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The secret behind Real Madrid’s efficiency in crossing situations

Real Madrid,crowned champions of La Liga and looking to do the double on Saturday, have excelled in scoring from crossing situations this season. It is indeed a mystery as to how they manage to score so many goals when many other teams using the same tactics struggle for goals. With 166 goals in the season 2016-17, Real Madrid have steamrolled opponents this season. Even more surprising is the fact that they have scored in every single game this season. In this article, I attempt to unravel the mystery behind their success in old-fashioned wingplay.

Quality players offer more precision

Real Madrid are not short of quality in any position. They have incredible squad depth which has enabled Zidane to try out different combinations throughout the season. However, he has not rotated much in the fullback positions. Marcelo and Carvajal have been pivotal in their gameplay with a lot of assists to their name. Their ability to deliver the crosses into the perfect area for the likes of Bale,Benzema,Cristiano,Morata,Asensio has led to many goals this season. Other than the fullbacks, Kroos is probably the best midfielder in the world in terms of ball distribution. His delivery,especially in dead ball situations is a treat for the Madrid forwards. 

Whenever a Real Madrid player finds himself on the ball especially on the wing and halfspaces, he aims to make the ball land in the baseline of the 6 yard box( the diagram below will illustrate the area I am talking about). Moreover, if the cross is outswinging, this makes it even more difficult for the keeper to come out and gather the cross. This is what makes Carvajal and Marcelo arguably the best fullbacks in the world. The curve they manage to get on the ball along with the accuracy of their crosses makes it a near impossible task for the goalkeeper to get to the ball. Apart from the curve they manage to generate in their crosses, they land the ball right on the edge of the 6 yard box for the Real Madrid forwards making a run into that area and we all know how good Bale,Benzema and Cristiano are in the air. Moreover, the forwards running to meet the cross manage to use their momentum when connecting their headers. This generates power in the headers which makes it difficult for the keeper to stop the goal.

Carvajal finds himself with the ball in the halfspace. Benzema knows where the cross will land. So he makes a blind side run towards the base of the 6 yard box where he expects the cross.

Carvajal delivers the perfect cross for Benzema to head in. Reina finds himself stranded because of the perfect location of the cross.

Isco looking to deliver a cross. Ronaldo expects it to land near the 6 yard box. So he gets on the defender’s blind side and attacks the space around the 6 yard box.

We all know what happens next. Ronaldooooooo with a bullet header into the net.

Marcelo delivers the cross while Morata makes his run into the edge of the 6 yard box.

The outswinging nature of Marcelo’s cross and the perfect delivery around the 6 yard box leads to a Morata goal.

Another chance to get the ball to land near the 6 yard box.

Same result. Keeper can do nothing to prevent the header.

Blind side movements from Madrid forwards

Another key factor in Madrid’s efficiency in crossing situations is the blind side movements of Ronaldo,Bale and Benzema. By making the blind side runs, they make it difficult for the defender to focus because he has to decide between chasing the forward or going after the ball. When such a scenario occurs especially with players like Ronaldo, who is blessed with immense aerial ability,the defender usually ends up on the losing side of the aerial duel at the far post. Thus, a huge chunk of Real Madrid’s goals are scored from crosses aimed at the far post. The blind side movements at the far post often leave them unmarked making it easier to score. Almost every forward, be it Bale,Ronaldo,Vazquez,Benzema,Morata or Asensio,who has played for Madrid this season has looked to make this blind side run. 

Blind side run from Bale means he gets a header in at the far post to score.

Same run,different player(Morata),same result.

What happens when the edge of the 6 yard area is blocked?

Real Madrid sometimes face teams who block the 6 yard area. They then look for cutbacks for players like Kroos and others looking to make late runs into the box. The images below show how Real Madrid exploit the spaces created in such scenarios.

Ronaldo finds himself free on the byline. But the edge of the 6 yard box is blocked. So he chooses the cutback option for Kroos.

Kroos makes no mistake with his shot.

This time Carvajal finds the 6 yard box blocked. So he has to go for the cutback

Benzema converts the cutback from Carvajal.

