West Ham United Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis
Artwork by @chapulana

Manchester United lost their third game of the season so far, falling to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of an invigorated West Ham side, to equal their worst-ever start to a Premier League season. United have 10 points from the first seven league games and are already nine points behind Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the table. They were listless and toothless at the London Stadium, with Jose Mourinho once again picking square pegs for round holes and expecting it to work. United’s tactics and approach were wrong, and this was ruthlessly exploited by West Ham, who look like they are back on track under Manuel Pellegrini.

Passive United allow West Ham to dictate proceedings

The very first indication of how United would approach the game came when the teams were announced. Mourinho had gone for a 3-5-2 system, with Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku as the strikers and a midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic. However, it was in the┬ádefence that he sprung a surprise; Scott McTominay was deployed as the right-sided centre-back, much like Ander Herrera was in the defeat to Tottenham earlier in the season. This was supposed to make it easier for United to play out from the back, but it took away a lot from the defensive structure of the side. The 3-5-2 is an inherently cautious formation, with up to eight players at times involved in the defensive phase, and thus Mourinho’s use of it in a game against West Ham was slightly puzzling. It seemed as if that negativity had seeped through to the players as well, as United were extremely passive, sitting off West Ham and allowing them a lot of time and space on the ball.

West Ham United Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis
United dropped to the edge of their penalty area extremely early in the game; there are six United players in that line, including Matic and Fellaini, meaning that the West Ham midfield has acres of space to play in

This meant that Matic and Fellaini were often sucked into deeper positions in front of the United defence, leaving the West Ham midfield free to knock the ball around. Indeed, Mark Noble had one of his best games in recent times, as the Hammers captain had the freedom of the London Stadium to play a deep-lying playmaker role. He had the most touches (81) of any Hammers player, and the second-most passes (72) of any player on either side, showing his influence on the game. But this was mostly made possible by United’s passivity and reluctance to engage West Ham, which eventually contributed to their downfall.

Defensive errors condemn United

Mourinho’s sides used to be defensively solid, well-drilled units, famed for their resilience and ability to grind out wins by just being so darn difficult to score against. That aspect of his management has alarmingly begun to fade; United have already conceded 12 goals from just seven games in the league. Moreover, another telling statistic is the fact that the Red Devils have now conceded three goals on all three occasions that Mourinho has used a back three this season, which makes it clear that the team are not used to that particular system. This has been exacerbated by defensive mistakes, and Saturday was no exception. Both Luke Shaw and Ashley Young were at fault for the opening goal, as shown below –

West Ham United Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis
Shaw and Young both fail to track the runners – Zabaleta and Anderson respectively, while McTominay ends up playing Zabaleta onside; he should have been a couple of yards further up the pitch

The second goal was deflected in by Victor Lindelof, but Andriy Yarmolenko should ideally have been closed down in a much better fashion. West Ham’s third goal, which killed off the game right after Marcus Rashford had given United a glimmer of hope, was another example of a defensive disaster.

West Ham United Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis
Mark Noble, once again, has all the time in the world to pick his pass to Arnautovic, who has slipped between Smalling and McTominay. The Scot was initially drawn towards Anderson on the flank, which created that huge gap in the first place – Ashley Young’s failure to track the Brazilian also contributing to the goal

While Scott McTominay can be excused on the basis that he is a central midfielder and cannot be expected to immediately understand the role of a centre-back, surely, he should not have played there in the first place? Even when Mourinho changed systems and moved to a back four, it was Lindelof who was substituted, leaving McTominay to play on despite having Eric Bailly on the bench. It is no wonder then that mistakes and lapses of concentration are increasing, as constant shuffling and playing of players outside their regular positions all contribute to the uncertainty at the club.

West Ham’s use of width breaks United open

As much as United were poor on Saturday, credit must be given to West Ham, who took full advantage of their opponents’ failings and ruthlessly exposed them. Noble, Pedro Obiang and Declan Rice bossed the midfield battle, but it was out wide that the Hammers struck their most telling blows. They always had an overload in that area, with the full-back and winger against United’s solitary wing-back, and both Arthur Masuaku and especially, Pablo Zabaleta repeatedly got up the wings, which pinned United back and allowed Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson to come inside and combine with Marko Arnautovic. The two full-backs’ touch maps from the game illustrate this.

West Ham United Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis
Masuaku and Zabaleta got consistently high up the pitch, with the Argentine making a number of touches in United’s penalty box, as well

Arnautovic was also extremely effective, peeling towards the flanks to drag the centre-backs out of position before flicking the ball towards the onrushing winger or midfielder. United were unable to cope with this movement, with Fellaini and Matic both ponderous and slow to cover space, and perhaps using McTominay in midfield would have helped in this regard, also.

Conclusion

Manchester United were comprehensively beaten by West Ham on Saturday, with Jose Mourinho’s tactics and team selection shouldering much of the blame. The Portuguese manager does not have too much time to right the ship, as he visits his old club Chelsea towards the end of the month, and if West Ham could trouble United with their movement, imagine what Eden Hazard and co. could do at Stamford Bridge.