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Tactics Board – United put Villa under pressure

Tactics Board

After a struggling 1-0 win over the Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, Manchester United travelled to Villa Park for a rare Friday night match against Aston Villa.

Villa fought out a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, with Tim Sherwood playing a more aggressive brand of football but they rarely bothered United, as they notched up a second consecutive win.

Louis Van Gaal’s men were hardly entertaining and some tactical patterns are beginning to emerge yet again.

United came out with one change from the line-up against the Spurs. The backline remained the same, with Sergio Romero in goal, Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw on the flanks and Chris Smalling partnering Daley Blind as centre-back. The central midfield pairing was also unchanged, with Michael Carrick alongside Morgan Schneiderlin. The one change was Ashley Young being dropped to the bench, and Adnan Januzaj coming into the side behind Wayne Rooney. Memphis moved out to his preferred left wing role, while Juan Mata was deployed on the right.



The Starting Lineup for Aston Villa vs Manchester United



  • United continue to excel defensively
  • Both Agbonlahor and Ayew offered very similar attributes up front, with considerable pace but little physicality or hold-up play, failing to trouble United’s centre-backs
  • Villa started well, making it difficult for United to play the ball out of the back due to the work-rate of their forwards, but after 15-20 minutes they stopped defending with the same intensity
  • Memphis looked more dangerous on the left, while Mata drifted across the pitch.
  • Schneiderlin got forward more than the previous game, providing more connection between the defence and attack.

Early Struggles

Manchester United started the game with Adnan Januzaj lined up as the number 10 behind Wayne Rooney. With the ball, Januzaj looked to play close to Rooney and work as a secondary striker. Early on in the game, Aston Villa caused United to struggle in the build-up. Both Agbonlahor and Ayew dropped deep to prevent Manchester United from passing into their midfielders. This frustrated United’s efforts to play out of the back and they were reduced to playing hopeful long balls forward that Aston Villa were able to sweep up fairly easily.

When United were able to get the ball into the midfield, Aston Villa made a point of denying any space for Januzaj in the middle of the pitch. The nearest player to Januzaj immediately pressured him whenever he got on the ball, ensuring that the young Belgian was unable to turn with the ball and play the ball forward.

This plan worked well for the Villains for the first 15 minutes, but then Villa tried to press United’s backline, and this opened up passing options. Aston Villa’s pressing was inefficient, and poorly coordinated. United were almost always left with an open man to relieve the press.

Against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United’s attack and defense was disconnected as both Schneiderlin and Carrick dropped deep to get on the ball, and Memphis stayed high up the pitch near Rooney. In this game, Schneiderlin did a much better job getting forward. He made several adventurous runs forward that linked the play better, and cause overloads for the Villa’s back line.

Schneiderlin heat

With Villa’s sloppy pressing, when the ball was played into Carrick or Schneiderlin, one of Aston Villa’s central midfielders stepped forward to apply pressure. This opened up space between the lines in the middle of the pitch. While Januzaj didn’t take advantage of this space, as he was normally further up the pitch to assist Wayne Rooney, Mata was able to get more into the game as he drifted across from his position on the right side of the pitch.

Juan Mata looked more suited to playing in the number 10 position, with his natural ability to find space. Additionally, he’s the type of needle player who looked a better fit in the middle of the pitch as opposed to Memphis. Juan Mata has the control and calmness to receive the ball in tight spaces, and play the ball forward quickly with the type of defense splitting passes that he demonstrated in the 29th minute to play in Januzaj for the only goal of the game. Memphis, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same close control ability as Mata, and he is at his best dribbling at speed at defenders. In the middle of the pitch, he struggles to find open pockets of space. Another problem is that he doesn’t get near enough opportunities to run with the ball at defenses, therefore ignoring one of his best attributes.

Mata Through-balls

Mata through-balls

United’s new-found defensive solidity

One of the biggest improvements United have shown in the first two games this season has been in terms of defensive solidity, despite concerns over Daley Blind being deployed as centre-back, given his lack of pace and height.  While the advantage of his passing ability in United’s back line is fairly obvious, he has also played well defensively, although the real key has been United’s compact shape when they’ve operated without the ball and their coordination when pressing up the pitch.

