The 2019/20 season saw Ole Gunnar Solskjær complete his first full season as Manchester United manager. The Red Devils finished third in the table and reached three semi-finals in the FA Cup, Europa League, and Carabao Cup respectively. The season saw a huge amount of progress and a substantial amount of lessons and improvements that need to be built on. From the start of the season until the end of January saw United struggle a lot. Losses against Newcastle, West Ham, Watford, Arsenal, Bournemouth just to name a few, meant United looked shaky and needed to improve. There were great results against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær was struggling and many would not have been surprised if he had lost his job. However, the arrival of Bruno Fernandes saw everything change and United transformed into a team with an identity and many avenues of play.

The period after the EPL returned saw United’s form improve to a new level. Since the Premier League returned, they ranked second in the table in terms of form. They managed 21 points in seven games, winning six games, drawing three, and not losing any games. They scored 22 goals and only conceded six. These are impressive numbers and they highlight the signs of a team that is going in the right direction with the right manager and a group of extremely talented young players. The likes of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial amongst others have benefited from the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes who are both exceptionally matured players and give United the experience and know-how when it comes to the big games. As mentioned, there are still huge lessons to be learned for next season, and signings very much need to be made to have success for next season. Backing Ole is essential for Manchester United to be a success, as he most certainly has the keys to bringing back United to its former glory.

The goal for next season will depend on what United States does in the transfer market. If they recruit a few top players to add to what is a thin squad, then they have a chance to close the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool. Chelsea seems to be doing this so its time for United to do the same. The likes of Jadon Sancho have been linked and these sorts of players will take United to the next level.

This tactical analysis will give a preview for next season and the analysis will take a look at the tactics that United have put on a show this season and how they can improve for next season. This scout report will also look at potential personal additions that would take United to the next level.

Attacking transitions

One of the biggest improvements that United have seen in this season and one in which they could build on is the strength of their forward line. As mentioned, this has developed significantly since the Premier League returned after lockdown and United now has a style and recognized forward line. United traditionally line up in a 4-2-3-1 and the forward four has been Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, and Anthony Martial are the recognized front line. Between them, they have 52 goals between them in the Premier League alone. The goals that they have scored have been crucial for United to solidify themselves as a top-four side. Fernandes has been crucial for their success, as he has been the link player between all of them which has meant they score a high number of goals. With Pogba controlling the game from behind, they have the tools to go forward especially in transitions. Most of the time they are deadly and moving into next season they will be looking to replicate this form. If they can bring in someone like Jadon Sancho into the side then they will have one of the most prolific strike forces in Europe.

Below is an example of this front four on the counter-attack in a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United. We can see the United attackers moving forward on the break and moving forward in transitions. Fernandes, Greenwood, Rashford, and Martial are moving forward looking to score. When United gets into this position with these players the likelihood is that a goal will come from it. If they can add more depth to these positions they have a real chance of success going forward.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
An example of United in attacking transitions.

The evolution of United’s forward line has been significant. At the start of the season, they were excellent in counter-attacking situations, however, when they came up against teams that sat deep and essentially asked United to come at them they struggled. Fernandes changed this in many ways. His arrival alongside Paul Pogba coming back from injury allowed United to have a different dynamic. They are able to switch their play style depending on the game. Playing against the better teams in the league requires them to be more counter-attacking and defensively minded. However, playing against teams that like to use the low-block requires them to break them down which they are now able to do also. Having this variation is vital when trying to compete at the highest level. If United can maintain this going into next season they will have the ability to compete not only in the EPL but also in the Champions League.

Below is another example of United on the break. Greenwood eventually finishes what is an amazing counter-attacking move. United’s front four have been dead since the Premier League returned and if they can continue this into next season they have every chance of continuing to progress as a team.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
Another example of United going forward on the break.

Pogba and Fernandes

As mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons that United have been so successful in the past few months, especially since the Premier League has returned, is due to Pogba and Fernandes. They have both grabbed United and dragged them through to ensure Champions League qualification. Pogba’s season has been affected massively by injury so he hasn’t had an opportunity to show his class over the season. However, since the restart of the Premier League, he has been fantastic and has allowed United to improve as a team due to the quality of his play. He and Nemanja Matić have formed a solid partnership at the heart of United’s midfield. Fernandes has also been fantastic not only since the restart of the Premier League, but since he arrived in Manchester. Eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League alone highlight the impact he has had thus far, and long it may it continue from a Manchester United perspective. The two have formed an outstanding partnership and this coupled with United’s excellent attacking talent has meant that they have an excellent combination when attacking.

