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Tactics Board: Rashford and Greenwood fail to capitalise as Rangnick restores width

Man United came away with a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa in the FA Cup last night, but they were fortunate to do so.

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THERE WERE NO ‘B teams’ on show at Old Trafford on Monday night, as Manchester United and Aston Villa lined up with sides that were as close to full strength as possible.

As both managers tweaked their sides tactically, we were treated to an end-to-end first half as the two set-ups capitalised on their strengths but struggled to deal with their deficiencies.

Rangnick restores width but Rashford and Greenwood fail to capitalise

manchester-uniteds-mason-greenwood-left-and-aston-villas-matty-cash-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-emirates-fa-cup-third-round-match-at-old-trafford-manchester-picture-date-monday-january-10-2 Mason Greenwood and Villa defender Matty Cash. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Recent games have seen Ralf Rangnick move slowly away from his preferred 4-2-2-2 formation.

Against Wolves, he started with a slightly altered version of it before abandoning it completely at half-time.

Prior to that, in their game against Burnley, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood started centrally but regularly drifted out wide, often making the shape look like a straightforward 4-4-2.

Against Villa though, there was no hybrid version in sight as his side lined out in a rigid 4-2-3-1, featuring two touchline-hugging wingers in Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

In terms of chance creation, it certainly worked for the first 45 minutes, with United going in at half-time one-nil up, having created 1.21 on the xG chart.

Below, we can see their attacking set-up. Fred and Scott McTominay are the centre mid pairing, with Bruno Fernandes playing just in behind Edinson Cavani in front of them.

But it’s the positions of Greenwood, and in particular Rashford on this occasion, that is the biggest departure from what we had been seeing previously.

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This ultra-wide starting position allows Rashford to receive the ball in a 1 v 1 situation with Matty Cash.

Both he and Greenwood continually took the decision to make inverted runs when in these situations, forgoing the option to use their pace by taking them on down the outside before looking to square the ball.

This was the primary difference in how Rangnick looked to use his wide attackers in comparison to the instruction that Pep Guardiola gives his wingers.

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Rashford jinks inside no less than three times before eventually opting to shoot directly at Douglas Luiz when a pass to his fellow winger Greenwood looked to be the better option.

This wouldn’t be the only time that these two team-mates would frustrate each other.

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Steven Gerrard’s decision to line his side out in a 4-4-2 diamond shape was brave and paid dividends from an attacking perspective, as we’ll highlight later, but it also gave his team defensive issues in terms of trying to deal with United’s wingers.

Here we can see how central the diamond is as McTominay again fires a ball out wide to Rashford.

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United’s full-backs would then look to make support runs that pulled the covering Villa player away with them, thus freeing up the inside channel space for the winger to drive into.

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On this occasion, Rashford’s shot-cum-cross met the head of Cavani but the power in it proved too strong for the Uruguayan to direct goalward.

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Down the right-hand side, much the same was happening. Here we see Diogo Dalot play a pass outside to Greenwood before making a run to again take the covering player away.

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This again underlines the defensive issue with Villa’s narrow shape.

The second most played pass by United in this game was Dalot to Greenwood (13) while the fourth most frequent was Shaw to Rashford (11), highlighting just how easy it was for these two players to get on the ball.

Here we see Greenwood leave Matt Targett for dead before opting to continue with his dribble rather than pulling the trigger. That gives Tyrone Mings an opportunity to get across and make the covering tackle.

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This was the one rare occasion when Greenwood didn’t opt to shoot. He would go on to have five attempts in total, four of which were on target.

His three second half efforts were remarkably similar in appearance. Each time he would receive the ball wide before driving inside and shooting from just outside the corner of the 18-yard box. Memories of Arjen Robben spring to mind.

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All three efforts were reasonably comfortably saved by Emi Martinez. But this is not to say that Greenwood is not a good finisher from this area.

Rather it seemed to be that, luckily for Aston Villa, he was having somewhat of an off-day from that range. On another night you could reasonably have expected him to hit the back of the net with at least one of these efforts.

The two most notable phases of play featuring Rashford and Greenwood would also turn out to be extremely similar in appearance.

In injury-time in the first half, a clever throw from Dalot was volleyed over the top first time by Fernandes. Rashford and Greenwood, on opposite flanks this time for some reason, were again both positioned high and wide.

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Rashford raced through and appeared to have two opportunities in which he could play the ball across to create a fantastic opening for the unmarked Greenwood.