Conclusion

Although the tactics employed by Real Madrid are not unique, the quality of players they have enable them to execute these simple tactics very efficiently. Other teams fail because they do not have the same level of quality Real Madrid have. It will be interesting to see if Juventus come up with any tactics to stop Real Madrid from scoring on Saturday.

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Harry Kane: Is he Britain’s finest since Gareth Bale?

With back to back hattricks in the final 2 games of the 2016-17 Premier League season, Harry Kane made the golden boot his own for the second season running. In arguably the toughest league on the planet, this is no easy feat and to do it having missed 915 minutes of action through injury speaks volumes about the quality of his game. He has scored against almost every single team he has come up against in the Premier League including big names like Chelsea, Manchester United,Manchester City, Arsenal. Unfortunately I have not been able to watch too many live games of Tottenham Hotspur this season. So I have relied on the goal compilations to find out patterns in his movements which have helped him become such a prolific goalscorer for three seasons running.

Fox in the box movement

Most of the goals Kane scores are from the area around the 6 yard box. It is no surprise that Pochettino has built this team around Harry Kane. With no dearth of creative talents in the Spurs side, Kane has been assigned the responsibility of scoring goals by being at the right positions at the right time. Judging by his stats, he has done an excellent job. 

From the wide areas and right halfspaces, Eriksen and the Spurs right back(Kieran Trippier or Kyle Walker) are mainly tasked with the responsibility of delivering outswinging balls around the edge of the 6 yard box. Because of the outswinging nature of the cross, it is difficult for the opposition GK to come out and meet the cross. Moreover, this also enables the crosses to reach Kane’s preferred right foot. Thus, a common trend in Spurs final third attacking play is for Kane to attack the 6 yard space as soon as Eriksen or Trippier get the ball unmarked in the right wing or the right halfspace. 

Here Kieran Trippier finds himself unmarked in the right wing. Kane knows what is coming next. He rushes to meet the outswinging cross at the edge of the 6 yard box.

Kane’s desire to meet Trippier’s cross pays off as he somehow manages to connect with the cross and score.

Eriksen finds himself free in the right halfspace and picks out a sublime outswinging cross into the edge of the 6 yard box.

Kane knows where Eriksen will deliver his cross and goes on to meet it and score.

If the initial cross does not find Kane and someone else wins the header at the far post, he looks to head it into the path of Kane who already stations himself at the edge of the 6 yard box for a tap in. 

A Spurs player wins a header at the far post and heads it into the 6 yard box for Kane.

Kane scores .

A crucial component of Spurs’ gameplay is the advanced positioning of their fullbacks. Often a diagonal switch from the central midfielders sets one of the fullbacks(Walker and Rose or Trippier and Davies) free. The fullbacks often hit a low first-time square pass into the path of Kane who begins his run into the penalty spot as soon as the switch is made. His strength comes in handy in shrugging of the defenders and meeting the pass on such occasions for a simple tap in.

As soon as the switch to Kieran Trippier was made, Kane makes his run into the penalty box.


Trippier easily finds Kane with a square pass leading to a goal.

Effective long shotsApart from being a fox in the box, Kane also has another dimension to his game. He has the ability to pick up the ball in deeper zones in the left half space and score from long range. This aspect comes in handy when teams sit deep and opt to let him drop deep without marking him. Kane is very capable of making a yard of space in deeper zones by cutting inside and often unleashed powerful instep shots from those zones. He has scored some vital goals against deep blocks. 

Kane finds himself a yard of space in the left halfspace.

With no one closing him down effectively, he lets one rip with his instep from distance and finds the ball in the bottom corner of the goal.

Game intelligence 

Tottenham are one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the Premier League. A lot of credit for this goes to manager Mauricio Pochettino who has coached his players brilliantly. Kane is one of the players who reflects the excellent work done by Pochettino. His understanding of the game phases is excellent and he knows when he has to drop deep and when to run in behind. Like most elite centre forwards to have played the game, Kane has the ability to make space for himself in close spaces. He does this by peeling off from the CB marking him. As a result of this movement, he finds himself in a side-on position which makes it much easier for him to get a shot in compared to when he is facing his own goal. 

