Manchester United and the Weakness of Offense

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Aug 4, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney (10) battle for the ball with n the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

 

United’s 1-0 loss against West Brom Saturday might have stretched defensive soccer’s apologists to their rhetorical breaking point. In all the numbers but the scoreline, United utterly dominated the game. Van Gaal’s team achieved 81% possession, accumulated 26 shots, and passed the ball 636 times. Marouane Fellaini, of late marked into irrelevance by Chelsea and Everton sides correctly identifying him as Van Gaal’s lockpick, was allowed to play his game for the full 90 minutes. West Brom wasn’t looking to stop the lockpick however; they were looking to brick up the whole door. Fellaini’s efforts, along with the efforts of his teammates, were unable to pick through or kick down the door in front of West Brom’s goal. Tony Pulis’ sides are known for such unabashedly defensive efforts, of course, but this was a class apart. West Brom attempted 170 passes, of which only 90 were successful, the entire game, figures that might be among the lowest in a game for any team in the Premier League era. They managed a mere six shots, including their goal. This was a masterclass in off-the-ball, obstructionist soccer. That United were so successfully stifled by such tactics should teach us a valuable lesson about attacking soccer and its weaknesses.

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There’s an enlightening story told about the legendary AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi. Often credited with bringing Italian soccer out of the dark ages of fundamentalist defensive soccer, Sacchi still understood the value of organization. As retold by Sacchi, who tasked his side with an unusual drill after being confronted about his rigorous training methods by star attacking midfielder Ruud Gullit. “I told [Gullit] that five organized players would always beat 10 disorganized ones. And I proved it to them. I took five players: Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi. They had 10 players; Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Virdis, Evani, Ancelotti, Colombo, Donadoni, Lantignotti and Mannari. They had 15 minutes to score against my five players and the only rule was that if we won possession or they lost the ball, they had to start over from 10 metres inside their own half. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not once.”

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Sacchi’s Milan side feature perhaps the best attacking players of the era, but they were thwarted time and time again by a well organized backline. Pulis takes this lesson to its extreme, of course, but it still holds true. For all of United’s attacking verve and potency, they could not breakdown West Brom’s rigid lines in midfield and defense. The numbers explained above help to understand how this was done, but all it really takes is watching the game to appreciate Pulis’ method. United’s players dart this way and that, trying to find space to dribble or provide the final ball. West Brom crowds the box, blocking angles to their goal and anxiously clearing the ball back up field on those rare occasions they accidentally regain possession. The Baggies were perhaps lucky that the penalty they conceded in the second half was saved by keeper Boaz Myhill, but one such near-miss isn’t enough to damn the entire system.

United were not exactly disorganized in their offensive approach so much as they were increasingly desperate to score, especially in the concluding minutes of the game after Van Persie’s penalty was saved. By the time the whistle blew United had precisely one nominal defender on the field in Chris Smaling. The rest of the team anxiously pushed forward, failed to find much space and looking for any pass into the box rather than the best pass. This, in a strange way, is precisely the game Pulis hoped United would play. It’s a game he knows how to win. How then could have United not played into Pulis’ plans?

It’s not a coincidence that United’s three match losing streak came after Michael Carrick succumbed to injury. Unlike the rest of the midfielders United fielded Saturday, Carrick is not known for his goals, his dribbling, or his aerial threat. Instead, his talent is metronomic distribution. Sitting deep in midfield just in front of defense, he receives and passes the ball with a calmness and efficiency that many other current United players lack. He regular records passing rates of over 90%, and though these passes are often simple lay offs to fullbacks or his fellow midfielders, they were crucial to United’s success in their six-match unbeaten run. Many of the great teams in Europe field similar players. Think Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, Xabi Alonso at Bayern Munich, or Andrea Pirlo at Juventus. These are all sides that, like a suddenly potent United, could expect most sides they faced to sit deep and defend. Having a player like Carrick means that United’s attacks could begin deeper in midfield and thus are less likely to be thwarted by an opposition’s tightly packed defense. Carrick’s long balls in particular are effective in stretching the opposition, opening up space for United’s more attack-minded players to exploit.

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  • Without Carrick, United have looked about as effective as an American football team playing without a quarterback. Ander Herrera or Daley Blind have attempted to take Carrick’s place to little effect. Neither player is Carrick’s exact analogue in that role and both often find themselves higher up the pitch, anxious to participate in the all-too-easily-blunted forward press. This enthusiasm has hurt them in their recent losses to Chelsea, Everton and West Brom. It’s simply not enough to fervently attack when the opposition is content not to do the same. An organized defense can only be countered by an organized offense, one meticulously and patient built from the back by players like Carrick. A fist is only as strong as the spine the arm is leveraging against. Without any semblance of a deeper midfield, United are without that spine.

    A mere four points separate United from Liverpool and the possibility of dropping out of the Champions League spots. With a season-concluding run in against Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Hull, United will need to be able to bring Carrick’s talents to bear. Crystal Palace and Hull City are all too eager to mimic West Brom’s success against United and have the tools to do it. Even Arsene Wenger has added a bit of pragmatic defending to his repertoire this season. Without Carrick or another radical change to their tactical approach, United might continue to play victim of their own offensive zeal.