Manchester United – Real Sociedad: Controversial Call Favours The Bold Basques (0-1)

The high flying Red Devils have made their way out of purgatory, but their progress has hit a snag in the road. Real Sociedad were more than a match for the hosts due to a mature buildup phase and a hybrid block, but it was fortune that favored their bravery to separate the sides.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

What a difference a month can make. Manchester United lost their first two Premier League games in August, scoring once and shipping six. The ensuing hysteria has not fazed Erik ten Hag, whose men have won their last four fixtures, now sitting three points adrift of the summit in fifth place. Moreover, ending Arsenal’s flawless streak of results in a contest that harked back to the glory days when both outfits were competent, they are slowly bringing back belief in a possible return to the promised land.

Real Sociedad are content for such ambitions to go amiss, focusing on youth. On the one hand, they invariably run into a ceiling. The club has not gotten over the line to end up in the top four for nine years. On the other hand, they retain highly consistent outcomes that do not cripple resources. Indeed, once academy product Imanol Alguacil, whose guidance has yielded three Europa League campaigns in a row and a triumph in the Copa del Rey final since 2019, is a testament to the fruits of this process.

The work in the summer transfer window has afforded ten Hag the license to rotate. He duly made six alterations to the starting eleven he fielded against Arsenal. Raphaël Varane, lately a figure of fragile health, and Lisandro Martínez dropped to the bench. Therefore, Harry Maguire took back the captain’s armband. He sat next to Victor Lindelöf at the heart of defense to restore an old partnership. Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro, and Fred, the others of the four active substitutes from last time out, started too.

Off the back of a hard fought 1-1 draw with Atlético Madrid, Alguacil introduced four pairs of fresh legs. Half of those were in the center of the back four. Robin Le Normand and Igor Zubeldia made way for Jon Pacheco and Aritz Elustondo. At the opposite end of the field are the shoes of Alexander Isak, the main summer exit for a fee of 68 million euros to fill. Two summer signings replaced two more: Takefusa Kubo and Umar Sadiq were in; Mohamed-Ali Cho and Alexander Sorløth were out.

Fred fulfills an unexpected role

Ten Hag’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation came with a twist in midfield. In the absence of Bruno Fernandes, many would have thought Christian Eriksen should take on his duty in the number ten role. But he was to the left of Casemiro in the double pivot. Hence, Fred operated as the highest midfielder off the ball. Given the demand for more intensity from the manager, Fred’s aggression and work rate were of value. In any case, the guests’ possession spells were a thorough test for United’s defensive scheme.

11th minute: pressing sequence from Manchester United. Fred’s pressure on the goalkeeper forces a wide pass to Andoni Gorosabel. Antony’s deeper position allows him to create a loose diamond in midfield of him, Casemiro, Fred and Eriksen, matching Sociedad. Tyrell Malacia and Lindelöf cover 2-on-2 on the flank, while Maguire can step out to Silva and help Casemiro as Diogo Dalot is narrow.

From the final weeks of last season, Alguacil has mainly sought to adopt a 4-4-2 diamond structure. Such a shape lets him place his players within a natural home in the center of the pitch. David Silva likes to sprinkle his creative inspiration in the halfspaces, roaming round from the tip of the diamond. Brais Méndez tended to drift into central pockets from the flank at Celta Vigo, and Mikel Merino, the deeper of the two central midfielders, supported the Spanish youth international Martín Zubimendi.

Sociedad’s system upholds attractive principles

This quartet brought a mix of creative passing, tight ball control, and resistance to pressure in tight spaces. Their poise in the first two thirds of the field on the ball impressed on the night. Álex Remiro was an active participant in the buildup phase. He and the central defenders could lure out one of the wingers too closely to the ball, then drop switches to the feet of a fullback. Zubimendi smartly moved at the base of the midfield to get free, especially if Fred opted to press next to Ronaldo in a front two.

The midfielders made a variety of moves to shake off any markers. If Merino pushed higher through the halfspace, the central overload could force the home team to concede progression to Aihen Muñoz on the left flank. Silva could also dwell deeper to form a midfield box and support progression. Here, the central defenders were to break the lines thanks to teammates’ timely overloading of the pivot.

15th minute: combination sequence from Sociedad. Elustondo drives forward, initiating movement in midfield. Note Malacia does not follow Kubo since United do not defend strictly man-to-man but in zones. So, the forward can briefly overload the zone of Eriksen, whose focus is on Méndez. Lindelöf jumps to track Kubo, whose prior scan prompts a layoff pass into Silva’s path while Sadiq runs deep.

Zubimendi plugs the gaps

This spark flamed out in the final third, creating their first chance just short of the half hour mark. But United struggled to fashion out many shots due to their visitors’ setup off the ball. Alguacil’s men lined up with a 4-4-2 diamond block in this part of the contest. Silva or one out of Merino and Méndez could help the forwards apply pressure that tended to guide the ball circulation outward.

Behind him, Zubimendi took on a complex task. Not only did he seek to cut out central routes of progression in front of the defense, but he also filled gaps in the back four. This function as a stopper, marking Fred’s advances if it were necessary, was plain to see once a fullback shifted to close down one of United’s wingers and the central defender to his inside pushed outward to cover. The Basques were impressive conceptually, but a state of stalemate kept a hold on affairs until half time.

9th minute: defensive sequence from Sociedad. The visitors retreat from a high press. Elustondo shifts right to offer inside cover for Gorosabel against Elanga. Mendéz runs diagonally towards Malacia, who cannot access Eriksen. Fred eventually drops off to offer, but Zubimendi aptly turns over the ball.

Lady luck deserts the hosts

The guests kept on probing after the break. In the 56th minute, a nifty ball carry from Kubo on the left flank forced Martínez to make a critical intervention, sliding to steer the ball away from substitute Sorløth to deny a surefire goal. At the heart of the action from the consequent corner, he blocked a strike from Silva in the box. The ball hit his arm via his right knee, prompting the referee to award a penalty. To the despair of most of Old Trafford, this matter of fact seemed to elude VAR as well.

Mendéz hammered home from twelve yards to hand the visitors the lead. Having already sent on Fernandes at the start of the second half, ten Hag turned to his bench again. Sancho and Alejandro Sancho entered the fray as the wingers, then Charlie McNeill, a central forward, made his debut, swapping in for Malacia. It was all to no avail. Sociedad barely generated any efforts in the last third of the match, but their block stayed firm within their half of the field to hold onto all three points.


Sociedad might find the giants of LaLiga a wall too high to scale, but this victory is yet another credit to the work of Alguacil. He alluded to the luck needed to secure such results, not least in a duel where chances for the Basques were few and far between. Yet, their maturity in the buildup phase reflects the constancy of their identity despite the squad’s evolution. Making a perfect start to the campaign in a competition where their presence is the norm, a lengthy run would cap Alguacil’s stint in the dugout.

Manchester United will begrudge the manner of the defeat in a contest that was a reminder of where they have come from and to what they will aspire. They faced a team whose skill on the ball exploited flaws in their setup but are adapting to the rules of a new system. Furthermore, the compactness and intensity of their block have set a solid basis for work off the ball. On the other side of the play, their dominance will require time to take flight. But the pieces are slowly coming together under ten Hag.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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