Aspect analysis: Man Utd’s diagonal attack vs West Ham
For much of the early stages of this season I have been unable to write for various reasons. During that time there were a number of interesting games and impressive performances. In this series I will analyse aspects of some of these matches.
Throughout the game there were a number of aspects of United’s attack that appear to hint at a long-term strategy, some of which are consistent with Mourinho’s general approach to offensive play.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the attack was the narrow positioning of the wingers; Rashford and Mata. This was particularly striking because asymmetry has been a feature of United’s wing attacks for the last few seasons. Whilst Valencia (being a former winger) can patrol the right flank largely on his own, United have lacked a left-back with the same capacity. As such, United’s right wingers (often Mata) have often played narrow, on the left side however the wingers typically display a more conventional interpretation of the role.
In this game however, both wingers spent most of the game in central areas. When combined with Mkhitaryan and Lukaku, United had large presence in the space behind West Ham’s midfield line.
Another visible aspect was the approach to space, the dynamic approach to finding space is a common factor in a typical Mourinho attack. In dynamic space occupation, as the name suggests, movement is the tool used to create the conditions for dangerous attacks. Attackers are given positions, but a high level of freedom to move away from it as they see fit. The three attacking midfielders in particular would often move out of their nominal positions and closer to the ball, creating more options to move the ball at speed.
Whether it was an intended tactical decision, or simply a continuation of the general attacking strategy, United’s dynamic attack created favourable situations as it interacted with the man-oriented nature of West Ham’s defending.
One of the features of dynamic space occupation is “unbalanced” attacking structures. (this isn’t a criticism, merely a description) Unbalanced here meaning that the positions of the team can often become asymmetric, and appear chaotic at times due to the constant movement. Due to the freedom to move out of position, moments of weak co-ordination between attackers can lead to them moving into the same space.
For coaches that use this approach this isn’t a problem, in fact the moments of unbalanced structures create problems for the opponents who must either defend with an underload in particular areas, or create unbalanced defensive structures in response. Furthermore, these moments of unbalanced structures create the potential for quick combinations due to the number of players around the ball. The unpredictable nature of resulting attacks is the main advantage of the dynamic space occupation approach.
With quick combinations in small areas, often one wing or half space, United could easily retain the ball in offensive areas. This gradually baited West Ham defenders out of position to press. When pressure arrived, one or two United attackers would move away from the group combination. This movement would either allow Mourinho’s side to break through in the surrounding area, or open the route to larger spaces which West Ham left in order to press. More on this later.
Interestingly, the positional freedom often creates a natural focus on particular areas of the field as the qualities, and intuitive styles of the players interact. In this game, United displayed quite a heavy offensive focus on the left half space, likely due to the preference of Pogba, Matic and Mkhitaryan to act in this part of the field.
For much of the game, diagonal movements were central to United’s approach to break down West Ham’s defensive block. One type of diagonal run the Old Trafford side often used was an inside to outside movement from the wingers. Whilst the wingers started in narrow positions, when the full-back on their side had the ball, they would often run into depth slightly towards the touchline. Zabaleta and Masuaku often followed Rashford and Mata into more central positions, as such there was often large space in depth and width for the United wingers to run into.
With these movements United could reach strong crossing positions when Blind or Valencia managed to play the wingers through successfully. However, if these runs were tracked well, space would be opened further infield for the full-back to dribble or pass into. This potential to move into the open half space was largely under-utilised by the home side in this game.
On a number of occasions Mata made diagonal runs from the right half space to the left one whilst United developed the attacks from deep on the left. This movement was particularly dangerous when West Ham lacked access to the ball in front of their defensive line, and such situations led to dangerous breakthroughs for the red devils.
There were a number of reasons behind the success of the diminutive Spaniard’s diagonal movements. One of these was the difficulties in tracking such extreme movements for a man-oriented defence. In moving from the right half space to the left, Mata’s movement was in line with the concept of “vacating position” which I analysed as part of my theory article on dismarking.
