Real Sociedad – Manchester United: Bruno And Rashford Lead The Lightning Raid On La Real (0-4)
Real Sociedad have one of the best defenses in LaLiga, but their pressing and high defensive line was blown away by the speed of Manchester United’s counterattack. United dominated the first half hour with an unexpectedly well-executed pressing trap game plan. After their first goal, they stepped back, defended deeper, and picked off la Real on the counter.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Real Sociedad and their hometown of San Sebastián looked forward to participating in the Europa League knockout stages once again, after a few years away from European competition. However, things did not go their way even before this tie started. Due to coronavirus restrictions on entry to Spain, this first leg of the tie had to be played in Turin rather than San Sebastian, a decision that elicited much debate about how UEFA should handle these situations and brought in many complaints from la Real.
Against Manchester United, la Real set up with their usual possess-and-press 4-3-3 formation. The goal of Alex Remiro was defended by center-backs Igor Zubeldia and Robin Le Normand, with Joseba Zaldúa and Nacho Monreal as right and left backs respectively. La Real brought forth their strongest midfield trio in holding midfielder Asier Illarramendi, all-action number eight Mikel Merino, and a veteran David Silva. In the forward line, star attacker Mikel Oyarzabal and the creative Adnan Januzaj played alongside striker Alexander Isak.
Central defender and defensive leader Aritz Elustondo got injured during the warm-up to the game, so he had to be replaced by Robin Le Normand in the last minute. His absence would be deeply felt throughout this game.
On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape – in practice more of a 4-4-2 formation – with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær introducing a few rotations. Dean Henderson played between the posts instead of David de Gea. In central defense, Solskjær rested Victor Lindelöf and started Eric Bailly alongside Harry Maguire. Left back Luke Shaw was rested too and replaced by Alex Telles, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka started on the right as usual. In midfield, Scott McTominay and Fred continued to form the double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other.
Solskjær surprised us a bit with his choices for the wings of this 4-4-2-like shape, where Marcus Rashford played on the left wing instead of a more central striker position, while the pacy Daniel James started on the right. Meanwhile, the center forwards of this team were the versatile Bruno Fernandes and Mason Greenwood. Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, and Donny van de Beek were all unavailable due to injuries.
La Real start strong but United’s pressing takes over
This terrifying night for la Real started out surprisingly well, with the Basque side creating some good chances during the first five minutes thanks to their pressing and a dangerous Isak. In the first minute of the game, Isak forced a dangerous turnover from Bailly and set up Januzaj for a shot that curled past the far post. A minute later, the pair switched roles and Januzaj assisted Isak with a tense pass into space, forcing a big save from Henderson.
The previous paragraph is the only positive thing I can say about la Real in this whole match report. After these initial five minutes, United emerged as the clear dominator thanks to a superbly executed pressing plan.
United’s pressing throughout the Solskjær era has been generally hit-and-miss, but on this foggy evening in Turin the team hit it completely out of the park. In previous games, players like Bruno or Rashford have “gambled” and overcommitted to the press, but for this game everyone stuck to the game plan and followed the pressing triggers diligently. Instead of simply rushing towards Real Sociedad center-backs, Bruno and Greenwood often stayed back and focused on blocking the passing lanes towards playmakers Merino and Silva.
As the game went on, holding midfielder Illarramendi would drop deeper to help his defenders play out of the back, but the more patient and cerebral pressing behavior from Bruno and Greenwood nullified the impact of Illarramendi’s movement. Bruno in particular did well in alternating between pressing the center-backs and pressing Illarramendi, and thus continued blocking their passing options to Silva and Merino. And if the ball ever reached Merino and Silva, Fred and McTominay were already breathing on their necks.
United’s right side was pressing heavily on Real Sociedad’s left-sided buildup.
This “pressing cage” of United midfielders and strikers minimized the impact of Merino and Silva on the game; the stats reflect this. Out of all Real Sociedad defenders and midfielders during the first half hour, Merino and Silva were the ones with the fewest passes completed.
Since la Real couldn’t send the ball to their most creative players in the middle, they were forced to send it to the fullbacks, and this was the pressing trigger that Solskjær’s men were waiting for. Wingers Rashford and James rushed towards their corresponding fullback opponents, and if the opposing wingers – Oyarzabal and Januzaj – tried to drop into midfield to help their teammates, Telles and Wan-Bissaka would track them. This is not the first time Manchester United have implemented a “pressing trap” approach like this, with their game against Aston Villa being a recent example.
Due to United’s pressing, Real Sociedad lost the ball numerous times on the wings, and this led to the most decisive phase of play in this game: United’s attacking transition.
United’s lightning-fast transitions shock la Real
Solskjær’s decision to start Rashford on the left wing proved decisive during counterattacks. With the creativity of Silva and Januzaj, Real Sociedad attack more heavily on the right side, with the pair trying to keep the ball, attract opponents, and create more space for their teammates. However, Silva and Januzaj are also less likely to track back afterwards, which means la Real’s right is also their most vulnerable side to counters. Rashford and Bruno thrived in the open spaces behind Silva and Januzaj, and every Rashford run at high speed struck fear into the hearts of la Real’s defenders. Igor Zubeldia in particular will probably see Rashford in his nightmares for the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, Bruno moved through the opponent’s midfield undetected: behind the backs of Merino and Silva and beside an Illarramendi who did not know if he had to stick with Bruno or help his defenders handle the blistering pace of James and Rashford. For example, in the sixteenth minute, Bruno dragged Illarramendi out of position and slipped a pass to a McTominay, who was charging past la Real’s defensive lines. The Scotsman’s shot forced another big save from Alex Remiro.
