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Talking Tactics

Man Utd have tools to hit City on the counter

Adrian Clarke 6 Dec 2019
Rashford and Martial, Man Utd

Adrian Clarke says having less of the ball will suit Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side in Saturday's derby

Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points ahead of Matchweek 16.

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Manchester United are at their best when they don't take the initiative, so this raises the prospect of a smash-and-grab derby-day win at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made no secret of his desire to use pace as his main attacking weapon this season.

Building a team designed to spring into life from transitions and counter-attacks, his side has endured a bumpy start to 2019/20.

Yet their tactical identity is now much clearer than some of their top-six rivals.

Nine of United's 23 Premier League goals have stemmed from transitions, with two more arriving courtesy of through-balls for runners.

Breaking with penetration and speed is unquestionably their forte and United will attempt to hurt Manchester City in this manner.

Breakdown of Man Utd goals
Type Goals Type Goals
Counter-attacks 5 Through-balls 2
Turnovers 4 Corners 2
Right-wing crosses 3 Wide free-kicks 1
Penalties 3 Left-wing crosses 1
Inside box 2    

After United's 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Spurs head coach Jose Mourinho made a point of stating how well the Red Devils fare against the "better teams".

His comments had plenty of foundation.

Solskjaer's men are unbeaten in the only five top-flight matches where they have had less than 50 per cent possession, as the table below shows.

Taking points off Liverpool in an impressive 1-1 draw, they also beat Chelsea, Leicester City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Spurs with a minority share of the ball.

Man Utd matches with lowest possession
Opponent Man Utd possession Score Expected goals (xG)
Spurs 46.3% 2-1 1.4-0.9
Brighton 42.7% 3-1 3.6-0.9
Liverpool 32.0% 1-1 0.7-1.2
Leicester 41.7% 1-0 1.2-0.6
Chelsea 46.2% 4-0 2.2-1.0

It could be argued that the above matches also represent United's best five displays of the campaign.

The next step in their development is to improve performance levels in fixtures where they have more possession.

Paul Pogba's return from injury, which is expected to come before the end of the year, will likely help them in this regard.

That said, in the weeks to come we may also see Solskjaer deliberately setting up United in a lower block, even against opponents beneath them in the table.

The industrious Scott McTominay and Fred have sat in front of United's defence to great effect in the last three of United's positive performances with less than 50 per cent possession.

In a low defensive block, they work well together as a shield, laying a solid platform from which the quick forwards around them can break.

Wolves blueprint?

United should have more than the 24 per cent possession Wolverhampton Wanderers enjoyed in their 2-0 win at Man City this season but Solskjaer could look to follow Nuno Espirito Santo's tactical blueprint.

With excellent defensive organisation, discipline and compactness Wolves limited the champions to just two first-half shots on target.

Then late on Adama Traore twice surged clear to score on the counter-attack, securing a famous success.

The in-form Marcus Rashford, supported by Daniel James and Mason Greenwood, has the ability to test City from fast, progressive breakaways this weekend.

Furthermore, Solskjaer expects Anthony Martial to be fit to return from injury against a City side without a clean sheet in their last five matches and looking fragile at the back.

Over the course of 90 minutes the champions' attacking quality may be too hot to handle in this Manchester derby but Solskjaer's men are tactically equipped to cause their neighbours problems.

Tomorrow: Grealish role change lifting Villa

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