United’s Tactical Follies in the Post-Ronaldo Era – In-Depth Analysis

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United started off with a bang. The Red Devils secured a remarkable 4-1 win over Newcastle that day, with the Portuguese striker scoring a brace. Since that dream debut, United have only won two from seven matches, playing some of the worst football they’ve displayed in the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. Questions continue to persist regarding Solskjaer’s future, but the problems at United lie far deeper than the manager himself. Here is a tactical analysis of United’s tactical follies in the post-Ronaldo era.

lack of coordination & identity in attack

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Manchester United have had a serious lack of identity and efficiency in attack since Ronaldo’s return to the team. It’s obvious that Ronaldo’s presence gives way to a different set of principles in attack, in which the already adventurous Pogba and Bruno start guiding everything toward the Portuguese legend. This has in itself, unbalanced what was a balanced attack last season. In 2020-21, United had players that clearly gelled together in the likes of Cavani, Rashford, Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes. The team had a clear emphasis on counter-attacking football, and width provided by the fullbacks to overlap and underlap both in transition, and longer spells with the ball. Cavani thrived off of this kind of service into the box, and Bruno Fernandes was slightly more patient in thrusting passes into the penalty area. This season, just about everything has changed. Bruno and Pogba are now looking for the most complicated passes possible, trying to pull off something spectacular when simpler options are available. While both have made bright starts to the season, they were functioning more effectively before Ronaldo’s arrival. That is likely because Greenwood as a striker is much less of a focal point, and the incredible vision and awareness of Pogba and Bruno can then be guided towards not just the striker, but an array of players making varying runs. Now it’s all about service into the box, and the Portuguese forward has been unable to escape the constant man-marking of two to three centre-backs blocking his path. In other words, Ronaldo’s presence has negated the ability of Bruno and Pogba to effectively play balls over the top into a pacey striker. Instead, their incisive passes are often into already congested areas.

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Ronaldo’s arrival back into the team has also complicated United’s ability to effectively counter-attack. In losing Rashford at the start of the season the Red Devils already had to do without arguably their best counter-attacker. Now they’ve neglected Greenwood’s pace up front and consequently the rampant Jesse Lingard as a potential right-sided option, in place of a man who will slow down the play and go backwards upon receiving rather than driving the ball forward. Ronaldo’s presence as a striker simply slows United’s attacking flair down, and a player with the pace of Marcus Rashford will be absolutely imperative if the Red Devils are to amp up their form in the next few weeks.

In persisting with another new signing – Raphael Varane, United have also negated another fantastic attacking weapon in Victor Lindelof. Yes. That’s what we said. Lindelof, for what it’s worth, has a right-foot reminiscent of a peak Toby Alderweireld. His ability to loop balls over an opposition back-line for someone like Fernandes, Greenwood or Rashford to sprint onto, has been completely underrated in his time at United, and it’s now showing in his absence from the team. The Swedish defender has assisted 2 goals in his 4 Premier League starts this season, showcasing the potential threat he can pose if given more time again. You might think this is a bit of a stretch, but it’s just one more issue that’s been compounded by United’s new signings, creating this lack of coordination and identity, and many of the elements that made them an effective team last season.

Risk taking & over-reliance on bruno

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For a team with so many star-studded players, Manchester United are terribly reliant on their star of stars – Bruno Fernandes. I have always been high on Bruno, from raving about him as one of the most revolutionary signings in Premier League history, to calling him United’s best player since Wayne Rooney. He is undoubtedly a fantastic player. But United have an over-reliance on needing him to be the one to either create or score goals. You might say – ‘what about Paul Pogba?’. Well, three of the four goals Pogba assisted in that smashing 5-1 opening day win over Leeds, were scored by Bruno. That just seems to be the way it is for United. And while Pogba can pick out something extraordinary at the drop of the dime, he is not the player that United look to in order to pick out something extraordinary at the drop of a dime.

Further, when Pogba’s not on his day, the chance creating magic in the team is put solely on Fernandes’ shoulders. That is a major dilemma for a team that had so much attacking flair last season in the form of Shaw overlapping and underlapping Rashford, and Cavani’s exceptional movement in the box to match anything that came his way. Again, all of that has gone away, as United have made Ronaldo a Marouane Fellaini-esque target. While Ronaldo is clearly head and shoulders above Fellaini, he’s no longer going to create chances all for himself. Then you have Jadon Sancho still trying to find his feet and figure out how he fits in, and capable players like Anthony Martial low in confidence after being outcast for poor form.

