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Analysis: Rooney, Martial and Rashford help cast aside Reading

Manchester United earned a 4-0 win over Jaap Stam’s Reading side after goals from Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and a brace from Marcus Rashford at the end. Reading was set up to control the game, as they often do in the Championship, but they were overpowered by the talents at United’s disposal. Seemingly unable to play with the same level of intensity as most of United’s previous opposition, Reading was consigned to defeat after United’s execution of a tactical plan designed to bring the best out of Marcus Rashford.

Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation entailed the usual, free-flowing, passing football, with Michael Carrick dictating the play and Rashford stretching the pitch up top, as opposed to Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a target man. Wayne Rooney was the focal point of the side from attacking midfield, with Anthony Martial and Juan Mata providing quality on the wings with Michael Carrick’s reassuring presence deep within the centre of the park.

Reading, known in the Championship for their possession-based football, was reduced to attacks on the counter with the same 4-2-3-1 formation, and Jaap Stam didn’t set up his players to defend with enough numbers or intensity. From a positional and technical standpoint, Stam’s men defended very well, but United realised quickly that they could use quick movement and passing to expose the channels and go through on goal.

The first incident of this was Wayne Rooney’s goal. A solid passing movement from United found Martial on the wing with two defenders- the first, the fullback, Chris Gunter, was in his position, and the second was the right-winger, Garath McCleary, protecting the channel. With Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini running into central spaces from the right side, Martial used his dribbling ability to beat McCleary and find himself in the tiny space between the fullback and winger. Then, with Mata making a run inside, the Spaniard was moving into the space between Reading’s defensive midfielders and centre-backs, and Martial found him with a simple pass. In plenty of space, Mata swung in a cross that was instinctively buried by Rooney. It is also worth noting is Rashford’s run to move Reading’s right-sided centre-back out of position and create space for Rooney.

United’s second goal was none other than a dribbling masterclass from Martial, but United took advantage of space again to put Marcus Rashford through on goal twice, both times in the same channel. Chris Smalling recognized a midfield area into which he could run, and he made a quick movement. Marcus Rashford, realising he could be put through by Smalling, moved outside Reading’s left-sided centre-back, and allowed Smalling to produce a swinging pass out to Rashford.

Rooney was also able to find Rashford after a quick exchange between Carrick and Rooney. Carrick, picking up the ball in midfield, moved the ball quickly to Rooney. Rashford saw the potential for the same run and Rooney quickly executed, swinging in a well-weighted pass. Rashford failed to beat the goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi, on both occasions, but using Reading’s lack of intensity, United quickly changed the tempo and exposed the channels to break through Reading’s defence.

Rashford finally capitalized on his opportunity with the third chance, scoring his goal after United entered the pitch with reduced playing intensity in the second half. This time, the chosen channel was between the centre-backs and a slight error from one allowed a long ball from Michael Carrick to set him free. Rashford finished the chance accordingly, tucking away his first goal since September.

United’s quick, ball-playing football was also prevalent in the match stats. Throughout the match, United’s Starting XI completed 20 key passes. Rashford’s three chances are directly shown in the statistics, with United’s three accurate through-balls, and Juan Mata also attempted two, neither of which were completed. The side’s intent to run in behind with Rashford in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s place was clear, as United was ruled offside a massive seven times.

To recap, United used quick changes of pace and intensity to expose the channels and break Reading’s defence. Jaap Stam’s men were seldom out of position, but they didn’t have the defensive intensity to push United to second gear. Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney exposed the gaps created by Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini’s respective movements, and Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford stretched the pitch to create all four goals between the two of them. More tactical execution of this kind will allow United to get through the FA Cup relatively unscathed, as opposed to last year, when United struggled quite a bit to get through the cups and potentially paid the price in the Premier League.

Written by Aaron Moniz

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