“You never know in football. It might be your last game but it might also be the start of careers too.” – Ole Gunnar Solskjær
A typically positive message broadcast from the Manchester United boss; but amidst all the smiles and informalities, unequivocal confirmation of upheaval tore through the Norweigan’s demeanour. This was in response to questions asked about the playing futures of some of his lacklustre players. The team did nothing to change his mind that afternoon, as United slumped to their 10th defeat of the season against the already relegated Cardiff City; a result that many people predicted when taking advantage of their free bets over the weekend.
In this tactical analysis, we look at Man United’s tactical inflexibility and how this led to an unlikely away victory.
United made wholesale changes from the side that stalled against Huddersfield last week. Mata and Matić made way for Lingard and Pereira who completed the diamond four in midfield. A home-grown pairing started upfront for United with Rashford partnered by 17-year-old Mason Greenwood. Solskjær continued to favour the 4-D-2 shape, despite only picking up five points from the last possible 18.
Cardiff maintained their 4-4-1-1 shape, which yielded them an xG of 1.71 on the day. Warnock made only one change to his side, swapping Ward for Kenneth Zohore in attack. Bobby Reid continued in his position as the number ten, being used to support the attack in transition and create numerical advantages in midfield when out of possession. Mendez-Laing and Murphy occupied the wider areas for Cardiff, moving narrower when defending to implement stability to the shape.
United in Attack
Man United have opted for the versatile 4-D-2 or 4-3-1-2 on multiple occasions this season despite it yielding the lowest xG per 90 (1.65) out of their top three most used formations. It’s a formation that offers great versatility in transition but once in controlled possession it’s limitations are obvious. We analyse this below.
The diamond in transition
Firstly we’ll start with the positives; early on Man United were dangerous in transition. The narrowness of the midfield diamond congested the ball as United aggressively pressed to win back possession. This tactic was implemented in their defensive third as opposed to pressing higher up the pitch, in order to have space to break into once the ball is won.
Man United worked the ball into space after re-taking possession. The ball carrier had multiple players bursting ahead of him as an option for an early pass. He also had a large area of grass available to drive into whilst players moved ahead of him.
United drove into the spaces, fluidly moving the ball through the phases with short passing. This created further problems at the back for Cardiff who became stretched with too much ground to cover. Man United, however, were unable to capitalise on their sweeping attacking movement, lacking quality in the final moments.
Cardiff stifle the 4-D-2
The dynamics of the game changed once Cardiff scored from a dubious penalty, as the Bluebirds opted for more defensive stability. It was at this stage where Man United’s formation struggled to break down the 4th worst defence in the league.
Once Cardiff took the lead they deployed a strategy which offered more structure in the defensive third. Instead of pressing higher up the pitch, Cardiff sunk into a deeper shape where the midfield and defence squeezed the lines and aligned in two banks of four. This sacrificed space in the lateral areas, but nullified Man United’s ability to counter-attack through their shape.
Cardiff’s new shape brought about a new gameplan. Warnock set out his team to frustrate Man United out of possession and used long balls to transition from defence to attack quickly. Cardiff opted to play 31% of their passes as long balls, which amounted to 72 out of their 231 passes. This led to an average passing streak of just two passes as the Welsh side sought the long ball in the early stages in their possession.
The tactic stifled Man United’s fluidity as they struggled to create clear-cut chances. The narrow formation was unable to break down the compacted Cardiff shape. Cardiff deployed an aggressive man-to-man marking system in their defensive third, which Man United struggled to pass through. Solskjær refused to change his shape and watched on as his side attempted to play through central areas of the pitch.
More often than not the attacks broke down for Man United in the final third. Their inability to create overloads in the wide areas and put testing crosses into the box played into Cardiff’s condensed shape.
The lack of space reduced Man United to shooting from outside the box. 50% of their shots were from range, amounting to 13 of their 26 attempts. Cardiff used their numerical superiority in these areas to make 15 blocks. The Red Devils didn’t manage one shot from inside the 6-yard box, demonstrating how effective Cardiff were at congesting the central zones.
Whether it was lack of tactical nous, or lack of trust in his wide players, Solskjær and his men failed to break Cardiff down. The game was calling out for a conventional winger to stay wide and deliver quality crosses into the box to stretch the comfortable Cardiff shape. Unfortunately, he never arrived and Man United sunk to an embarrassing final day defeat without getting on the scoresheet.
Many fans will be happy to see the back of what has been a draining season for Cardiff City. Tragedy tore out the club’s soul mid-way through the season, compounded by obscene injustices at key points in their season, from which Cardiff never recovered. Tributes and memories will never be forgotten, but a fresh start, in a new league with a new manager (maybe) will be a welcome breath of fresh air for this footballing city.
United are on the brink of crisis; the cracks taped together by the smiles of a small Norweigan man are beginning to show. Solskjær’s cliffs of positivity have been ebbed away by poor performances and contract antics, as calls for rebuilding and club-restructuring continue to haunt the club. A clinical and logical transfer window is what Ole and his team require and the opportunity to take stock and reassess will be greatly valued by the Man United hierarchy. It begs the question though, of how long the smiles will continue to prop up a club crumbling from its core.
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