What is also clear from the second image below is that had the two players not switched sides, then
the left-footed Greenwood would surely have been better equipped to finish into the far corner.

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But Rashford continued with his run allowing Cash to get back on the line just as he eventually released the ball. Whether he was shooting or finally passing to Greenwood is your guess but either way the opportunity had been spurred.

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Twenty-eight minutes into the second half and we were on repeat, but this time the roles were reversed. Again it was Fernandes volley over the top from a Dalot throw on the right, this time setting Greenwood away.

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Cash’s covering position was slightly better on this occasion and denied Greenwood the opportunity for an early pass but as he entered the box the pass did become an option, and Rashford, with an arm in the air, was letting him know it.

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But this time it was Greenwood, who was at least coming in onto his stronger foot, who decided to go it alone, forcing Martinez to make a good save.

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Rashford’s unwillingness to follow up the rebound, as Martinez and Mings bundled into each other, was baffling. It looked for all the world as though he was sulking because Greenwood hadn’t passed him the ball.

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Gerrard’s diamond shape shows promise

Gerrard’s decision to go with a 4-4-2 diamond added an extra layer of tactical interest to this game. It’s worth noting that he may well have been expecting to come up against a 4-2-2-2 when deciding upon his own sides shape.

Aside from the nautical formation, the early evidence that his side intended to try and play out from the back, despite the application of considerable pressure by United, was also intriguing.

Below we see Ezri Konsa’s option having received a short kick-out from Martinez.

Midfielders Aaron Ramsey, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn all offer themselves as options in the first third of the field as United look to press with five bodies.

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Konsa opts to play a pass in to an under-pressure McGinn, who confidently bounces it out the other side to Mings who has a bit of room.

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After a couple more passes, and with United now pressing on his side of the pitch, Mings looks as though he may be boxed in. But the England centre-back confidently clips the ball over the pressure to the diamond’s front man Emi Buendia.

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From here Buendia does really well, setting the ball back before drifting in behind the United midfield to find himself in lots of space between the lines.

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By the time he picks up the pass from McGinn, Villa have already completed ten passes inside their own half to get out. Buendia then goes on a scintillating solo run that takes him deep into the United box before he shoots narrowly wide.

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Ings, at the back post, will be disappointed not to have anticipated the opportunity for a tap in earlier.

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Buendia, given his position in the shape, needs to be the key man for Villa and he continued to show flashes of the ability he possesses.

Below we see him start his side’s next attack by contributing defensively first, helping out Cash in a wide area. Because Villa have two players up, they are quickly able to launch a counter attack on the turn over.

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United do well to get bodies back and Villa now have to play through them. This is when Buendia’s intelligence is most crucial.

He initially shows for the ball in front of the United midfield but following a few more passes he spots the opportunity to make a third-man run in behind and link with Ollie Watkins.

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Their little combination play is clever and Buendia forces a good save from David De Gea.

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Watkins and Buendia seem to have a good understanding, finding each other on ten occasions during the game. In comparison, Buendia only linked up with Ings three times.

The other advantage to playing with two up is that it also allowed Villa to be more direct when required. Below, we see Mings forced into a clearance following a mix-up between himself and Targett.

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With two players over the halfway line, it gives a team the opportunity to chase hopeless causes, and that’s exactly what Watkins decides to do.

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Latching onto Victor Lindelof’s mistake, he does really well to cut back inside the defender and is unfortunate to see his effort come back off the crossbar.

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Conclusion

Unfortunately, after an exciting first half, the second failed to live up to the same standards and United ran out one-nil winners.

United’s best chances of the half were the Greenwood opportunities highlighted above. Villa, with Buendia tiring as the game went on, didn’t show the same attacking impetus after the break.

But they were denied an Ings goal from a set-piece due to a dubious overruling by the referee following a view of his pitchside monitor.

Rangnick introduced Donny van de Beek for Cavani on 72 minutes and his post-match comments shed some light on the challenges he faces in trying to get the balance right.

“From the very moment when we changed to a diamond in the last 20 minutes, when Donny came on, from then on we controlled the game, we had our counter-attack situations.”

But it’s not so easy to control the centre of the pitch and at the same time have our wing players involved and play with at least one central striker.”

“In the end we decided to take off Edi (Cavani) and had a diamond in midfield and have two fast wingers as the only strikers on the pitch.”

Is Rangnick considering stealing a move from the Gerrard playbook and bringing in a 4-4-2 diamond of his own?

- Originally published at 5:17pm

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