The movements required from Masuaku to track Mata would create a heavily unbalanced defensive structure, and open large space on the right which Valencia could attack. The alternative, was to pass him on to one of the defenders on the left side. At times this could create issues if they already had opponents to mark. However, if they were free they would have a dilemma of whether to hold their position, press the ball in front of them, or track the run.
Even a decision to track the run would create an issue since Mata would have a significant dynamic advantage by the time he reached the left half space, meaning the likes of Reid would immediately be at a disadvantage.
Another factor in the impressive performance of the Mancunian outfit was the ability to create chances on the counter attack as well as through longer possession phases. In fact it was through one of these counter attacks that the red devils took the lead. Interestingly, a number of characteristics from the positional attacks were also evident in the counter attacks.
United’s approach to counter attacks relied on direct dribbles to advance the ball with speed, avoiding low percentage forward balls. As soon as a United player had clear space ahead of them, they would dribble as far forwards until they were confronted by an opponent.
Whilst the ball carrier dribbled, nearby attackers would run into depth, interestingly the direction of their runs differed depending on the position and direction of the dribble. When the ball carrier dribbled from the wing/half space towards the centre, United would have one runner moving in the opposite direction. These diagonal runs worked in a similar way to Mata’s as described above when United had a linear runner in the far half space.
The presence of the diagonal runner (often Lukaku or Rashford) would make the West Ham defenders retreat initially, reducing their access to the dribbler and allowing him to reach dangerous areas before being pressed. Once a West Ham defender moved out to press the dribble, the diagonal runner could create the option to breakthrough into the space left by the presser. Alternately, his movement would open the switch to the far half space if the far side West Ham defender followed the diagonal run. One of these situations led to Lukaku’s opening goal.
In the lead up to the opening goal, Lukaku’s initial movement when Rashford won the ball, was away from the ball towards the right half space. This adjustment was important in allowing the Belgian to make the subsequent diagonal run towards goal, rather than too far towards the touchline.
When the initial dribble went through a more central area, the diagonal runs would be made by the wingers. A similar principle in not releasing the ball until the dribbler is confronted, was also evident during these counter attacks. This created a very simple and efficient way of gaining space, and profiting regardless of the decisions made by the opponents.
Central dominance as West Ham switch to 4-4-2
Later in the game, as the London side sought a way back into the game, they moved from their 4-1-4-1 to a 4-4-2 with Sakho supporting Chicharito in attack. Perhaps partly due to fatigue, and partly due to the idea of remaining high up the field to secure long balls, the West Ham strikers rarely worked back to support their midfield. This combined with Arnautovic and Ayew’s focus on marking United’s full-backs left West Ham understaffed in central areas.
In addition, to the Matic-Fellaini-Pogba axis, Martial and Mkhitaryan/Lingard moved so far infield into positions that the West Ham full-backs weren’t comfortable following. This created huge overload situations for Mourinho’s men. At 2-0 down, West Ham couldn’t afford to defend passively, this combined with the central underload created huge problems leading to United doubling their lead.
As described by MR, closing passing options is a vital pre-requisite to create pressure on the ball, and constrain the options of the ball carrier. If the player on the ball has options to pass the ball, opponents running towards him will have little effect asides from opening more space for the next player on the ball. From the defensive side’s perspective, if the first presser leaves options open for the ball carrier, the supporting defenders cannot move out of position early enough to create pressure on the next receiver, because they cannot be sure where the ball will move. This creates the chain reaction that MR refers to.
Due to the heavy underload, West Ham were naturally unable to close passing options. However, they still attempted to create pressure on the ball, but could only move out to press after each pass. In their attempts to cope with the underload in the centre, West Ham would often commit their central defenders higher to support the press. This succeeded only in opening further space for United to attack in depth, and was a feature of United’s third and fourth goals.
This was a very impressive start to the season from Mourinho’s side. The structural changes from last season appear to create more fitting roles for players like Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Mata who are the vital creative hub of the team. Lukaku’s directness creates new potential for counter attacks, whilst Rashford and Martial offer varied qualities which could be useful against different opponents, giving the team tactical variability. Whilst United have since shown their improvement in similar games, it will be interesting to see if Mourinho’s approach to games against fellow top 6 opponents will also change.