Manchester United finally sealed their first home league win of the season beating West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. This narrow win involved controversies related to penalties at both ends. Yet no exceptional circumstances can mitigate the fact that Manchester United have only scored three in the Premier League at Old Trafford and conceded ten this season. With three points in this fixture, Manchester United moved above their rivals, Manchester City in the Premier league table. Manchester United academy graduate, Sam Johnstone was on top of his game for West Bromwich Albion by making crucial saves at the start denying Martial. He made some outstanding saves to deny Martial twice in the first half and Rashford twice in the second half. West Bromwich Albion however still remains winless and in the relegation zone. For Manchester United, Bruno Fernandes again pulling out a sublime display. Not just scoring the retaken penalty but also his contribution in the entire match. He has consistently performed for Manchester United at the top level. The Red Devils lacked clinical finishing and the Baggies lacked creativity in their buildup. Both teams were stable in their defence. The tactical analysis of this game covers the tactics of the Manchester United build-up and their defensive strategies. Also, we will be highlighting the analysis of West Brom’s approach in this game and their defensive structure.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær makes few changes post an international break. Alex Telles makes his first Premier League start for Manchester United, with Luke Shaw missing from the squad due to an injury. Nemanja Matic came in for Scott McTominay. There was no Paul Pogba in the squad altogether after the Frenchman aggravated a knock in training.
For Slaven Bilic’s side, Branislav Ivanovic and Matheus Pereira returned to the starting line-up for West Brom which ruled them out of the defeat by Tottenham Hotspurs before the international break due to positive Covid-19 tests. Callum Robinson was on the bench. Filip Krovinovic also joined him among the substitutes with Romaine Sawyers restored to the starting line-up. Captain, Jake Livermore was also absent for the visitors.
Manchester United buildup, movement, and attack
In the Manchester United buildup, Matic dropped as a pivot in between the two centre-backs, Lindelof and Maguire. They together formed three at the back with full-backs advancing higher up the pitch. Bruno Fernandes drops and forms a pair with Fred in the midfield. Juan Mata switches position with Martial to acquire a playmaker role at the center. Martial goes wide. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial make runs inside the box to get into goal scoring positions. A lot of moments and exchange of position can be seen between the front three. The tactics during the attack were based on the “off the ball” movement and the creative ability of Fernandes and Mata.
Here, you can see Matic has dropped between two center-defenders, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf forming a 3-4-3 formation with Fernandes dropping to Matic’s initial position to support Fred in the midfield. This allows the back four to stretch during buildup with fullbacks, Aaron Wan Bisaka and Alex Telles advancing higher up the pitch. In the attacking half, Mata takes Fernandes’s playmaker position with Martial and Rashford forming striking pair.
This is the usual Solskjær’s side formation of 4-2-3-1 where they are focused on keeping the ball possession and building up patiently. They switched to these tactics of keeping the ball possession post taking the lead and keep the play in control to avoid any reaction from West Bromwich Albion to equalise. Full-backs didn’t commit much forward and were in control to fall-back immediately if Manchester United lose possession.
Manchester United defence structure
The unusual defence tactics of Solskjær were pressing higher up the pitch in this match. They did counter-pressing to win the ball higher up the pitch and attack quickly. The Red Devils played high line maintaining organised offside trap with front players doing the pressing during opponents’ buildup. This strategy helped Manchester United to keep a clean sheet in the match as West Bromwich Albion hardly created or threatened United defence from an open play. Let’s have a look at the analysis of United’s defence shape and pressing.
The above example highlights the 4-4-2 Manchester United Defence structure. The back four are in line and well-organized. The analysis here shows that Manchester United in their defensive half switched to this shape when West Bromwich Albion is advancing with their buildup.
Another example from the second half of how Manchester United defended in a 4-4-2 defence structure. Again, the back four is in a straight line which helps to set up an offside trap. Since West Bromwich Albion has advanced in their final third, Manchester United players had a fallback in order to protect the lead.
Matheus Pereira is on the ball and Matic is pressing him, Telles is in a position to press either on Darnell Furlong or charge on Pereira if he advances and beats Matic. Rashford has positioned himself to block any back pass to center-back, Semi Ajayi. Rest, Martial has marked Ivanovic, Fernandes on Sawyers, Mata on Conor Gallagher. The analysis here highlights Manchester United’s tactics to press higher and win the ball in the attacking half to gain an advantage.
