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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United’s midfield is dominant but ineffective in yet another draw

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Manchester United 1-1 West Ham United. One team has lots of the ball, creates lots of chances, dominates the football match but can’t find a way to win the match. Sound familiar? You’ve seen this all before.

Jose Mourinho made a few changes to the starting line-up this afternoon. Michael Carrick missed out with a minor injury, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was only on the bench after an excellent performance on Thursday night and Wayne Rooney didn’t start either, making room for Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford to return to the side for this Premier League encounter.

Over the last four home games, the collective statistics comparing Manchester United and their opponents could be compiled and published as the definitive case study that once and for all proves that football makes absolutely zero sense.

Of those four games, against Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal and West Ham, the performance against the Hammers was by far and away United’s worst. Yet the stats continue to defy the reality of the final score. United had more shots, a far superior passing accuracy, created almost three times as many chances and nearly two-thirds of the ball. Going by the numbers alone, it is mystifying that this game finished all square.

But in the cold light of day questions must be asked of Manchester United. When you look a little deeper at the performance and start to analyse and unpick the way they played, it becomes a little clearer why they failed to win.

Looking at the team that Mourinho picked, it was obvious where the strengths and weaknesses lay. Rashford, Mata and Lingard are all players that want to play in the central areas of the pitch. Not one is particularly adept in a wide position but they all want to play on the inside and pose a goal threat.

Which means United accepted a lack of width in their game from the outset. Any threat in the wide areas would have to come from Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian, which is fine on the right when you have a winger playing at full-back. On the other side, Darmian offers very little as an attacking threat on the left-hand side. He’s immediately disadvantaged playing off his weak foot, he lacks pace and his final delivery needs work. While a fine defender, he is not the rampaging wing-back that United needed.

Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia heat maps vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia heat maps vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia passing vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia passing vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

With West Ham’s defenders playing as back five rather than a back three, the wide areas became an essential battleground as the two sides fought attack vs defence. When the ball went wide to Valencia he played high and wide and got the ball into the box from those advanced positions, crossing the ball 9 times altogether. One the other side, Darmian was less confident going forward, played the ball back into midfield more often and only crossed the ball three times. Without posing a threat on both sides, United weren’t able to regularly manipulate and move West Ham’s three central defenders and as a result they remained solid and organised and offered very little space between each other for United’s other attacking players to exploit.

The other issue Manchester United had was in the composition of their midfield. While they played well individually, there was something missing from Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera’s partnership that left United short. It is no surprise that when Michael Carrick is missing, United aren’t quite at the races.

When they play together, Carrick, Pogba and Herrera operate so fluidly that it almost seems as if one cannot exist without the others. Carrick sets the tempo at the base of midfield, Pogba is free to express himself and take risks without concern and Herrera facilitates it all, offering energy and enthusiasm and never allowing United to slacken off as they take the game to the opponent.

With Carrick missing, United are forced to make certain allowances and compensate for his absence. This afternoon it was Herrera who dropped into a deeper position, in order to allow Pogba the same, undisturbed freedom. While Herrera was good in possession of the ball and rarely gave it away, United lacked his vision and quality of pass.

Ander Herrera completed 92% of his passes vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Ander Herrera completed 92% of his passes vs West Ham United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

So often against a block defence like this, it is the rhythm and construction of each attacking wave that makes the difference. It is very difficult to play through an organised defence quickly; the ball cannot be played from front to back reliably because the defensive players will usually outnumber the attacking players in the advanced areas. Instead the build-up must be more measured and look to outmanoeuvre the opponent with the right selection of passes. Without Carrick or Daley Blind, United lacked the players to advance possession in a natural way, moving the ball up the pitch and through the lines of the opposition in order to create numerical or spatial advantages in favour of the attacking team. For all his qualities, Herrera is not Carrick and was unable to use the possession of the ball in this way.

Despite the obvious attacking flaws in Manchester United’s game, they still dominated the football match. The bottom line is this; this United team is not actually as poor as the results might suggest. They’ve been ineffective in front of goal, on the wrong end of a few refereeing decisions and punished by defensive mistakes. It would be ridiculous to suggest this pattern can continue indefinitely. At some point, something somewhere will break and United will pick up a run of results deserving of the quality of their performances.

At this point in the season it just depends how much needs to be made up to know whether it has all come too late.

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