The English Premier League matchday 22 finds Manchester United playing host at Old Trafford to Norwich City on the 11th of January 2020. United had a good run of games over the Christmas holidays, but are looking to right the ship after a three-match winless streak. There were a number of changes to the lineups for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from the EFL Cup first leg semi-final game against Manchester City midweek. Norwich is without Teemu Pukki during this match, and have dropped more points from losing positions this season than any other team in the league save West Ham. The Canaries must keep United’s high power young attackers from getting good looks while making up for Pukki’s ability to find the net.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how each team’s tactics matched up and provide an analysis of how each team progressed through the game in a 4-0 match where United completely dominated Norwich during the game.
United started with a 4-2-3-1 where Harry Maguire returns to the centre of the defence. Nemanja Matić joins Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos (Fred) to hold down the defensive responsibilities as Scott McTominay continues to recover from injury. Juan Manuel Mata García also makes his 13th appearances this season for the Red Devils as the right attacking midfielder. This marks only his fifth start of the 2019/2020 campaign. His last start was in the 2-2 tie against Aston Villa back on the first of December. Anthony Jordan Martial starts up top and looked to add to his seven goals tally this season.
Norwich is put onto the field by Daniel Farke in a 4-2-3-1. Farke was hoping that the paring of Mario Vrančić and Alexander Tettey would work to close down the opportunities coming down the middle for United and hold possession in the attack. The defensive pairing was to push the attack outside away from the Canaries goal. The Irish man Adam Idah has a tall order to fill the shoes of Pukki, but with United only keeping four clean sheets all season the odds look to be in his favour.
United’s player’s free role in the attack
This was a game that was designed for Mata and his style of play. From the opening whistle, Solskjaer gave Mata and Rashford open roles to move in and out of the Norwich defensive lines. Mata started off playing on the right but many times he would float in and out of the channels to overload the midfield or the backline. United posted 58% of its attacks down the right side of the field. Norwich did not work to close down the space between lines and it caused them issues in defence. This type of movement opened up room for Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Andreas Pereira to make a forward run deep into the Norwich defence. By this movement off the ball, Norwich’s defence did not mark well or communicate to switch men as they moved in and out of defensive zones. The defensive zones are areas of responsibility by defensive position. If you imagine drawing a circle around all the defensive players until it overlaps the adjacent defensive player’s circle you have created a defensive zone. The bigger the circles the bigger the zones. Many times teams like United will overload zones to create 2v1s or mismatches of speed or skill. Todd Cantwell and Sam Byram did not know where the next attack was coming from or who they were to pick up when. Below are some examples of how Mata moved the defence by his positioning. The first image you see is of Mata staying wide allowing Pereira to run in behind the stretched Norwich backline. Next, you see how Mata tucked in to allow Wan-Bissaka to move forward into the attack. The real key is how he got every movement right. When Norwich tried to adjust he changed. He was one step ahead of them the entire game.
Again below you see how Mata overloaded the centre to allow Pereira space. A late shift by Norwich created the space in behind the defence for Mata to work in. Both centre-backs have to stay central because of how Martial and Rashford are positioning themselves between them.
Rashford was also moving in and out of a wide position to move the Norwich defence. He stayed between Max Aarons, Norwich’s outside defensive back, and the centre-back Christoph Zimmermann.
By playing in these half-spaces between the players the wing was left for Brandon Williams to run. Aarons was worried about the pace of Williams and the ability of Matic to play the big switch kept him pulling wide. This became a major problem as it created space to play through the lines. In the build-up of the second goal, you see Rashford pull wide to fill the wing. Matic had dropped into the left-back position to support McGuire. As Rashford shifts the defence, Williams fills the channel that Rashford had been held the whole first half. Aaron pulled wide to cover Rashford and a gaping hole was created in Norwich’s defence. The late run from Williams and a perfectly weighted ball from Rashford put Williams through. Norwich keeper Tim Krul came late for the ball and a penalty was called. Rashford finished it from the spot and made it 2-0 United early in the second half.
The one problem that Norwich asked of United was how they handled the switching of fields. United likes to collapse on the ball by surrounding the ball with numbers. Many times in this game Norwich could not play out of the pressure and the ball turned over. You can see this tactic below and how much space Norwich had to play out of it. If United come up against a team that can play through the pressure and switches the point of attack well it puts their backline under pressure. The pressure is not necessarily 1v1 but in the backline trying to rotate to cover the space. A few times United got this wrong but Norwich was not able to capitalize on the rotation of the two centre-backs for United. The next sequence of images shows Norwich switching the point of attack with a dribble and then releasing the outside midfield in on goal. United’s defence collapses on the ball only and does not take care of the runners off the ball. If United cannot sort out how their backline handles this they will continue to give up goals.
Again, in the image below you can see how United have committed numbers to the side of the field with the ball and have not won it. This leads to Norwich being able to switch the ball and place the backline under pressure as Victor Lindelöf has to move in to cover McGuire and Williams. If a team has good speed up top or on the wings United is in trouble.
Norwich’s defensive collapse
Vrančić and Tettey struggled to find a foothold in this game. Many times they found themselves pulled into the backline or tracking a deep run by a midfielder. This collapsed Norwich’s perceived defensive plans to stay compact in the middle and allow United to run the wings. Past United games Rashford, Daniel James, and Martial looked to exploit the free space on the wings to use their pace to push past players. Norwich looked for United to continue that pattern of play. As Mata and Rashford changed the rhythm of the game from fast to slow and then fast again using a combination of the available inside space mixed with wide play Vrančić stayed confused in his marking responsibilities. This forced Norwich into a continual state of man on man-marking with no cover as seen below. This was better than the alternative. In the image below you can see how Tettey was pulled wide on a Pereira run while Vrančić was late to spot the shift. This left Norwich’s backline with no one to mark and scrambling to cover space. Martial and Wan-Bassaka held United’s shape in the width of the field, to further stretch the Norwich defence. This left wholes for United to operate in and mount the attacks through Norwich’s lines.
The confusion that Norwich displayed all game was punctuated during United’s third goal off a set-piece. Above you can see how Norwich failed to cover a short corner and then overpressed in the desperate attempt to cover players. Two late runs from United’s centre-backs again drew Norwich’s backline to overreact instead of keeping its shape in the defensive zone that they had. Mata used the confusion to play a ball into the six-yard box where Martial headed it home. The constant running off the ball and the lack of communication caused Norwich’s defensive unit to completely breakdown under the onslaught.
Norwich was outplayed and the free play form Mata and Rashford could not be denied. The creative movement and open play form United’s front was exciting and proved fatal. United need to continue with this form and not fall to teams in the bottom half of the league table. This will help them challenge the league for the top four spots. Norwich missed the running of Pukki and the outlet that he offers the team. Just the runs that he makes off the ball many times opens up Norwich’s game and attacking promise. Norwich will need to work to pull themselves out of the relegation zone and will have to handle more complex tactics in the second half of the season as teams look to find new ways to breakdown teams.