Manchester United's pressing in the 16th minute

Manchester United’s pressing in the 16th minute

United have so far adopted a high line, and their pressure works best when they force the opponent out towards the touchline. When Villa’s centre-backs were in possession, Rooney and Januzaj pressed high almost immediately prevent the ball from going into the midfield, with Rooney angling his run as the ball moved to prevent an easy pass back , while the near-side winger closes off the fullback.

Januzaj and Schneiderlin were also excellent at eliminating the options of an easy pass towards the central midfielders, which meant Villa struggled against the pressure and were often left to try a long ball up the field.

United pressing

United pressing

The long ball strategy could have worked for Aston Villa, as both their forwards had great pace. However, instead of trying to play the ball behind the back line for Agbonlahor or Ayew to run onto, it was often directly straights towards them, which allowed United’s backline to enjoy a relatively trouble-free evening.

Villa offside

Aston Villa’s offside passes

What next for United?

United looked better in this game than against Spurs. Their defence has looked very solid in both games so far this season, pressing as a unit with good compactness both vertically and horizontally.

With the ball, they looked better as well, even though they failed to create many chances. Memphis will settle in his preferred role out wide, while Adnan Januzaj was effective through the middle. Things could, admittedly, be even better with Juan Mata in the number 10 role, although Januzaj played well enough and Van Gaal has hinted the Belgian will have more chances to prove himself. The weak spot so far has been Wayne Rooney, who has struggled to have an influence on the game. 

By Range Rooney (@RangeRooney)



  1. Cellinis

    August 18, 2015 at 6:37 am

    I agree with most of the points from this article, however, I would like to point at City vs Chelsea as a hallmark of what our team is capable of if we play Mata in the centre, Janujaz & Memphis on flanks and Rooney starts running behind the defense.

    I think playing a ‘second striker’ behind Rooney is a mistake. We need to play two proper widemen who run at fullbacks and stretch play as it will open up more space for the midfield runs of Schneiderlin as well.

  2. colver

    August 18, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Cellinis that would be logical-playing people in their natural positions. But LVG just does not get it.

    It should be obvious to play Mata as a central attacking midfielder and where a cruder approach is required Fellaini can also excel there. Both are quite static players and do not need much space to operate. Mata can play incisive througballs and Fellaini can provide knock ons and generally disrupt play and create space for other players.

    Januzaj and Memphis are pacey and good at dribbling and need space to operate so it is ludicrous to play them in the hole where they are deprived of space and can put the team in danger by losing the ball cheaply. Opposition teams know all they need to do is deprive Januzaj or Memphis of space and by doing so Rooney is automatically isolated and our attacking threat is almost completely nullified.

  3. bestie

    August 18, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    someone actually wrote a blog about United putting Villa under pressure? Have we stooped this low? It’s Villa for Christ’s sake. A side we’ve been beating for 100 years, and they sold their 2 best players this summer. And we still only managed 2 shots on goal. What I saw was literally nothing to write home about: I saw United playing with two defensive midfielders, passing the ball sideways and backwards (afraid of being a little more creative and attack-minded, lest we give the ball away to the attacking juggernaut that is Aston Villa), playing the ball very predictably too narrowly straight through the middle with nobody trying to stretch Villa’s defense by attacking down either flank, a striker with all the mobility and touch of a sack of bricks and a manager unwilling to take him out (how long would Falcao have lasted Friday?), our best creative midfielder wasting time as a fake right wing, and old Carrick jogging about aimlessly in the middle of the pitch –anyone notice how much more energetic Herrera was? I can see the argument for Schweinsteiger trying to fully regain fitness, but why isn’t Herrera starting every match? I agree with others comments that we should be playing with two wide players to stretch the defense, and I would also move Mata to a free-wheeling creative role. He doesn’t have the pace or ability to get past fullbacks on the wing, but he’s the best we have at finding players making runs either through the middle or out wide, and a good manager knows how to get the best out of his players –sort of like Chelsea are using Fabregas’ and City Silva’s skills

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