate quick passing moves which can open up defences. Marcus Rashford is likely to play off the left, where his natural tendency is to cut inside. Lingard and Mata will do the same if played on the right flank, while James, being a right-footed player, has played on both flanks as well as centrally for Swansea and Wales. This has allowed United’s attackers to rotate positions during pre-season, which will undoubtedly add to their threat going forward. United’s newest kid on the block, Mason Greenwood, also fits the bill, with his manager having said that he can play anywhere across the front line.

A related point is United’s counter-attacking potential. With Romelu Lukaku seemingly on his out of Old Trafford, the majority of United’s attackers are fast and skilful. This will allow Solskjær to play on the counter-attack when required, as a quick vertical ball would be enough to release United’s attackers on goal –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
From the last game of the previous season – Mason Greenwood and Rashford making runs in behind the defence for Andreas Pereira to play a long pass

Defensive vulnerabilities

United were quite shambolic defensively last season, and Solskjær’s move to a 4-2-3-1 system will do little to alleviate those issues. With only Nemanja Matic as a defensively-minded player in front of the back four, United may be prone to being overrun in central areas, especially against sides like Manchester City who are extremely comfortable in possession –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Notice how Wan-Bissaka is out of position for this Inter counter, while Matic is overwhelmed in the face of three Inter midfielders making runs into space. Pogba has also allowed an opponent to run off him without tracking him

Another issue last season was United’s marking, or rather the centre-backs’ tendency to man-mark and thus be pulled out of position. Eric Bailly was especially guilty of this, as he would follow the opposition centre-forward across the width of the pitch, leaving gaps for the other attackers to potentially exploit –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
Bailly has been drawn out towards Higuain, which has opened up space for Willian to run into the box. The United defence has also shifted over, leaving Kante potentially in space too down the right

United are also unlikely to press high consistently – there may be instances during games where the attackers look to press opposition defenders, but they will look to drop back into a medium block most of the time. Solskjær’s defensive template is one where his team stays compact and narrow, ceding space out wide but preventing attacks down the middle –

Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
United happy to allow the Huddersfield centre-backs to have the ball, preferring to sit off and block passes into midfield
Manchester United 2019/20 Season Preview Scout Report Tactical Analysis Tactics
United staying compact and narrow, which has allowed Marcos Alonso to be in space on the left, but is restricting options centrally

As mentioned previously, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s arrival could be key to United’s fortunes, certainly from a defensive point of view. The former Crystal Palace youngster, who has earned the nickname of ‘Spider’ from his new team-mates due to his ability to retrieve the ball from any situation, had impressive statistics last season. According to Wyscout, he won almost 65% of his defensive duels last season, with a 53% success rate for sliding tackles alone. He made a whopping 6.58 interceptions/90 minutes, and 8.37 recoveries/90, showing how adept he is at regaining possession. All of this was done while conceding just 0.68 fouls/90 minutes, further establishing his excellence at winning the ball back fairly. Transplant these characteristics into United’s defence, and there is a chance that the club have found the solution to a problem position for years to come.

Conclusion

United had a dismal campaign last time around, with only the brief renaissance after Solskjær’s initial appointment providing any source of happiness for fans of the Red Devils. They were far behind City and Liverpool domestically, and it is too large a gap to be surmounted in just one season. Nevertheless, with a couple more intelligent signings and some strong work on the training field, there is no reason why the club cannot break back into the top four this season. United have some gifted attackers, an extremely talented midfielder in Paul Pogba, and the basis for a good defence, behind which is one of the world’s best goalkeepers in David de Gea. Solskjær needs to find some consistency and cohesiveness from his squad to ensure that they are challenging towards the top of the table in the 2019/20 season.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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