With Marcus Rashford hopefully coming back into the mix, United should be able to have at least one mechanism for solving this thousand-piece puzzle. But unfortunately, that’s only one piece. The balance in the team is completely lost, with only Bruno Fernandes really understanding his role in an uncoordinated attack.

failures to defend from set-pieces

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Perhaps the biggest concern of all for United, the Red Devils have a complete inability to properly defend set-pieces. We first detailed this in our analysis of the team last season, and it still hasn’t been addressed by Solskjaer and his staff. United’s failure last season was in persisting with a zonal marking system that often saw smaller players easily outclimbed by taller ones. This season they’ve gone one step further toward grandfather like reactions to second balls, flick-on’s and rebounds. No one seems to want to track their runner, which again speaks to a zonal marking system that isn’t carefully carried out. Knowing this about United, opposition teams will often whip a ball into the near-post for a flick-on, where someone at the back-post will easily tap it in, completely unmarked. Only Villa, Watford and Palace have conceded more (4) from set-pieces than United (3) this season, despite the Red Devils being a possession-heavy team that concede fewer corner kicks and fouls than the teams mentioned above.

To make matters worse, time and time again this season they’ve booted the ball out of bounds for a corner when they simply could have cleared their lines up the field instead. Even this weekend, Harry Maguire kicked a rebound away for a corner when he didn’t need to, and United conceded right away. It’s moments like these that suggest even the Red Devils themselves don’t see their most glaring concerns.

inability to defend in transition

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United’s other major failure from a defensive perspective comes in transition. It is true that Fred and McTominay are not exactly the most reliable pairing when it comes to defensive positioning, timing of tackles, and ability to make up for mistakes made by the back-four in behind them. But the two midfield men have become scapegoats for a team that defend far worse when they’re not around.

One contributing factor to this complete inability is that United’s defenders often behave very rashly in diving into tackles or stepping up to defend a player, when simply holding their position, remaining patient, and delaying the attack would be better. When defending counter-attacks, their back-line in particular defend like rampaging bulls trying to stop their opposition through brute force rather than compactness and defensive organization. Shaw is often too quick in abandoning his position and coming out to stop players on the opposite side of the field, while Harry Maguire is often far too quick to step out of the back-line and challenge from behind. Then you have Wan-Bissaka, who is an excellent tackler, but goes to ground far too much. He could simply stay on his feet and help United hold a sturdier defensive line. For all his excellent pressing in the opposition’s half, Fred is the same way. The Brazilian midfielder has been dribbled past 2.8 times per game this season, which is more than his 2.5 tackles won. In short, United have a host of players that often make rash decisions, leading to an overall lack of organization in transition.

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The other major contributing factor to their terribleness in this regard is a direct result of throwing so many numbers forward in attack. It seems almost overdone to say that playing Paul Pogba as part of a double-pivot is like stacking ten books on one side of a teeter-totter and a Kleenex box on the other. It’s simply not enough protection to hold down the balance of the team. That’s one more reason why United’s best team at the moment needs to incorporate Fred and Scott McTominay. But again, even when they are in the team, you still have the issue of Shaw and Wan-Bissaka getting forward to try and make something out of United’s odd mix of slow possession when riskier passes are available, and risky passes when safe options are available. Shaw’s connection to Sancho hasn’t been what it was with Rashford last season, and Wan-Bissaka’s been getting forward more and more, leaving United without their best 1v1 defender in transition. It’s no surprise then that McTominay and Fred, in their quest to be the first line of defense, often fail.

Out of all things that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should have fixed by now in his time at United, it’s perhaps the greatest mystery of all why he hasn’t prioritized defensive transitions. The teams at the top of the table at the moment – Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, are all outstanding at it, and that’s just one of a myriad of reasons why one of those teams will win the title this season in place of Manchester United.

So there it is! A tactical analysis of Manchester United’s greatest problems in the post-Ronaldo era. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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