The circumstances being faced around the world is unique and unanticipated, which has led the football governing authorities to get creative to finish the season off, without creating too much chaos. Some leagues were cancelled, while plenty were completed behind closed doors. Even the Ballon D’or for this year has been converted into an XI, instead of a single winner.
Both UEFA Champions League and Europa League competitions have been rebranded into a mini knock out tournament to be held in Lisbon (UCL) and Germany (UEL) respectively from the quarterfinal round onwards. The stakes are much higher for every team contesting for European dominance in their respective club competition, as there are no second legs, no away goals rule, and most importantly, no home advantage. All the games are now being played out on neutral venues, which means, there are no excuses to be made by any team.
After a somewhat tricky return leg versus LASK at Old Trafford last week, Manchester United encountered an even tougher test in FC Kobenhavn as the Danish side didn’t just put up one of the toughest for United’s current Europa League campaign, but so nearly were the ones who extended their stay in Germany instead of Manchester United.
United may have been lucky with the outcome, such that they won it with a penalty when in reality the came could have gone either way. FCK were second best to United by a fair margin, but it would be too far a stretch to say they didn’t even deserve a spot in the UEL semis.
This is the tactical analysis of the match played between Manchester United and FC København in the UEFA Europa League quarter-final in Cologne. We will take a look at the tactics employed by both teams, and analyse the match that took place on Monday night between the two sides.
Sergio Romero started in goal with Aaron Wan Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Harry Maguire, Brandon Williams making up the back four in front of him (right to left, respectively).
Fred and Paul Pogba started in the double Pivot, with Bruno Fernandes starting in the hole ahead of them.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood started on either flank of Fernandes, with Anthony Martial starting up top in the number 9 slot.
Karl Johnsson started in goal with Guillermo Varela, Victor Nelsson, Andreas Bjelland, Nicolai Boilesesn making up the back four in front of him (right to left, respectively).
Pep Biel Jaume and Rasmus Falk started on the wing, with Zeca and Jens Stage occupying the central midfield role between the two wide men.
Mohammed Daramy started up top along with Jonas Wind as a two-man striking partnership.
Manchester United’s game plan was made up of a combination of solidity and flair.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men set up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, as he could his best players to start against Copenhagen. Shaw was the only absentee, while Romero continued to keep his place in UEL, while Fred and Bailly got a rare run-in in the starting line-up.
United started the game organised, as they were looking to maintain their possession-based style of play by building from the back. The early transitions for the team were calm and collected, as they looked to ensure they did not leave any gaps in their defence. Space ahead of the forwards meant the front three had the option as well as the opportunity to run in behind the defence and exploit the opposition on the counter. Fred would often drop in as the third centre back from midfield as the full-backs would push upfield, to provide cover for them making it look like a back three. The full-backs would hug the touchline, stretching the pitch as much as they can to take advantage of the pitch.
Bruno was afforded a free role in the hole, as he would seldom come in deep to pick the ball and play passes which could hurt the opposition. As the half would progress, they would create chances, but many would be just half chances, as sometimes the weight of the pass might be too much or too little. Sometimes the run couldn’t be picked up accurately, or the first touch to control the ball would be inadequate to genuinely make something out of it. The Mancunians did start brightly, as they would have the majority of the possession in dangerous positions at the start.
Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood would try to plug the central zone of the final third; with Rashford and Greenwood often occupying the inside channels, allowing the full-backs to get outside of them in the wide areas, effectively making it a front five which would often pin the opposition into their own half. And since the centre backs only had effectively two passing options ahead of them in the form of Bruno and Pogba, they would seldom launch the ball upfield as a more direct route to get the ball into more effective areas for forwards.
The centre backs – Bailly, and Maguire; had a great game, both in terms of defending as well as passing as they rarely made a mistake, and were cleaning up the mistakes that were made by the players ahead of them. But whenever they were in their own defensive third, their transition from defence to attack was sloppy, as they would just hit the ball long, which would allow the opposition to recycle possession and come at them again.
The front three stay narrow and were fluid in terms of switching position amongst them which helped the team with their build-up play. But the inability to create clear chances would haunt them throughout the game, as the one goal that they did score, came from a penalty in extra time. United wasted free-kicks and corners which was frustrating as a spectator because some of them were in a very dangerous position. Their movement off the ball isn’t enough to create space and chances, the ball needs to find them to actually be of use in an attacking sense.
The team would defend as a unit, and attack as a unit, as the players would come back to form a compact grid behind the ball to deny the opposition any chances to play through them. When the team pushed upwards, the players would overload the ball side to have a better chance of winning the ball back when out of position, while also allowing a quick change of play when the ball moved to the other side. Their press was active only when the ball came near a players’ zone or the opposition player was in a dangerous position to hurt them.