Sam Johnstone is on the ball and Martial is pressing in such a way that he blocks a pass towards the center player, Ivanovic. Rashford is running towards closing down Ajayi. Bruno is waiting for the keeper’s decision and press accordingly on either Ivanovic or Sawyers. Similar Fred is holding on to press either Kyle Bartley or Sawyers. Later, Telles enters to join the pressing and wins the ball in Manchester United’s attacking half on the left flank from pressing on Furlong. This analysis highlights the aggressive tactics of counter-pressing United used to defend the lead and at the same time increase the lead.
West Bromwich Albion 5-3-2 buildup
West Bromwich Albion lacked the attacking intent in their play. The full-backs looked reluctant to advance higher up the pitch and remained cautious about falling back during opponents’ counter-attacks. They remained three at the back with full-backs advancing higher. Romaine Sawyers dropped as a pivot to support the play and Conor Gallagher played in an attacking midfield role supported by Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana. Karlan Grant played as the lone striker for the Baggies.
This instance shows, West Bromwich Albion’s 5-3-2 shape. The full-backs, Furlong and Conor Townsend aren’t much advanced in the attacking half and that limits to stretch the play wide and create space in the center. Sawyers is playing the role of pivot in the midfield and Pereira drops to support Gallagher in the midfield. Grady Diangana joins center forward, Karlan Grant to play the role of supporting striker.
West Bromwich Albion 5-3-2 defending
They sat deep and defended in a well-organised manner. Slaven Bilic’s defensive strategy almost worked to salvage a point from the game. Unfortunately, VAR decisions didn’t turn in their favour and were beaten by a single goal from the spot. The tactics here was to defend deep and take advantage of out of position opponent players by counter attacking them. The five-man defence made it difficult for Manchester United to break through them. West Bromwich Albion’s midfielders and attackers too dropped deep while defending the Manchester United’s attack.
Slaven Bilic’s side was more focused on sitting back and defending. The tactics were not to concede goals early in the game and steal the game from stronger opponents in the closing minutes. Furlong, Ajayi, Ivanovic, Bartley and Townsend formed a strong back five guarding the center as well as wide areas. Sawyers, Pereira and Gallagher formed the three midfield to defend the center and nullify Manchester United buildup through the center. This analysis shows strong defensive tactics used by Bilic.
Another similar example of West Bromwich Albion’s defensive structure of 5-3-2. They consistently maintained this solid shape throughout the match to make it difficult for the opponents to break them down easily.
Fernandes’s creativity or Johnstones’ reflexes
Another masterclass performance by Bruno Fernandes in the Manchester United shirt. He was always at the center of events to create chances during an attack. He opened up the opponent’s defence on numerous occasions but lacked the final output in the final third from the Red Devils strikers. He had set up an opportunity to score on a couple of occasions but it lacked clinical finishing from either Martial or Rashford. Bruno’s creativity was matched by Johnstone’s saves. Bruno was creating chances and Johnstone’s was denying them. Such outrageous goalkeeping from Johnstone kept West Bromwich Albion in the game till the very end. Let’s have a look at two examples of Bruno’s probable assists denied by Johnstone’s saves.
Here, Fernandes sets up Martial one on one with the goalkeeper, Johnstone. Fernandes receives a ball from Rashford in a great position and selflessly sets for Martial rather than going for the shot. However, Johnstone pulls out a stunning save to deny Martial. Martial lacked clinical finishing here and Johnstone showed stunning reflexes to deny Manchester United an early lead.
Again here, Fernandes sets Rashford with this pass. Rashford delays things and tries to loop over Ajayi who slides and sleeps in front of him. However, Johnstone again pulls out a stunning save from this tricky Rashford shot. Johnstone waited strongly and pulled out a great save with less time to react. This effort of Johnstone kept West Bromwich Albion in the game till the very end. Fernandes kept delivering such passes but it lacked finishing from Manchester United attackers.
The analysis clearly shows that Manchester United lack clinical finishing. Rashford needs to be more consistent. It is time for Edison Cavani to get the opportunity and replace struggling Martial in the starting 11. The creativity that Fernandes brings in the game deserves a lethal striker who can provide finishing consistently. Defensively United is finding a rhythm and they are looking well organised and composed at the back. West Bromwich Albion’s struggle continues to grow in the Premier League. Bilic needs to plan new tactics to get the result in the league and get out of the relegation zone.