Also, this movement often allows him to get on the end of through balls from Spurs’ creative midfielders like Alli,Eriksen and Son. 

Notice how Kane peels off from his marking CB in this offensive transition for Spurs. He makes this movement before the pass reaches Alli who subsequently finds him running free on goal with a through pass.

Kane’s movement before the through pass enabled him to go 1 versus 1 with the Goalkeeper and we all know what happens after that.

A complete forward


We have all seen how efficient Kane’s movements are. However, one cannot score by being in the right positions. The technical aspects of gameplay must be right for a player to score as many goals as Kane does. What makes Kane one of the finest is his ability to shoot with both feet as well as his head. Many a times this season, we have seen him place his shots in the bottom corner with his left foot. Such precision finishing with his weaker foot has done no harm to his goalscoring attributes. If he keeps improving, it is just a matter of time before one of the giants from Spain come calling for his signature. Till then, his presence is a gift for Spurs’ ambition to challenge for the title in subsequent seasons. 

Note: You can see all Harry Kane goals this season. Great job to whoever has made the compilation. Thanks to the compilation,I was able to come up with this article.

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Why Sergio Romero is better for Manchester United than David De Gea

I know I am not going to make too many fans with the article I am about to write. I have been a fan of David de Gea since the time he arrived at Man United. Looking back now, he won us many trophies and made some key saves in every single season he has played in. The analytical side of my mind feels he is not made for the system we have been playing since Sir Alex Ferguson pulled the curtains to his illustrious career spanning 27 years. I am about to explain the reasons why I feel Romero seems a better choice as #1 than David de Gea. 

Shot-stopping or Shot-prevention?

De Gea is one of the best shot stoppers in the world if not the best. His reflexes are top class and he is as good at saving shots with his feet as he with his hands. This gives his team a huge deal of security when there is a defensive lapse and an opposition player finds himself free. However, De Gea is not the best at anticipating the next move of the opponent and often he stays flat footed on his line. This means that he invites a scoring chance for the opposition when a more proactive keeper would have prevented the shot by charging out of his line. As De Gea is not one of those proactive keepers, he is often left to save shots which could have been avoided in the first place. Romero is one of those proactive keepers who has to save very few shots because he does not stay flat footed on the goal line. This also means that the defensive line can play further up the pitch to suffocate the opposition when Romero plays. Given the amount of chances United have failed to convert this season, this could have meant a few more chances for Man United to score in crucial games this season. And who knows what might have happened with those additional 3-4 chances! 

Poor selection of passes when building up from the back

There have been many games this season when teams have tried to press Man United high up the pitch when they were trying to set up attacks from deep. Often there would be situations when the two CBs of Man United would be pressed by two opposition CFs. De Gea would be a safe passing outlet for the two CBs in such cases. De Gea would then find himself in enough time to allow a midfielder to drop deeper into the space between the two CBs. However he would often select a long pass to the wing or a hopeless punt upfield where the probability of the opposition winning the ball was much higher(especially teams like Burnley,West Brom and Watford excel in such situations). This meant a cheap loss of possession in critical phases of the game when United desperately needed a goal. 

Often a CB would make himself free when De Gea had the ball by drifting wide only to find De Gea looping it long instead of passing it to him. As Juanma Lillo says “The faster the ball goes forward,the faster it comes back”, it is no surprise that such situations often present the best scoring probabilities for the opposition. 

A safe pass to Smalling is already available for De Gea. However he punts it long and risks an unnecessary loss of possession which can lead to a counter attack for the opposition.


Romero on the other hand looks composed when on the ball. Even the long balls he attempts are delivered perfectly(trajectory as well as range of his passes are much better than De Gea). In the away game against Celta Vigo, he launched many counter attacks with his quick distribution to the Man United wingers. He imparts a different dynamic to Manchester United’s counterattacking plans. 

