Manchester United’s 2019/20 pre-season tour was a very successful one from a results perspective, achieving 5 wins and 1 draw resulting in victory via a penalty shoot-out. However, there is a lot more to pre-season than just the results. What have we been working on? What have we learnt? What has gone well and what still needs improving?
Manchester United 2-0 Perth Glory
Manchester United 4-0 Leeds United
Manchester United 1-0 Inter Milan
Manchester United 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 1-0 Kristiansund BK
Manchester United 2-2 AC Milan (5-4 pens)
3 – Rashford
2 – Martial, Greenwood
1 – Lingard, Mata, Garner, Gomes, Jones
2 – Pereira
1 – Wan-Bissaka, Pogba, McTominay, Chong, Young, Mata, Matic, Martial
In terms of using pre-season to trial run tactics for the new season, there were three specific things that stood out this year. The first of which was our formation, a 4-2-3-1 system. This formation utilises a ‘double pivot’ as the ‘2’ at the base of midfield with a designated ’10’ or attacking midfielder playing ahead of them, alongside a left and right-sided midfielder and behind a striker. In attacking phases, the ball-side winger will stretch the width of the pitch, however, in defensive phases, both of the wingers tuck in, holding the 4-2-3-1 shape, but in a much narrower formation in order to hunt down the ball in the midfield. The preferred set-up with the players we currently have appears to be McTominay and Pogba in the double pivot, with either Lingard or Mata in attacking midfield. Martial and Rashford both played a total of 339 minutes each (the most of any player), with Martial being more commonly deployed as the striker with Rashford starting from the left. The two main options from the right-hand side are James and Greenwood, however, the former played 82 extra minutes compared to the latter, suggesting James will be the man to slot in from the right more often than not, but Greenwood will be given opportunities to impress throughout the season.
The second obvious difference between our play last season and during this pre-season was the implementation of gegenpressing. If you are unfamiliar with this term, it simply means trying to win the ball back as soon as possession is turned over. The intentions of this tactic are to firstly win the ball back as soon as possible, but secondly to prevent counter-attacks. Over recent seasons, gegenpressing has not been a key feature of our style of play at all as we would often allow the opposition time on the ball in their own half and only really start to pressurise when they crossed into our half. This was often frustrating as it would often make our team appear lazy and the fact that this is a tactic used by both Manchester City and Liverpool religiously, highlights how it is valued by the top teams and managers. During this pre-season tour, it is clear that Solskjaer has instructed his players to do this far more often and it has been effective, with players such as Rashford, James and Lingard usually leading the press.
The third feature was the fluidity of our formation in attack. Interchanging of positions was evident throughout all of the matches and most commonly involved the front 4. What was regularly happening is that two players would switch positions temporarily. Sometimes this was because one player would leave their position, so another would drop in and other times it was a planned switch. Let’s use an example of a front 4 consisting of Rashford on the left, Lingard in the middle, James on the right and Martial up front. A common rotation was between Rashford and Martial as both have a history of playing as a striker as well as on the left-wing. Other times, the wingers would completely swap sides for 10-15 or so. In fact, I’m pretty sure every single member of the front 4 ended up in every position at some point. This is a fantastic trait to have as an attacking unit as it decreases the predictability of attacks and makes it very difficult for the opposition to prepare.
New signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James were both heavily involved throughout pre-season. Wan-Bissaka played a total of 321 minutes (3rd highest behind Rashford and Martial) and James managed 283 minutes (the most out of all of our right-wing options). Both of them will be first-team starters for United next season and their pre-season performances should fill the fans with optimism. Wan-Bissaka gelled into the starting XI immediately, seemingly being unbeatable at right-back. His tackling and judgement abilities are unrivalled in my opinion and I cannot recall a single defensive mistake or even a player getting past him. He even managed to register an assist. Alongside the signing of Harry Maguire, Wan-Bissaka will make an extraordinary difference to Manchester United’s defence this season.
Dan James demonstrated his incredible speed that he became so well-known for during his time at Swansea City, something Solskjaer is clearly keen to utilise on the counter-attack and as part of the gegenpressing. On a number of occasions, James’ pace has caught the opponent on the ball off guard and he has been able to nick it off them and create an attack. He has also looked keen to receive the ball in-behind and run at players, however, his final product remains something that can be improved as he failed to register a single goal or assist (although he came very close a number of times). If he can improve his output as I’m sure he is capable, he will become a seriously dangerous player.
Aside from the new signings, the stand out performers of the tour were McTominay, Rashford, Greenwood and Gomes. Rashford netted 3 goals and was a key figure in the high pressure style, McTominay continued his mature and quietly effective performances and both Greenwood and Gomes impressed when given the chance. Greenwood scored twice, with Gomes netting against Spurs, as well as outperforming Juan Mata for the majority of the minutes he played.
At the other end of the spectrum, the players that disappointed overall were Matic, Young and during some matches, Lingard. Matic gave the ball away far too easily on numerous occasions, resulting in a goal conceded vs AC Milan and generally looked too slow in everything he did. The dip in quality when Young came on for Wan-Bissaka was drastic. Young is nowhere near Wan-Bissaka’s defensive level and seemed far less comfortable passing the ball out of defence, giving it away a number of times in dangerous positions only to be bailed out by teammates luckily. Lingard had good spells and was especially effective at pressing the opposition from the ’10’ role, however, his final third decision making during some of the earlier games was really poor and he was often dribbling for too long and getting tackled or selling teammates short with passes. To be fair, his introduction against AC Milan alongside Dan James changed the game, but his overall lack of consistency is worrying.
So, what can we expect against Chelsea? A 4-2-3-1 formation, much higher levels of pressure on the ball than we are used to and players interchanging attacking positions. As for the starting XI, my prediction is: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, McTominay, Pogba, Rashford, Lingard, James, Martial.
Written by Nick Pasquet
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