Wolverhampton Wanderers – Manchester United: Set-piece Driven Comeback For Wolves After United Dominate First Half (1-1)
A solid game plan by Ole Gunnar Solksjær got undone by a wonderfully crafted set-piece goal by Ruben Neves and a penalty miss by Paul Pogba in Molineux as the teams shared the points. Manchester United looked very much in control, despite not creating many chances. United found the opener with a nicely worked goal, but Wolves’ set-piece prowess once again delivered and denied Manchester United a perfect start to the season.
Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.
Molineux hosted a very intriguing matchup between a Wolves side looking like the main candidate to break into the top six, versus Manchester United who could end up dropping out of it. Manchester United’s curtain raiser was against another endangered top six side in Chelsea, and it went extremely well for them with a 4-0 victory at Old Trafford. Wolves, on the other end, played the other candidate to move upwards, Leicester, in a 0-0 draw at the King Power Stadium.
Ole Gunnar Solksjær dropped Andreas Pereira in favor of Daniel James for the only change he made to the starting lineup against Chelsea, fielding his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Nuno Espirito Santo unsurprisingly named an unchanged side, in his accustomed 3-5-2 formation. Despite the two teams’ statures suggesting the opposite would happen, it is Manchester United that keeps adapting their shape and strategy – this was the third different formation Solksjær lined up against the identical Wolves shape within five months. But it did have similarities with last season’s unlucky loss in Molineux.
Solksjær took his tactical principles from the “successful loss”
The two sides’ last encounter was a 2-1 Premier League win for Wolves at Molineux, in which Manchester United had every reason to feel hard done by, despite playing a large portion of the game with ten men. Ole Gunnar Solksjær fielded a 3-5-1-1 formation that day and United lost the game entirely because of individual mistakes, despite a solid tactical plan designed to exploit Wolves’ weaknesses.
Wan-Bissaka’s Walker-esque role & differences in left and right sided United attacks
One of the key successes of the previous encounter was how Ashley Young became influential in the buildup phase from the right center-back spot in a back three with his progressive passing, to the extent that Nuno Espirito Santo addressed it in his press conference. Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves were sitting back in this encounter as well with a 5-3-2 medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. happy to let United have the ball. Here, Solksjær used his new signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James to build a similar but slightly different setup to exploit the same weakness in Wolves’ formation.
Manchester United’s shape during a left-sided buildup play.
Marcus Rashford’s left-sided role involved halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. presence as the side’s main creative threat in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. supported by the aggressive overlapping of Luke Shaw, who had a very offensive role. That left side was the preferred side of the pitch for United to play through, starting with Maguire’s buildup.
When the ball was on the left, Wan-Bissaka stayed narrow and positioned himself more conservatively, like we often see Kyle Walker do, creating a three-versus-two situation against the dangerous duo of Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota. This gave United both the safety in transitions with a numerical advantage, and the chance for Wan-Bissaka to burst forward with the ball when the ball was switched to him from the left, mainly through Maguire. Meanwhile, James had a strict tactical role to keep maximum width on the right-hand side, allowing the space for this to happen by pinning Jonny back and stretching the Wolves back five.
This tactical situation defined United’s attacks throughout the first half – United either looked to attack through combination play between Shaw – Rashford – Lingard – Martial near the left halfspace, or switch it to Wan-Bissaka who burst forward with the ball towards Wolves’ half.
Right-sided attacks were almost entirely about wing play, with simple combinations between Wan-Bissaka and James often ending up as crosses. This can be seen from the halfspace map, as the left halfspace map has passes into the dangerous areas, whereas the right side only has passes into the wide or back towards the center.
The first half was a complete success for United. Wolves were completely nullified, United had 70% of possession, got into promising positions and found the opener with a nice transition from the left, that saw the aforementioned quartet combine beautifully and Martial rifling it into the net. Although it did not convert into expected goals, The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. there were a few more moments such as Martial’s miss in the six-yard box where United could have scored.
Nuno Espirito Santo reacted at halftime by introducing Adama Traoré for Matt Doherty in a straight substitution for the right wingback slot, which posed a different type of question to Luke Shaw on that flank. But more importantly, Nuno instructed Jota to contain Wan-Bissaka’s buildup presence by protecting the left flank and he instructed his team to start pressing high.
Wolves’ high pressure in the second half.
The sheer amount of pace that United’s attackers posed meant Wolves would not have been smart applying that sort of pressure for a large period during the game. This was what Chelsea had done last week, but Wolvespicked their moment early in the second half and applied frantic pressure with a more balanced 5-4-1 shape.
United struggled to build up, conceded one set-pieces after another, with the help of Traoré’s take-ons. Wolves’ set-piece prowess showed its effectiveness once again, with first Jimenez hitting the post from a Moutinho cross, and then a wonderfully worked corner kick found Ruben Neves right outside the box, who curled it brilliantly into the top corner.
Wolves piled on the pressure after the equalizer, but after five minutes, the game settled into the same tactical setup Solksjær was clearly happy with, as was evident by his lack of changes until the final ten minutes. Pogba’s individual brilliance to win a penalty out of nowhere was undone by his poor penalty kick saved by Patricio. Jota was less willing to follow Wan-Bissaka back as well, which was one of the reasons United grew back into the game, and one of the reasons he was the second player to come out to be replaced by new signing Neto. The rest of the game did not really see more chances from either side.
Ole Gunnar Solksjær once again showed his tactical intelligence to come up with a match-specific game plan to address his opponent’s strength and weaknesses, but United is far from a finished article.
Maguire and Wan-Bissaka are proving to be excellent defensive additions to the team, as Maguire is addressing the desperate need of quality buildup play from the back, and Wan-Bissaka looks unbeatable defensively as well as adding much needed athleticism going forward. James also looks like a solid option for the squad rotation with his excellent work rate and acceleration. However, the squad still seems to be lacking the passing organization of a top side especially in the final third and it does not look like they will create enough chances week after week.
Another area to improve are the set-pieces, as Maguire’s arrival makes room for much better organizations than we have seen in this particular game – especially the second half ones were terrible. Wolves showed a different class in set-pieces at both sides of the pitch, which proved key to bring them the hard-earned point.
Wolves seem to be identical tothe team we saw last season and once again proved hard to break down, coming back into the game against United, while mostly getting outplayed in open play. However, as Solksjær has successfully done, many other managers in the Premier League might be more and more aware of the tactical concepts that are effective against Wolves’ 3-5-2 formation, which might leave them struggling more often this year.
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