A description of Romero’s game intelligence. He has the option of directly going to Fellaini. But instead of aiming it straight to Fellaini, he allows his pass to drop into the space shown in the diagram where Fellaini has a greater chance of retaining the ball.


Stop the headers or intercept the crosses?

A lot of goals De Gea concedes are from set pieces. This is mostly due to his reluctance to venture out his line. Romero, on the other hand, is comfortable coming out of his line and intercepts the long balls by punching them or collecting them before an opponent player can head the cross in. This means that he concedes much less goals from set pieces. There is an occasional risk of making an error when a keeper ventures out of his line but it is not everyday that such errors happen. 

Because De Gea does not come out of his line during set pieces, if an opponent player gets a header in , De Gea has to stop the shot. However, these headers are often made from close range which does not give a keeper enough time to stop the shot from going in. One can then only bank on De Gea’s reflexes to save a certain goal. But more often than not, even De Gea cannot save such shots. An example of such a situation is the goal Danny Welbeck scored against De Gea at the Emirates recently. Had  De Gea come off his line to punch the cross away, he would have surely prevented a shot and the resulting goal. However,he decided to stay put and gave himself no chance to save the bullet header from Welbeck.

Romero on the other hand has found himself in such situations many times over the course of his Europa campaign. Because he intercepts those crosses before an opposition player can get to them,it does not get recorded as a save. As a result, he does not get as much glory as De Gea gets for the saves the latter makes. But if you think with an unbiased mind, both of these situations (preventing the shot and saving it) help in avoiding a goal. So should they not be equally assessed? 

Romero has had 11 clean sheets in 17 games this season having conceded just 6. It is no coincidence that he gets so many cleansheets whenever he starts. I feel he needs to be a regular starter and maybe De Gea going to Madrid may not be a disaster after all for the Red Side of Manchester.

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Arsenal put an end to Man United’s unbeaten Premier League run

In a closely fought affair,Arsenal ended Manchester United’s unbeaten run of 25 Premier League games. With both sides still somewhat in the race for a top 4 spot, it was a vital win for Arsenal who find themselves battling to be in the UEFA Champions League next season having played in every season since 1999. 

Lineups

Arsenal lineup

Manchester United lineup

Reactive set up from Man United

With the Europa league away leg against Celta Vigo to be played in midweek, Jose Mourinho rested many players who played on Thursday against Celta. Axel Tuanzebe found himself making his debut PL start for Manchester United. Jones and Smalling also returned to the starting lineup for the first time in months. 

As it has been against all big teams this season, Jose Mourinho set up a side so as not to concede and punishing the opposition for their mistakes after encouraging them to push up. Another interesting aspect of Manchester United’s strategy was that they did not use their fullbacks as passing outlets when in possession. This meant that they had to resort to playing vertical balls and diagonal balls hoping to find Martial running onto one of such balls. This also meant that ball retention was difficult for the central midfielders in Carrick,Herrera and Rooney against Arsenal’s midfield. Without overlapping fullbacks,United often found themselves in a position of numerical inferiority against Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 block. As a result,it was not much of a surprise that after Mata’s cross was headed over by Rooney in the 24th minute,it took 50 minutes for United to create another chance. Rooney had a chance to slot in Holding’s poor backpass but it was more a case of Arsenal creating that chance for Manchester United on that occasion.

Manchester United’s midfielders crowded out in midfield making it difficult to retain possession. As a result,Carrick and Rooney had to resort to vertical balls over the top hoping to find Martial or Mkhitaryan.


In the defensive phases,wingers Mata and Mkhitaryan were instructed to slot outside fullbacks Tuanzebe and Darmian making a back 6 to neutralize the threat of Chamberlain and Gibbs who often found themselves in very advanced positions. But this meant that Arsenal’ s midfielders had ample time to pass in front of United’s midfield 3 of Carrick Herrera and Rooney. Sanchez and Özil always looked a threat when given such time to pick out their passes. Ramsey’s runs from deep were often left untracked by the back of Manchester United which led to some decent chances for Arsenal.

