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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 4-0 West Ham | Fluidity and exploitation

Ryan Quinn writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League game that finished Manchester United 4-0 West Ham

Following the signings of Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku, and Nemanja Matic (totalling over £160m), the problems that Manchester United faced during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign as manager, including the inability to frequently hit the back of the net, seem much less likely to reappear this time around.

Manchester United’s 2017-18 Premier League season began with an impressive 4-0 victory over West Ham United. Though the away side provided very little in an offensive regard, this should not detract from how well Mourinho’s side performed and functioned within a counter-attacking system, particularly during the second-half.

Fluidity in shape across all thirds, which enabled central overloads

Manchester United’s use of a 4-2-3-1 formation enabled quick counter-attacks in transition from defence to attack, but what it also allowed for relatively, was for fluidity in shape, particularly with possession of the ball.

Behind Romelu Lukaku, who was positioned as the central striker, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford occupied the attacking midfield/forward roles. The following players were heavily influential in build/link-up play, as each were given licence to swap positions and move into different areas across the final-third.

West Ham United, who deployed a 4-3-3 formation, aimed to press Manchester United’s midfield via their midfield trident. However, they failed in closing down passing lanes due to central overloads, which were enabled by the fluidity within United’s shape. Central overloads occurred through Mata and Rashford tucking inside, with the defenders as well as the double pivot of Pogba, and Matic occupying positions higher up field. With the opposition’s second and third phases of press forced further back, Mourinho’s side had more space to move into to ignite passes to meet runs.

The above diagrams depict a key chance, which Juan Mata was unlucky not to convert (26 mins); Mata exploited West Ham’s rigid, but poor defensive line through movement within the centre. The overload, which resulted in a 4v4, brought the best out of Paul Pogba. Pogba, who boasts an excellent combination of vision and invention executed an acute lob pass for Mata who made a perfectly timed run between the lines. Perhaps Mata was acting as a decoy to create further space for Lukaku.

The floating of Mata, Mkhitaryan and Rashford in central areas also created an outlet in the form of Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind.

Exploration and exploitation of wide spaces

Full-backs Antonio Valencia (right) and Daley Blind (left) benefited from Manchester United’s high lines; as this created space on both wings. Valencia and Blind were the true providers of width, and acted as alternative passing routes if West Ham’s press proved effective.

The use of wide spaces benefited Manchester United’s counter-attacking moves, with Rashford particularly flourishing. During the second-half, Rashford enjoyed more possession and influenced the game much more. The youngster’s direct ball-carrying had a similar effect to overloading central areas as it forced the last phase deeper into the final third, with a notable example being the dribble which led to a foul by right-back and marker Pablo Zabaleta, which in turn led to United’s second goal.

Generally, the pace of both Rashford and Lukaku is very well suited to counter-attacking during transitions.

Goals analysis

Poor decision making from Pedro Obiang was taken advantage of by Nemanja Matic and his excellent reading of the game. Obiang’s lack of awareness when attempting a horizontal pass was closed down well by Matic, whose interception was a perfect illustration of his good awareness and timing.

Matic passes to Rashford who dribbles into space, which again forces the defence back. Questionable distancing between West Ham United’s centre-backs allows the on-running Lukaku to evade the defensive line and the Belgian meets Rashford’s pass to finish well. Though Rashford played the right pass in assisting Lukaku, Matic and Mkhitaryan offered overlaps on either side, which added numerical superiority to the attack. This could be seen as unusual to most in regards to Matic, who covered an excellent amount of ground throughout the game.

Nemanja Matic’s impact with and without possession

Mourinho’s third signing of the summer proved to make the ultimate difference between Manchester United and West Ham, showing exactly why the securing of his services is a massive coup.

How Antonio Conte came to the conclusion to sell Nemanja Matic was indeed thinkable, and honestly still confuses me greatly. Matic’s ability to anticipate the direction of passes and when to intercept was evident in the passage that led to the home side’s first goal. Matic also meets Mourinho’s desires from a defensive midfield player, as he offers competency within various formations, physicality and comfort in possession.

Continuing, Matic showcased great ball retention, which created space for teammates in other areas. The midfielder would take few touches in possession, opting for a first-time pass into space, which progressed possession at a quicker tempo, unless he was carrying possession. For example, Matic took on four opponents on the right-side of midfield in order to retain possession, attract the press and create space elsewhere. This is could be considered, dribbling with reason. Matic’s mazy run, which was pleasing on the eye saw the Serbian evade West Ham’s second phase. This was very rarely seen when playing for Chelsea.

While connecting defence to attack in build-up and when transitioning from defence to attack, Matic boasted excellent vision. Matic sprayed passes across the centre and in wide spaces (he made a total of 59 passes) linking well with Daley Blind and Marcus Rashford on the left wing during counter-attacks, as well as midfield partner Paul Pogba.

The second diagram depicts how Manchester United were able to also form overloads on the left-side (6v4).

Paul Pogba perhaps has benefited most from the signing of Matic. Matic’s ability to cover ground when protecting the back four gave Pogba more freedom to venture forward and create chances.

West Ham were unable to be aggressive with their play, in the knowledge that Manchester United would outnumber the Hammers and penetrate space on the counter-attack. As already mentioned, Rashford’s direct run on the counter following a West Ham attack forced the opposing press back and a foul , which led to the second goal.

Lukaku converted his second goal with ease, heading from a Mkhitaryan set-piece. Lukaku’s physicality will encourage Manchester United to attempt to score more goals from long-distance set-pieces, which entice crosses into key areas. This can be linked to the collection of summer signings, as Manchester United’s starting XI showcased an impressive mix of physique and technique.

In spite of this well-earned result, what does it mean for Ander Herrera’s role in the starting XI this season? Herrera was one of, if not, Manchester United’s most improved player last season. Though reactionary thinking would suggest less game time will be played by Herrera, a 4-3-3, a matter of when, not if deployed, would demand Herrera to play. Mourinho, in my opinion, will also call up Herrera in the “bigger games”, opting for an extra centre-midfielder.

The substitution of Anthony Martial was a positive sign, bearing in mind the ambiguous transfer speculation that has bothered supporters throughout the summer. Martial drifted inwards to meet a pass conjured up by a combination between Pogba and Mkhitaryan and calmly finished the chance with only the ‘keeper to beat. It will be interesting to see who will occupy the left wing for Manchester United this season.

Paul Pogba was given further licence to move forward by the presence of Matic, and continued to do so following the substitution of Marouane Fellaini for Juan Mata. The formation was now a 4-3-3, and Pogba moved into central areas, making use of space left vacant by West Ham’s poor press.

Once again, Paul Pogba was at the heart of build-up play. Pogba was positioned behind Lukaku, and was given space to carry possession. West Ham’s deep-block gave Pogba permission to shoot from range and the Frenchman delivered.


It is required of Manchester United to finish off games and not allow the opposing team back into the game. This means a higher conversion rate is a necessity. If consistency is maintained, Manchester United could enjoy a superb 2017-18 season.

Read all our tactical analyses here

Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn is an aspiring writer with a keen interest in the tactical and historical sides of the game. An admirer of attacking football and tactics in general.

Visit Ryan Quinn's own website:
Ryan Quinn

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