Bruno also found himself on the receiving end of passes, and in those instances, he could make the opposition defenders bite the dust in a footrace. United’s first goal came through the combination of Rashford’s “gravity”, pulling defenders towards him during counters, and Bruno’s runs into space. In the 27th minute, McTominay broke past the pressing of Merino and got the ball to Rashford, wide open on the left. The forward attracted the marking of Illarramendi and Zaldúa and lobbed a pass to Bruno, who had outrun and outsmarted both Zubeldia and Le Normand. This forced goalie Remiro to come out of his goal to clear the incoming pass, but a miscommunication with his center backs made all three crash into each other, freeing up Bruno to score against an empty goal.
Like our passing network below shows, Bruno impacted the game heavily both in front and ahead of the ball, accumulating both the most progressive passing as well as the most progressive passing received.
The first half ended with four shots from Real Sociedad versus five shots from United. Shockingly, all five of those United shots were big chances. On average, as we pointed out in our podcast, United produce just 2.5 big chances during an entire Premier League game.
Real Sociedad have the ball but collapse against United’s counterattacks
After the first goal in the 27th minute, United took a step back in defense and stopped pressing as aggressively. This gave Real Sociedad a lot more time on the ball, and between the thirtieth and sixtieth minute the home side had possession 70% of the time. However, they generated very little danger from all this possession.
After the goal, Oyarzabal and Januzaj switched wings, so the former now played on the right side while the latter played on the left. This was surely a defensive move, with the more disciplined Oyarzabal tracking United’s left-side attackers more diligently than Januzaj and thus preventing more counters.
However, this switch didn’t improve Real Sociedad’s attack. La Real needed some pausa: they needed Januzaj and Silva – their most creative players – to get together, exchange passes, and slow down the tempo of the game. This would allow the team to remain more compact in the face of United’s counterattacks.
By separating Silva and Januzaj and placing them on opposite wings, la Real’s attack became even more vertical. They didn’t take the time to keep the ball and try to disorder United’s defensive block, and instead just sent passes into space for Oyarzábal and Zaldúa. The only thing these attackers could do was to cross into the box and hope for the best, but Bailly and Maguire succeeded constantly in clearing these threatening balls away from their box. The defender pair accumulated a total of thirteen clearances throughout the game.
So even if la Real had the ball, they couldn’t generate shots nor control the tempo of the game, which made them a prime target for more United counterattacks. In the 57th minute, la Real lost the ball, and Fred overcame the ensuing counterpress, After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. slipping a ball to Rashford who once again had tens of meters of space to run into. Rashford delivered a tense through ball that neither Le Normand and Monreal could intercept but Dan James and Bruno – who were zooming past the Real defenders – did intercept and turn into another goal. In the 63rd minute, Henderson caught a cross and quickly put the ball back in motion to start a counter. Fred got the ball and delivered a superbly weighted pass into space for Rashford, who bullied Zubeldia once again and produced a cool finish towards the far post of Remiro’s goal.
At this point, the game was very much done and dusted. Solskjær proceeded to make a few substitutions to rotate and rest key players: Martial came in for Rashford, Mata replaced Bruno Fernandes, and an 18-year-old Amad Diallo replaced Mason Greenwood in his long-awaited first-team debut. Real Sociedad manager Alguacil also made some substitutions of his own, but they came too late to have any meaningful impact on the game. During injury time, Bailly started yet another counterattack, with his pass setting up James for a long run from the halfway line to the opposing goal. James got a well-deserved goal after a previous attempt in the 67th minute had been overruled by VAR.
United’s personnel are best suited to counterattacking tactics, so they often struggle when they have the ball during long possessions and have to break down opponents in a deep block. Unfortunately for Real Sociedad, they play the exact kind of football – possession heavy, high defensive line – that plays to United’s counterattacking strengths. Individuals like Rashford, Bruno, Martial, or even the unfairly-maligned Dan James form a counterattacking force that only a handful of teams in the world can match.
That being said, we should also point out that last night United were also helped greatly by their more aggressive pressing scheme, and it would be awfully convenient for Solskjær’s men if they could press like this week in, week out.
From Real Sociedad’s perspective, one can only hope that this becomes the kind of defeat that forges the character of Alguacil’s men instead of sinking them into despair. They know that their style of play and high defensive line entails risks and therefore these kinds of bad nights can happen. All that’s left for them is to keep the faith that this tactical philosophy is their best path to victory, learn the lessons from this defeat, and fine-tune their game plan within the framework of their philosophy to prevent something like this from happening again. It’s easy to keep faith in the tactical philosophy when you’re winning; the real test is whether a team can keep the faith when they lose.
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