Manchester United sat only three points ahead of rivals Partizan going into this Thursday night UEFA Europa League game. Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s side went into this fixture, knowing a win would likely see their qualification into the knockout rounds with two games to spare. With pressure continuing to mount on Solskjaer a convincing performance was what was required, and United didn’t disappoint, running away with a 3-0 victory in front of the Old Trafford faithful. This tactical analysis will focus on the tactics used by both United and Partizan.
United fielded a 4-2-3-1. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young played either side of Harry Maguire and Marcos Rojo in defence. In midfield, Fred and Scott McTominay partnered one another in a deeper role, with Juan Mata sitting in front of them, whilst upfront Anthony Martial played as a central striker, flanked by the two homegrown attacking wingers in Marcus Rashford, and Mason Greenwood.
Partizan stuck to their guns and fielded a 4-2-3-1, a formation they have used in the majority of their games thus far this season.
Head coach Savo Milošević fielded a strong starting XI with the only changes to their normal personnel coming in midfield. Both Zoran Tošić and wonderkid Filip Stevanović found themselves on the bench, with Milošević perhaps concerned about overstretching in attack. Bibras Natkho was played in the 10 role with Seydouba Soumah pushed to the right-side of midfield.
Fred and McTominay’s contributions to United’s buildup play
United set out to play attacking football from the word go, looking to pick Partizan apart with sequences of short purposeful passes. Throughout the game, only 5.24% of United’s passes were long passes, whilst they enjoyed over 60% of possession.
McTominay and Fred were vital to the way United set up to play, however, both had very different roles, as we can see in the below analysis of their respective pass maps.
Fred played as a tempo-setting pivot, constantly ensuring the ball continued circulating. His pass map highlights how frequently he passed laterally, whilst the majority of his penetrating longer passes forward were inaccurate. Despite this, he managed an outstanding 90% pass completion on the evening with five of his seven inaccurate passes coming from forward passes.
McTominay, on the other hand, was key in ensuring United were able to move forward, and was positive for much of the evening with his passing. He had a 93% pass completion on the evening, but importantly it was his excellent forward passing that was outstanding and proved vital, of which he had an 86% completion. Where Fred was important to United in retaining possession and switching the play, McTominay ensured good service into United’s attacking players and completed twice as many forward passes as Fred.
McTominay used his movement throughout the evening to create space to play forward. Due to Partizan’s reluctance to press the backline, he would drop deep to receive, knowing that he would be able to play directly through the space he had just vacated due to Partizan choosing to sit deep.
This proved a successful tactic. United had attempted to engage Partizan’s press, often playing into one of Fred and McTominay who faced their own goal. Usually, this would be a trigger for the defensive side to press, and if Fred or McTominay were to play this ball back to one of their defenders, it would be with the hope that the press would continue in their run to pressure the defender in possession.
This would free McTominay or Fred up to receive the ball once more but now have one less line of defence to have to pass through. Partizan were reluctant to do this though, therefore United’s best hopes of playing forward were through McTominay dropping, or through creating triangles on the wings, which I will discuss later.
Partizan’s defensive shape
Partizan sat deep defensively and rarely troubled United going forward, not registering a single attempt on target. They allowed United to build up their attacks from the back and didn’t engage in a high press and had a 15.45 PPDA.
Defensively their shape dropped into a deep 4-4-1-1, however, as the ball was played into a United midfielder facing the Partizan goal it was a trigger for their midfield to become more compact as the image below demonstrates.
Partizan’s goal defensively was to stop the ball being played centrally.
They didn’t look to engage in a press even with the ball well inside their own half. It was only as United progressed to within 30 yards of goal did their press grow in intensity, the midfield swarming tightly around the ball.
Below we can see an example of this as Mata is put under pressure. What is interesting is how they react to Mata playing a pass into McTominay who is free.
As soon as the ball is played into the central-midfielder, the triangle of players pressing Mata spread, with one pressing McTominay whilst the other two occupy the two channels through which United looked to play in both Rashford and Martial so frequently.
As a unit they had a low central block, allowing United plenty of space to play on the wings, but focusing on protecting the central passing lanes. United looked to play into the half-spaces, but Partizan looked to fill these areas. They did this with varying success.
United’s attacking play in the final third
United used the flanks to pull Partizan’s shape apart. Rashford and Greenwood both played either side of Martial. Yet they were used as inverted attacking wingers, rather than traditional wingers, with Rashford looking to cut inside onto his right and Greenwood onto his left.
Rashford’s ability to shift between playing as an inverted winger, and as part of a front two with Martial, meant he was able to manipulate the positioning of Partizan’s right-back and when he did come inside he would allow Young plenty of room to operate.
Young pushed high throughout the game, providing the width for United on the left-flank any time Rashford pushed inside. Yet it was a two-way relationship and with Rashford knowing Young would push high, the England forward was able to make late runs into the half-spaces, as he did for his goal, and Manchester United’s third goal of the evening.
With the ball being played diagonally across Partizan’s goal to Young, Rashford’s run inside brought the Partizan right-back, Nemanja Miletić, inside as well and allowed Young to take a touch to control the ball. Upon taking this touch Miletić then moved wide to close down Young who simply slipped the ball back inside for Rashford who was able to finish. The image below shows this movement.
When Rashford did play wide, his intention was to move inside and create space for Young or Martial to move into. Going forward on the wings, United looked to create triangles. Therefore the ball carrier always had two passing options.
As Rashford receives, he drives inside at the full-back, bringing the defender in with him as well. When doing this he either creates space for Young to move into on the overlap, or Martial would vacate the half-space and move into the wing himself.
The majority of United’s attacks came from the left flank. The number of positional attacks they created from the left-wing was in fact double the amount they created from the right. It is interesting that their xG from the left side’s positional attacks were almost equal to that of the right-wing despite there being fewer attacks from that side.
This is a tribute to Greenwood’s performance on the right-side.
The pass map below shows Greenwood, number 26, taking a far deeper position than Rashford, number 10, who played high and close to both Mata and Martial.
Greenwood tended to play wider, with Wan-Bissaka often overlapping, looking to play crosses. The right-back managed to complete all three of his crosses.
With the majority of play being focused on the left side, Greenwood was able to manipulate Partizan’s narrow defensive block. In the image below Rashford is able to play in Greenwood. In the highlighted area around Rashford there are seven Partizan defenders, all of whom are intent on preventing a shot on goal from a central area. Due to their narrowness, the Partizan left-back has to come over, which allows Greenwood space to receive in.
Crucially, it was this shape from Partizan that gave Greenwood enough time to cut back inside onto his left foot in this instance and score United’s first goal of the evening. With so many players so far over on the right side, Greenwood could touch the ball back onto his left knowing there would be no one there to dispossess him.
Thursday’s performance was a timely reminder of the talent and potential that United possess, with a young core running through their starting XI. Inevitably there will be doubters of Solsjkaer’s suitability for the job until his Manchester side are producing performances like this on a weekly basis in the Premier League, rather than against European sides they are expected to beat comfortably.
This weekend’s clash against Graham Potter’s Brighton is a great chance for United to build on this performance, with many expecting the Seagulls to provide a difficult challenge.
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