The players lacked the crispness in the passes they played into the final third, but it came to them as the game developed into the second half. But they were comfortable on the ball, which helped them well as the game dragged on, and they finally started to cut through them. Their incisive passes, the positional flexibility as well as the fluidity shared between the players took over the game as they went into overdrive before they finally found the goal they had been looking for; as they were pouring waves of attack one after the attack, especially in the second half.
Full-backs were the more ineffective of the outfielders as both of them were under the threat of being exposed when they pushed up to support the attack. Pogba and Fred had developed the understanding between them which allowed them to push upfield together without risking their defensive duties while supporting the attack. Fernandes had properly taken over the game into the second half as he was the chief creator for everything positive for united, but couldn’t create a goal from open play.
Matic and Lindelof came on late in the second half, as the former added some defensive balance to the side, allowing the others to focus on the attack. While Lindelof was comfortable on the ball as the game progressed into extra time. Mata came on and was the brightest spark for the team despite only playing 30 mins of the 120. He was creating chances aplenty for the team as he assisted in 2 shots for the side. By the time Lingard and Mctominay came on, the stress was on keeping the lead rather than extending it and opening up vulnerabilities in the attempt.
København planned to stifle the United attack
From what Stale saw from his players out on the pitch, he would have been more than proud of how well they carried out his orders in terms of the tactics he had employed. Copenhagen played with a 4-4-2 formation but they would use this to their advantage; as during the times of their attack, they would efficiently make the system look like a 4-2-4, which is a frightening proposition for any defence, facing a four-man front line.
With the kind of start they had, it only meant good things for the Danish side, as they were ready to go toe to toe with one of the biggest clubs in the world. And they somewhat succeeded in their attempt to go blow for blow, as the early exchanges didn’t have them on the ropes and showed that they were more than capable of holding their own.
Their set-up was compact and had employed a combination of a medium and low block to afford little space to run in behind. Their pressing style was eased off too, as they would only go harassing the opposition when they were too comfortable with it in their half. They knew it from the beginning that they were the underdogs, and frankly, the inferior team in comparison to their opposition. They were perfectly retaining shape when they switched off the press, rather than risking their shape in search of winning the ball in a 50-50 chance in a dangerous position against them.
FCK appeared solid defensively, which they would maintain for the whole of regulation time, and would only be breached with offside goals before the penalty in extra time finally broke their resilience which was enough put them to bed.
They emphasised on flooding the opposition box with as many players as they could while they were attacking, hoping it would lead to the ultimate smash and grab, as this tie was arguably the best way for them to go deep into the competition, with the system that they had in place to cope with it. Their full-backs were moderate in terms of their wing play, in essence, they wouldn’t go marauding upwards whenever they could but also wouldn’t sit deep beside their centre-backs, even when they had the option to go up and be of use in building the team’s attack.
They were creating chances and didn’t have difficulty in doing so, due to the passing option available to them, as well as the space they were easily finding because of United’s attacking exploits against them. Their attacking play was somewhat effective but never really tested Romero in goal, but did leave their own defence quite vulnerable at times which put them under the sword at times.
Zeca played as the link between the midfield and attack, as he would roam around, ahead of the forwards and back close to his own defenders to help create chances and exploit decent passing options to build the attack. The space in between their midfield and defence was one that was often put against them, as the space went unchecked and afforded loads of room to players like Pogba and Bruno to hurt them by having the time to pick their pass to perfection.
Their press intensity was good as they only allowed close to nine passes per defensive actions, but this was due to the fact that United were able to have the ball in the FCK’s half. They would find trouble in building from the back, as their passes were often hurried due to the press from the incoming forwards. Their attack had flair and involved adventurous passing which made it very appealing to the eye, as they would use quick exchanges to get out of a clustered situation.
Their defending was what caught everyone’s eye, as it was remarkable, along with their goalkeeper’s performance who made a record 13 saves in that match, the most ever in the competition in a single match. Their dogged determination and grittiness did come at a price, as they would go on to give cheap free kicks all the time all over the pitch, and one such foul cost them the match, as Martial was bundled over in the box, and Fernandes lodged the penalty into the back of the net.
As the second half had progressed, they started to lose their shape, which explained their tactics and system wasn’t feasible, when they could have had a chance to progress to the semis themselves. Irrespective of how much they threatened going forward, or their attempts to camp in United’s half, their defending needed all hands on deck if they even had the slightest of chances of progression; which eventually led them to being cornered as United came after them with waves and waves of attack.
A game in simple analysis looked like a David and Goliath match-up from the start almost proved to be exactly that, as United could have lost exactly as Goliath had, but Bruno ensured that United’s UEL expedition doesn’t end, just yet. The possession stats of 54%-46% between United and København portray the game that did pan out between them, but is unfair to both, as United did enjoy a lot better spells as they took 26 shots and kept 14 of them on target in comparison to nine for København where they kept 0 on target.
It was unfair to both teams, that at the end the scoreline was just 1-0, where the XG suggests that it should have been closer to 3-1, as United were expected to score 2.84 compared to København’s 0.89. Now, they have to face the La Liga side Sevilla in the semis.