Manchester United’s 6-2-1-1 block out of possession. This meant Arsenal had enough time in the midfield to look up and create chances. Özil and Sanchez are masters of picking runs. Ramsey was a constant threat as he made some runs from deep into the channels between Jones and Smalling. Rooney,Carrick and Herrera struggled to close down in the absence of support in midfield

An example of a deep Ramsey run


Second half

The game continued in much of the same fashion in the second half. Ramsey continued his runs from deep between the channels left by United’s back line. Short of numbers in midfield,it was no surprise that one pass found Granit Xhaka with space to shoot in front of United’s midfield line which gave Arsenal the lead. A second goal from a cross by Chamberlain from the right flank killed Manchester United’s chances and gave Arsenal a faint glimmer of hope of making the UCL next season.  As for Manchester United, Jose Mourinho said that his side’s chances of finishing in the top 4 is impossible making it clear that he will be going full out to win the Europa this year to secure UCL qualification for next season.

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Manchester United begin the new year with a solid win over West Ham

48 hours after their dramatic 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, Manchester United ensured another win against West Ham away. With this win, they ensured that they have been unbeaten in 13 games. It also moved them level on points with Tottenham who face Chelsea on the 4th of January. 

Team lineup 

Courtesy: Onefootball app

Manchester United line up

West Ham lineup

A common pattern this season in Manchester United’s recent away games has been the exclusion of genuine wingers from the lineups. In this game, Mkhitaryan and Lingard started as wingers. Both of these players are good at tight spaces. The inclusion of Mkhitaryan and Lingard maybe due to the fact that most teams Manchester United come up against in the Premier League have smaller field dimensions. When the dimensions become smaller, the wingers virtually become redundant in terms of effectiveness. As such, the importance of local combinations in small spaces become top priority in such grounds. 

Manchester United’s set up

A peculiar feature of Manchester United’s set up for this game was the central orientation of Lingard and Mkhitaryan. This ensured that there were more players in central areas in the final third to make quick combinations. While the idea was right, the execution of the passes was substandard in this game. Mourinho mentioned this in his post match interview and claimed that it was probably due to fatigue. Mkhitaryan and Lingard’s central positioning meant there was lack of width. To solve this issue, Valencia and Darmian stayed wide to ensure that there was a passing outlet out wide when the centre became too congested. The narrow positioning of Mkhitaryan and Lingard is clearly illustrated in the passmap below by 11tegen11.

The passmap below clearly illustrates the narrow positioning of United’s wingers Mkhitaryan and Lingard. Moreover, instead of two CMs dropping deep to help build up, we see only Carrick staying deep.

Unlike earlier games when two players from midfield would drop deeper to aid build up, Carrick was the only one who stayed deeper while Herrera and Pogba advanced higher to make up the numbers in midfield to help in the combinations mentioned earlier. More numbers in midfield meant that there were more possibilities for combinations as well as greater possibilities for winning the ball up higher. The positioning of the midfielders though was not rigid with Carrick situationally playing advanced to allow Herrera to drop deep. But the overall structure was not disturbed by such movements.

United failed to find the breakthrough in the first half with Valencia coming closest to scoring whose shot was saved on the line by Randolph. 

Mourinho’s tactical changes 

With Feghouli being shown the red card in the 15th minute, West Ham’s strategy for the remainder of the game focussed on stopping United from scoring. After the sending off, they sat deep in a 4-5-0 deep block. This forced Mourinho to sub Darmian for Mata. Carrick was deployed as a centre back while Rojo moved to LB. Rashford later came on for Lingard. Unlike Lingard, Rashford was told to stay wide because of his 1 v 1 abilities. The two subs worked as they combined for the opening goal. Rashford created 3 chances and won the Man of the Match for his impressive display. 

As soon as United took the lead, Mourinho made another tactical change by bringing on Smalling for Mkhitaryan. This change meant that Carrick was restored to his role as CDM while Smalling took his place as CB to negate the threat of towering Andy Carroll. 