Below is an example of the positions that Fernandes takes up on the edge of the area. He can find these spaces in the tighter areas which allows him to be able to have a strike on goal. Pogba’s pass, as we can see, is crucial in this as it allows him to find space easier and he can have a shot on goal. This shot hits the post, however, he takes a shot from a similar position later on in the game which results in a goal. This highlights how effective he has been, alongside Pogba in the midfield.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
An example of the spaces that Fernandes finds.

It has been the case that Fernandes and Pogba seem to play a lot better when they are both on the pitch together. When United drew 1-1 at Spurs in the first game back in the restart, Fernandes started, however, Pogba was on the bench as he was just returning from injury. As soon as he came onto the pitch the game had an immediate swing and United were excellent. Ever since this game, they have played together for all of the Premier League games and they have flourished. With Matić sitting behind and protecting them both they have the license to go forward and support the attacking players. United have found a real balance in central midfield which has been a massive reason for their success, especially in attacking areas of the pitch. The likes of Donny van de Beek and others have been linked with United. This would be a strong addition as Pogba, and Fernandes are stand out players with the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay being the backup. Both Fred and McTominay are very good players, however, there is always a worry that if Pogba or Fernandes get injured/suspended then there isn’t much back up with the same quality. Someone like van de Beek would very much fit these criteria.

Below is an example of Pogba’s passing range. We can see this image whereby he looks to find Rashford’s run in behind the Chelsea defensive line. These sort of line breaking passes are the norm for Pogba in this United side, especially against teams who operate with a high line. The combination United have in midfield is perfect and a few additions in attacking areas will see them climb the table.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
An example of Pogba’s passing range.

Defending

When we speak about Manchester United in terms of their defending, many think that they are struggling. However, when we analyse the season as a whole looking into next season we can see significant improvements that have been made. Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have both made a huge impact in terms of helping United be better defensively. They have kept 13 clean sheets in the 2019/20 season which was the fifth-best in the division. Despite the occasional mistake, they have been solid as a defensive unit. Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire have formed a solid partnership, despite there being calls for another central defender. This is very likely to happen; however, it shouldn’t be looked at as Lindelöf being replaced, it is more the case that United are looking to bolster in that position. With Chris Smalling and others likely to leave the club, another body in central defence would very much be welcome. There have been extreme improvements in the defensive department which Ole Gunnar Solskjær must take huge credit for.

Below is an example of this defensive structure. We can see the United defenders in an excellent shape stopping Everton coming at them. This game, in particular, saw Maguire being dominant and putting in a man of the match performance. This is the improvement that has been seen in defensive areas and hopefully, it can be continued into next season.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
An example of United’s strong defensive system.

An interesting aspect of United’s defensive game has been the fact that they have often changed formations. In games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea they opted to use five at the back as opposed to four. This, in the big games, allowed a more solid defensive structure which would give a greater foundation to the attacking players. It worked to a certain extent, however, with the players that United possess in attacking areas they may be more suited to the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. This system works for United, however, the five at the back did provide a lot of defensive stability. If they can adapt the players they have to be able to play this system in the bigger games, it could still be a good option to have. We, however, have seen them stick with the 4-2-3-1 most of the time. The five at the back was used to great effect and United were solid when it was deployed. It highlights Ole Gunnar Solskjær can change systems when needs are.

Below is an example of United playing with five at the back against City back in March. We can once again see them in excellent defensive shape, which allows them to stop City’s obvious attacking threat. This was a key victory in them getting the top four, which highlights how important their defensive structure was. Overall, United have been solid when it comes to defending, however, to maintain this next season there may be a signing to help this with some players leaving the club.

Manchester United 2020/2021: Season Preview – Scout Report – tactical analysis tactics
Another example of United’s defensive system.

Conclusion

The progress United have made under Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been clear to see. Finishing third, whilst it not being the end goal, shows signs of a good season with massive room for improvement. With the signing of Daniel James, Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and Fernandes it is clear to see the way he is trying to take this United side. The goal for next season has to be to continue the progress and look to bridge the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City. With Chelsea making serious moves, it is clear to see that there will be extreme competition to challenge Liverpool and City. United will be hoping the younger players continue their development coupled with the likes of Pogba, Maguire and Fernandes who will guide them. Being in the Champions League will also be a good test. The task of playing Wednesday night away from home against the likes of Ajax and Sevilla before taking a trip to Crystal Palace on a Saturday lunchtime is the sort of challenge that the United squad will be facing next year. Consistency will be key, the question is can they make that next step forward and back to where they should be- the top.