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Late win seals all three points for Manchester United against resolute Middlesbrough

Manchester United marked Sir Alex Ferguson’s 75th birthday with a comeback win which was so common during his days. Late goals in the 85th and 86th minute from Martial and Pogba respectively ensured that the Red Devils ended 2016 on a high with 5 straight wins in the Premier League.

Team lineups

Courtesy: Onefootball app

Manchester United lineup

Middlesbrough lineup

Build up structure

A common pattern during the last few games has been the higher position occupied by Manchester United’s fullbacks. In the earlier games, one of the fullbacks stayed deeper( usually the left back) while the other took up an advanced position. The advanced fullback was Valencia. 

However, in the last few games, both fullbacks have occupied higher positions. This has maximized Manchester United’s attacking potential. Firstly, the advanced positioning of the fullbacks allows the likes of Pogba and Herrera to drop into the halfspaces to help in a smooth build up. Without ball playing centre backs (Rojo and Jones in most games;Smalling and Bailly in this game), it would have been unwise to expect the centre backs to help circulate the ball into advanced areas. The deeper positioning of Pogba and Herrera in the halfspaces helps avoid this problem. The positioning of Pogba and Herrera in the halfspaces also ensure that they have access to the centre as well as the wings. Rene Maric wrote an excellent article on halfspaces

The advanced positions taken up by Blind and Valencia enables Herrera and Pogba to drop deeper to aid Man United’s build up

Secondly, the higher position of the left fullback in recent games has allowed the left wingers to flourish in recent games. Martial played his best game this season. Other than his performance, it was the 2 v 1 situations or 2 v 2 situations created by the higher position of Blind which helped him produce such a performance. In the first few games, he seemed to be struggling because of the deeper position occupied by Manchester United’s Left back( Shaw in most games). This often meant that he was isolated against the opposition fullback and retreating winger. As a result he was getting easily dispossessed. The higher positioning of Blind has helped him maximise his potential. 

Blind’s presence ensures Martial has better chances for success in subsequent actions

Chance creation in the final third

32 attempts in the game is proof of how dominant Manchester United have been in this game. Like the old days under Sir Alex Ferguson, the wings seemed to be the most preferred route for attacking. Other than the crosses, it was impressive to see Manchester United win most of the second balls. This was made possible by Manchester United’s positional structure in possession. Herrera and Mkhitaryan were intelligent in their positioning throughout the game. Mourinho has praised Mkhitaryan in recent games for his skills in transition phases. The Armenian is intelligent in the timing of his pressing movements. This enables him to win the ball in higher zones. One of the pressing triggers he uses is underweight passes from the opposition CB to the fullback. This enables him to intercept passes which can then create chances for his team.

A problem for Manchester United early in the season was their poor occupation of the halfspaces in the final third. But as the season has rolled by, the players have become better in their positioning with better occupation of the halfspaces and centre in possession. This has ensured that Manchester United win most of the second balls after crosses are delivered into the box. This is the reason why almost every game at Old Trafford yields so many chances.

Manchester United’s structure in possession. This ensures that Middlesbrough have no outlet for a counter attack other than a long punt to Negredo up front. Smalling and Blind are well equipped to deal with Negredo


Mourinho’s substitutions

After going behind against the run of play,Mourinho made some interesting substitutions. Blind,having being booked earlier, was replaced by Rojo at LB to look after the dynamic Adama Traore. Rashford came on for Smalling and Mata came on for Fellaini as Man United switched to a back 3 comprising of Valencia Bailly and Rojo. Herrera sat deep in midfield to balance Valencia’s movements. The changes were interesting because it meant Manchester United played with Mata,Zlatan,Pogba,Rashford,Martial and Pogba all of whom are considered as predominantly attack-minded players. It was a bold move but paid off after earlier efforts were thwarted by Middlesbrough. Manchester United’s structure ensured that they were not at risk of conceding from a counter attack even though so many attacking players were playing at the same time. 

Conclusion

Having opened up a 9 point gap with the 7th placed team Everton,Mourinho will be looking for slip ups from teams ahead of him in the title race. A top 4 finish is looking highly probable.But the possibility of finishing higher than 4th is also looking likely if United can maintain the strong performances.

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