Other than the occasional blunder, it was a solid defensive performance from Manchester United. West Ham hardly had any shots inside the box. De Gea’s 1 v 1 save to deny Antonio was crucial in the context of the game. The xG map (credits: Michael Caley) reflects this.

Conclusion

6 straight Premier League wins has not done much to change their position in the League but with Chelsea and Spurs facing each other on the 4th, United can hope to make good ground in the Premier League race. With Liverpool up next, the tables can look very different in a few days from now. It will be interesting to see if the Red Devils can maintain their momentum with a busy January threatening to test their resilience to the limit.

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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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Manchester United peaking at the right time with another exciting performance against Sunderland

It turned out to be another nightmare for former Manchester United manager David Moyes as his side were thrashed 3-1 at the Theatre of Dreams. With this victory, the Red Devils made it five consecutive wins in all competitions.

Man United lineup



Overloads in the left halfspace

This has been a common pattern for Manchester United throughout the season. They try to make overloads in the left halfspace. With players like Ibrahimovic,Pogba,Mata,Carrick,Herrera and Lingard, it is no surprise that the Red Devils excel in circulating the ball effectively in these tight spaces. This was evident throughout the whole game. Daley Blind’s goal late in the first half was a fine example of this strategy. While the midfielders were making local combinations, Blind saw the space to run into the box and powered a bottom corner shot to give the hosts the lead.

Manchester United’s left sided overload before Blind scored the first goal


 If the Red devils fail to penetrate using local combinations, Pogba uses his excellent distribution to find Valencia’s surging runs down the right flank. In a way, Valencia’s role is similar to the one which Dani Alves used to play in Barcelona. Valencia’s pace enables him to beat the opposition fullback before he has even touched the ball. As a result, this enables him to have more time to choose his next decision. 

Pogba’s diagonal passes to Valencia are a thing of beauty but made possible by the other players shifting over to the left side.


A refreshing aspect of Manchester United’s season so far has been their fluid off-the-ball movements in the final third. This was missing last season due to Louis van Gaal’s rigid positional structure. In this game, players like Lingard and Mata were exceptional in their movements-off-the-ball. Whenever Zlatan dropped deep from his position as Centre Forward, either Mata or Lingard made sure that they kept the opposition CBs occupied. This enabled space for Zlatan, Pogba and Herrera in midfield to make the combinations which are beginning to be an exciting aspect of Manchester United’s gameplay. However, as Mourinho stated in his post match interview, this was not the best Manchester United performance he has seen. He was not too pleased with the first half performance. To my eyes, the first half was not bad by any standards. However, Sunderland got good chances on the break. Maybe this was what upset Mourinho. 

Improved second half performance

With Sunderland happy to sit deep, it was difficult to get the second goal which could have killed the game off. The circulation speed was better in the second half which was responsible for many more shots than was possible in the first half. What made the hosts even more threatening was the introduction of Mkhitaryan and Martial who excel in transition phases. As the game opened up, Mkhitaryan was brought on and he immediately made a mark. The Armenian’s ball-carrying skills ensured ample counter attacks for Manchester United. After his introduction,Zlatan was able to find more room to shrug off his marker. With Mkhitaryan running at the defender marking Zlatan, the defender was forced to make a quick decision on whom to check. Mkhitaryan’s speed on the ball makes the defender rush into such decisions which leads to more errors. In this case, the errors meant Zlatan had two one on one chances and he ended up converting one.

Manchester United in defensive phases

Sunderland posed no such threat in counter attacks. They used a long-ball approach as was expected.Anichebe tried to exploit Blind’s aerial weakness but it was Blind who came out on top in that duel. Blind was good at winning the second balls off Anichebe. However, the hosts seemed to give away cheap freekicks. It was only in these set pieces that Sunderland looked a bit threatening. 

Conclusion

11 games unbeaten since they last lost to Fenerbahçe, Manchester United seem to be climbing up the ladder. If they can put on a good run from here, who knows how far they can climb up in the Premier League. Regardless of the results, the fans can feel proud that Manchester United’s identity of playing attacking football is back. 

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