Villarreal – Manchester United: Out With The Old, In With The New? (0-2)

Riding the wave of a temporary manager for the best part of three years, Manchester United yearned for a turnaround off the back of Solskjær’s exit. But conforming to a habit of cutting corners, a new status for Michael Carrick in the dugout yielded little. An arduous showing on the pitch may have earned three points at the final whistle, but how much has really changed?

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

This fixture would see the two contestants of the 2021 Europa League Final lock horns for the final time this year. Back on the European stage with the knockout stages in sight, both of these outfits hoped affairs on the continent would provide a convenient diversion from matters closer to home.

In stark contrast to an aggressive opening to the last campaign, Villarreal have straggled far off the chasing pack in LaLiga, lying seven points adrift of the top six. Falling back on old habits in troubling straits, their leader Unai Emery has turned outward to Europe for respite. Here his players still excel, sitting top of their Champions League group on goal difference. So besting their illustrious visitors everywhere but on the scoreline at Old Trafford, could the Yellow Submarine sink the Mancunians?

Indeed, friendly fire from Manchester United could do the job for the Spaniards. Ineptitude from top to bottom has marred the outlook of their season. From domination at the hands of their arch rivals to humiliation at the hands of relegation fodder, such pitiful form could not go with impunity, or has it? Michael Carrick may be at the wheel, but little suggests that he has the tools to reroute United’s path.

Emery lined up the home team in their usual 4-4-2 shape. Aware that his men could get in the Round of 16 off the back of a victory, he made five changes to the starting eleven that drew 1-1 with Celta Vigo last time out. Among those, Étienne Capoue featured next to Dani Parejo in the double pivot, and their primary marksman Arnaut Danjuma came back into the fold on the left of the front two.

Formerly part of the coaching setup that had flirted with the back three at the end of Solskjær’s reign, Carrick stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, following the 4-1 defeat to Watford, some new faces did appear in the side. The notorious pair of Fred and Scott McTominay returned in the middle of the park, but Donny van de Beek replaced the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in the number ten role. Luke Shaw made way for Alex Telles at left back, and Anthony Martial earned a spot upfront from the off.

What path to pursue?

A dicey task confronted Carrick to mark his first occasion at the helm in the dugout. On the one hand, three points at Estadio de la Cerámica would book their place in the Round of 16. On the other hand, the possibility of a damaging defeat that would endanger them with a premature exit from the group stage for the second year in a row loomed large. So how strategically would he tackle this challenge?

Experimental defending cannot seize the initiative

His configuration of the attack shed some possible clues. Before kickoff, one would have foreseen Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line. But, in the end, the Portuguese forward featured on the left wing while Anthony Martial took his role through the middle. This alignment forced the manager to find new solutions to the perennial problem of integrating the summer buy into the side without the ball.

United often retreated from their 4-2-3-1 formation, shifting into a variety of loose shapes. From time to time, a clearer 4-4-2 block emerged where Ronaldo stayed in the frontline with Martial while Fred shuttled outward to the left of the midfield. In other moments, they tended towards a very flat and asymmetric diamond where van de Beek filled the midfield and Ronaldo was higher than Sancho.

United’s flat 4-4-2 diamond shape, where van de Beek stands slightly ahead of the midfield.

In the end, Carrick quickly abandoned the experiment. Around a quarter of an hour into the contest, Martial swapped places with Ronaldo, moving out to the left flank. Yet, the switch did not bring about an upturn in United’s fortunes. For all the flexibility and improvisation United showcased, a lack of clear, targeted roles to force turnovers gave Emery’s men the license to dominate the play.

Pretty approaches, paltry output

On the ball, Villarreal rotated from their initial 4-4-2 shape. The fullbacks held the width on both flans while Capoue and Parejo formed a double pivot to support the buildup phase with the two central defenders. But what proved to be quite intriguing was the distribution of roles in the final third.

Villarreal’s 4-2-2-2 offensive structure with no classic fixed point of attack

Villarreal looked to bring a lot of players into the halfspaces on the ball. To this end,, Moi Gómez often moved into the left halfspace between the lines. This pattern sprung up even in the first phase of play when Pervis Estupiñán had not moved enough up the wing to threaten the goal from the flank.

So, Danjuma would frequently move wider to fulfill this role, mixing this duty with movement across the back four to pin defenders and create room. Likewise, Manu Trigueros, a traded midfielder, was not a fixed point in the attack. Roaming from the right halfspace, he was crucial to breaking through the lines. Yet, for all of Villarreal’s control of the ball, shots were few and far between.

Similar trend, different implementation

They constructed many of their attacks down the left flank, but the spacing was not always optimal. Parejo repeatedly gestured to Estupiñán to offer more depth on the wing. Both he and Capoue also held back from making supportive movements once the team broke the lines. So facing a stalemate at half time, the central question for Emery would be how to generate more of a goal threat.

Unfortunately for the Spaniards, answers did not arise after the break. However, new patterns of play did in adaptation to United’s defending. If Ronaldo lurked higher to cover Raúl Albiol, Torres shone at ball progression. Parejo tilted back more often to draw van de Beek out of the midfield, Trigueros and Capoue doubled up on Fred, and the center-back did the rest to split the lines.

The possession may have swung a little more in their favor, but United still looked bereft of any ideas to pin back a side that were on the ascendancy. So, Carrick turned to the bench in the 66th minute to make a double substitution. Martial came off for Rashford and Fernandes took van de Beek’s place in the ten role. United may have looked second best till then but they had the talent to punish the hosts.

Quality pays

Working the ball out from the back, Geronimo Rulli fed a pass into the path of Capoue. Telegraphing the play, Fred nipped in front of the midfielder to tee up Ronaldo. The striker steadied himself, and lifted the ball over the erroneous goalkeeper in the 78th minute. Bailing out the Mancunians for the umpteenth time in Europe, his latest contribution was arguably the most crucial of them all.

Fred’s boundless energy forced another turnover on the left flank, where Ronaldo had drifted out wide to drive the visitors past the halfway line. Rashford and Fernandes then shifted the play over to the right wing to find Sancho. Yet to bag a goal or assist for the club, he was ice cold, hammering a strike into the roof of the net. 2-0 United. Breaking his duck, he had doubled the lead and secured a massive result for his team.


Chances were far more at a premium than in the reverse fixture, but it was still a case of déjà vu for Emery’s men at the final whistle. A system missing a focal point in the middle of the attack did not detract from their ball dominance nor their organization in the buildup phase, but they will rue their profligacy in the final third once again. Now they must gear up for a shootout in Bergamo, where they will go head to head in two weeks with Atalanta for the second qualifying spot to the knockout stages.

Many wondered how Manchester United would perform under the management of Carrick, but in the end, the main positive was the three points. Now sure of a place in the next phase, they have at least been spared of the embarrassment they endured nearly a year ago. However, for all of the changes to the lineup, tactical processes still fell short at the highest level. The mood at the club may have taken a marginal turn for the better, but the trip to Chelsea at the weekend is a severe cause for consternation.

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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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