Tactical analysis: Manchester United got “Wolved”

Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton was among the most frustrating you will ever see and just like that all the goodwill Ole Gunnar Solskjaer built up last week is seemingly gone.

“At the end of the day, this one is entirely on Ole” was a quote I heard from someone at the bar. While others weren’t as extreme, some shared a similar sentiment.

Blaming Solskjaer for this is patently ridiculous. The draw against Wolves didn’t raise any new questions about this team, it just highlighted the ones we already have.

Wolves were always going to be a tougher test than Chelsea. We know we can hit teams on the counter but what happens when you face a team that wants to sit back and let you have the ball?

United ultimately got “Wolved” in this game. They didn’t win because Wolves scored a worldy and United missed a penalty. That’s football, it happens. Manchester City wiped the floor with Tottenham on Saturday and came away with a 2-2 draw!

It’s a shame that it happened to United this week but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of positives to take away from this match.

Anthony Martial once again justified Solskjaer’s decision to move him back to a central role, but the biggest positive was how prepared United were for exactly how Wolves were going to try and counter attack.

There’s a reason that Liverpool were the only Big Six club to beat Wolves twice last year. This is what they do. They sit back, they let you have the ball, they defend really tightly, and they don’t let you get shots  They then like to hit you on the counter attack. This is why Wolves were very good against the top clubs last year, and not as good against bottom clubs who didn’t like to have possession.

(Last year they had the fourth lowest xGA behind Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea, which is notable since those teams had over 50 percent possession on the season).

The difference between this year and last year was last year Wolves killed United on the counter attack. That was where United were brilliant tonight. In the first half especially, United didn’t let Wolves launch any counter attacks. Their positioning and understanding of what Wolves wanted to do was exceptional.

Take this situation from late in the first half. United lose the ball deep with Lingard and Daniel James caught behind the ball. Paul Pogba has three Wolverhampton players running right at him.

Pogba, crucially, holds his ground. This takes away the initial breakout pass and gives James more time to track back and put pressure on the ball carrier. Diego Jota was forced to drop deep to receive the next pass, and found himself  caught between Pogba, James, and Aaron Wan Bissaka.

Jota made a good move to flick the ball by Wan Bissaka to Raul Jimenez, but with Victor Lindelof right on him, Jimenez has only one option, go backwards.

Two passes later the ball is at the feet of Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio.

The play from United was perfect. They didn’t win the ball back. They didn’t get a tackle high up the field leading to a quick chance. That doesn’t matter. What matters is they didn’t allow Wolves to mount a counter attack. Three passes later United won the ball back at midfield.

This wasn’t a case of players just playing to their ability. This was preparation. This was the players knowing where they needed to be. This was coaching, this was Solskjaer.

Solskjaer wasn’t perfect in this game. He inserted James into the starting XI because he knew he needed to add another dynamic to United’s attack against a team that was going to sit back. James’ job was to run at defenders and draw fouls so United could utilize Harry Maguire on set pieces. It didn’t work because James was too eager to draw fouls, as evidenced by his two dives that I don’t even know how to describe because the word “blatant” isn’t strong enough.

But if Solskjaer knew that Wolves were going to sit back he strongly erred in starting Jesse Lingard over Juan Mata. A few weeks ago I wrote about how Lingard was a very valuable squad player, but only if Solskjaer realized he was exactly that.

A team like Wolves that were going to sit back and cede possession was never a game for Jesse Lingard to start, and it reared it’s ugly head several times. United would have been far better with Juan Mata, who’s ball control and creativity would have made a world of difference when trying to break down Wolves. He’s also better in the box than Lingard.

Additionally, no United player is better off the ball than Mata. He constantly makes decoy runs that occupy defenders and free up space for his teammates. When your opponent is sitting nine men in front of the ball, those runs are crucial. Too often Rashford, Martial, and Lingard were stagnant, just like they were under Mourinho, giving Pogba and McTominay nowhere to pass.

If Solskjaer starts Mata over Lingard it’s a different game. Furthermore, once Wolves started pushing for an equalizer, and winner, that’s when taking Mata off and bringing Lingard on would have been an effective move. Instead he did the opposite.

Solskjaer opting to wait until the very end of the game to make changes is naturally going to draw criticism from fans, but I understand why he did it. James was fantastic at tracking back all night.

Over the last 10 minutes United were still “threatening,” and while they definitely needed some more threat, Wolves were threatening too.

I personally would have brought Mason Greenwood on earlier but you have to remember in a 1-1 game it’s just as important not to lose it.

The trip to Molineux was always going to be different. It’s unfortunate United didn’t come away with three points in a game where they, for the most part, were brilliant in. But remember to keep everything in context. United have won three more points this year than they did in the two corresponding fixtures last season.

This is a very young squad. There’s going to be bumps along the way. They’ll learn from this. They’ll be fine.

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