Decisive against Defensive: Will Manchester United struggle against defensive-minded teams?

Manchester United’s 4-0 win against Chelsea demonstrated their counter-attacking capabilities. The fast and dynamic forwards of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford provided important outlets following long spells of Chelsea pressure. However, former manager Jose Mourinho eluded to the fact that United may have difficulties in breaking down more defensive sides without a traditional number nine.

One must ask the question if this is something that will trouble United this season. The implementation of European coaches across the footballing league has influenced the tactics employed against the bigger teams in Europe. Perhaps now attack truly is the best form of defence. Norwich and Aston Villa epitomise this idea, aiming to attack the best teams in Europe, even away from home.

The changing philosophies of these smaller teams pose the question of the utility of a traditional number nine and how they benefit a team like United. Much has been said regarding Romelu Lukaku’s inability to score against the ‘’big six’’ (Daniel James equalled his record on his debut with one goal). Although it would be difficult to question the striker’s application against the so-called lesser teams.

Whilst it is difficult to quantify a defensive team, possession stats may indicate where the majority of the play was coming from.  In United’s 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion in August 2018, Brighton recorded 33% of possession. Brighton were effective against a shambolic United defence, but Lukaku did prove is prowess by scoring two goals. Low possession stats do not easily quantify a defensive team.

In United’s match against Burnley the following month (September 2018), Burnley recorded 46% possession. However, United recorded 21 shots compared to Burnley’s number nine, suggesting most of the attacking play came from United. Lukaku once again showed his eye for goal against a hard-fought defence scoring two goals in a 2-0 win. These examples highlight the importance Lukaku had against teams with a low defensive line.

Having been sold to Inter Milan this summer, United must find an alternate way of breaking teams down. With the attacking options on display against Chelsea, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford must step up when games are tight against teams lower in the table. When the impetus is on United to break teams down they must provide that one moment of quality necessary to turn a 0-0 draw into a 1-0 win.

Jesse Lingard will surely have a role to play in these kinds of games. Whilst lacking real flare compared to the aforementioned strikers, Lingard has an outstanding footballing IQ and is deft in picking up spaces between the opponent’s midfield and defensive line. When these lines are close together, it will require a player of Lingard’s talents to find the gaps for United to exploit. Paul Pogba will always have a say in these types of games.

As one of the best midfielders in the world, on his day, he will be required to step up and provide the tempo and quality necessary to break teams down. The attacking fullbacks, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will also be crucial. When teams sit defensively, they inevitably become compact and narrow providing space for wide players to exploit. United have lacked any real width over the past couple of seasons, the attacking fullbacks can certainly provide the quality needed to exploit the space’s necessary.

Squad players such as Juan Mata can also provide the composure and quality needed to turn a game, whilst Daniel James may be a player suited better for a counter-attacking initiative. Wins against Chelsea will live long in the memory. However, the hard–fought games against the strong defensive unit will be the ones that test United’s flexibility and resolve this season.

Written by Adam Bermingham

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I support Manchester United, the greatest English football team to have ever existed. Bruno Fernandes is the latest in a long line of players with great ability to play for the club. I idolised Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Eric Cantona growing up.