The Theatre of Dreams, but, after a worrying result against Crystal Palace it's not quite what it used to be.
Down the years Manchester United have had the best players, capable of producing moments of magic, while dominating games against the very best in the world. But, over the last few years the red side of Manchester has had a lot of underwhelming performances, just like yesterdays 2-1 home defeat to a Crystal Palace side with no goals in their first two games. Football is cyclical, big teams have a sustained period of winning, and then fall away. It has happened to Liverpool, Arsenal, Utd, and will happen to others in the future too.
What interests us is why Man Utd had this poor result yesterday, purely from a technical point of view. What are causing defeats like this and as technical football coaches we would love to share our thoughts and opinion on just why one of the biggest clubs in the world is having a tough time on the pitch.
All our thoughts are our own and the beauty with football is that it is a game of opinions. We share our beliefs on why Manchester Utd struggled yesterday and how the players could have performed with a technical and skill based focus, rather than tactical.
After two promising results (the draw at Wolves was an improvement on last year) there was a feeling that the team in red would dominate yesterdays game, most likely running out as comfortable winners. But, Crystal Palace had other plans, and deserve huge praise, setting themselves up as a solid defensive unit breaking on the counter attack. Roy Hodgson's side were very well organised, frustrating United by sitting deep and limiting space in behind their back four. As players and coaches we experience games where one side is very well organised, denying you or your players space on the ball. They can be very hard to break down and cause immense frustration to your team and this is exactly what we saw yesterday from Man Utd. After about thirty minutes in you could begin to hear the anxiety in the crowd.
Quite often we as coaches or players will look at the tactical side of the game, as to why a team lost, or won. In this situation though, I feel this is down to technical understanding and ability within the game.
The key area for Manchester United yesterday was midfield, with Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay as two central midfielders and Jesse Lingard playing as the number 10, looking to link the play between midfield and attack.
Utd dominated possession, but didn't put huge pressure on Palace, allowing them to sit deep and protect their goal. Build up play was slow with a lot of sideways passes that allowed the Crystal Palace players to organise themselves, protecting the goal and soaking up pressure.
This key midfield area of the pitch is where, in my mind, Manchester United lost. Central midfielders that come up against teams that sit back and defend need to be decisive, be quick on the ball and positive. Pogba and McTominay were too slow in their passing and not incisive, instead passing sideways, giving the Palace eleven the opportunity to protect their goal. Opportunities to switch play were lost with poor quality, allowing Palace to break and harm United on the counter attack. Switching play is key when a team is sitting deep, making sure that the ball is moving to create gaps in their defence is vital to unbalancing the opposition. United didn't do this enough yesterday, and when they did, the quality wasn't there.
If you're a midfielder looking to switch the play then make sure to be confident, don't try to hit the hollywood pass that will wow the crowds, play passes that are accurate and sharp, at the right time.
Take a look at this long passing tutorial below.
Different ranges of passes will help move the opposition around, but what is more important, especially against teams defending deep, is to play the ball forward with more tempo and speed. The one time that we saw United do this, from midfield, was when McTominay passed forwards into Martial for a quick one two into the box, drawing the foul for Rashford's missed penalty. This didn't happen enough, causing United to play sideways and slowly.
If you're a central midfielder we should aim to keep possession, but we also need to create, playing positive passes forward, into feet, with quick movement off the ball that will create opportunities, space, and imbalance in the oppositions defensive set up.
Playing with tempo against defensive players is key, too many touches, slow turns and movements on and off the ball bring predictability. United had too much of this yesterday and suffered as a result. Players who come up against situations like this need to change the pace of the game with a quick pass forward, switch of the play, or by committing defenders with a driving run into space.
Slowing the pace of the game down in these types of matches can allow the defensive team to reorganise and stifle you. Therefore, if you have the ball at your feet look to play quickly, develop quick feet and sharp turning skills with ball mastery, change the direction of attack and playing positively by passing forwards will give you better opportunities to get past well set up teams. Here is some ball mastery training that can help midfielders when they come up against opponents like Crystal Palace yesterday.
Manchester United didn't do this yesterday and the game, in our opinion, was lost in the midfield. If you're a midfielder then learn to take control of the game and practise your technical skills to take your performances to the next level. Being sharp and decisive is key to the midfield area of the pitch. Train with intensity and be sharp on the ball in every thing you do.
Thanks for taking the time to read our thoughts, we hope they're of use and we look forward to you joining us for our next technical review.