Tactical analysis Wolverhampton Wanderers Manchester United 2-1 FA Cup

Wolverhampton Wanderers – Manchester United: Wolves Pull Off Another Stunt And Reach FA Cup Semifinal (2-0)

Wolverhampton Wanderers produced another stunt at Molineux. Their success was based on a great defensive organization and directness when the ball was won. Manchester United’s lack of width was a problem all game long, and after a close first hour the game went Wolves way.

Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.

For the top-six teams, playing against Wolves this year is not fun. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have all lost points against Wolves, who also knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup. While being this impressive against the top teams this season, Wolves have struggled against teams that give them the ball and retreat in a defensive stance.

After persisting with a 3-4-3 / 5-4-1 shape for most of the season, Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo has favored a 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 formation in recent weeks. Defending in a low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. with three midfielders instead of four is a bit less defensive, and having two strikers on the pitch provides a bit more of an outlet. On the other hand, pressing is harder because there are no wingers, and two forwards have to cover the entire defense if there is no support from either midfielders or the wingbacks.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær went for the 4-4-2 diamond formation that has been a common theme in recent weeks at Manchester United. Jesse Lingard featured as the number ten behind Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matić being the other midfielders. No David De Gea between the posts, as Sergio Romero was the latest goalkeeper to benefit from the trend that second goalies get to play in domestic cup competitions.

Manchester United lack the width required to break down Wolves

No surprises in this match from a tactical point of view. From the beginning, Manchester United had the ball, while Wolves retreated in their 5-3-2 shape. Aside from some very incidental pressing by Leander Dendoncker, the most important pressing trigger A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. was any slow pass to United’s left back Luke Shaw.

What Wolves did in this match was not retreating into their own box and hoping for the best. They have a very carefully planned out defensive system, that allows the opponent almost no space between the lines. Nuno’s team do not allow final third access easily, and if you get in there, it is almost never in the center of the field.

Manchester United's 4-4-2 diamond formation against Wolves' 5-3-2 shape in defense

Wolves’ defensive 5-3-2 system against United’s 4-4-2 diamond.

In general, United encountered two problems in breaking Wolves’ defense down. Firstly, there was not enough width. The fullbacks were positioned very conservatively, especially Luke Shaw. Teams that play in a 4-4-2 diamond formation often use their fullbacks as wingers. In this match United chose not to – perhaps fearing Wolves’ counterattacks –  and as a result, nobody occupied the space a left winger normally plays in. Wolves could play even more narrow because of this, which meant the spaces in the middle of the field were even more compressed.

The second problem was maintaining the right balance and spaces. In the image above, Jesse Lingard is displayed as the number ten, but he seldom occupied this position, as he readily sought to position himself in the halfspaces. United’s front three, most notably Lingard and Martial, had the freedom to roam around, while Pogba alternated between playing left central midfielder, left winger, and number ten.

Passmap Wolverhampton Wanderers Manchester United 2-1 FA Cup

At times, United’s attacking players were almost exclusively positioned in the left halfspace, which is suboptimal when attacking. Playing with a lot of offensive freedom is fun, but the downside often is that you end up playing in each other’s space.

Whenever one of Martial, Rashford or Lingard did position themselves as the left winger and Wolves were stretched out a bit, there were no runners in the channel inside to use the space between Wolves’ fullbacks and center-backs.

First half ends in a draw

With all of this positional freedom, the graphic above contains a lot of arrows, since Lingard, Martial and Pogba roamed wherever they wanted. The graphic below details a moment of possession by United, in the 24th minute.

Two of United’s biggest problems in one image. Nobody keeps the width on the left side, while the players are all positioned in very close proximity of one another.  

If it seems like the left side of the field was overly occupied here, that’s because it was. What United also failed to do was to switch play regularly and overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the wings, which is one of the ways to break down a 5-3 defensive organization.

So, United did not have one big chance in the first half, and despite the interesting tactical play going on, it made for quite a sterile match. The biggest chances for Wolves – unsurprisingly as they had only 35 percent possession in the entire first half – came from counterattacking and set pieces. Wolves had a couple of nice short corner routines that nearly provided towering center-back Willy Boly with a possibility to score.

The absolute highlight of the first half came in the 42nd minute, when after a cleared United corner, Wolves holding midfielder Rúben Neves led the counterattack and slid through a forty yard through-ball to put Diego Jota one-on-one with Sergio Romero. His effort was well saved by Sergio Romero, and the teams went into half-time on a level score.

Due to better conversion, Wolves run away with it

As there were no tactical changes nor substitutions, the game went on in more or less the same rhythm as it had done before the interval. In the 53rd minute, Romero produced another wonderful save on a hammering header by Jiménez, which came after another well-taken corner kick by João Moutinho.

United kept having the same problems as in the first half, as Solskjær changed tactics nor personnel. Wolves had no reason to change anything, which is why they kept their tactic in place. The game was truly opened up in the 70th minute.

All game long, Wolves had some decent counterattacking opportunities. Neves and Moutinho often carried the ball out of defense and looked for forward passes. Due to crisp defending by United and a general lack of penetration in behind, the only genuine scoring chance Wolves had was just before half-time, when Jota missed one-on-one with Romero.

In this instance, more or less the same happened. Wolves had a counterattack, but were halted by Herrera and Matić, who both had solid overall games. After a quick switch – which is a trademark for Wolves – they were able to get in the box and feed striker Jiménez. He fluffed his chance, got on the rebound and struck it past Romero.

Passmap Wolverhampton Wanderers Manchester United 2-1 FA Cup

Solskjær introduced Andreas Pereira for Herrera, but changed little in the overall attacking setup of his team, which led them into the same problems time after time again. Six minutes later, after another cleared corner kick by United, Diogo Jota got on the ball one yard past the halfway line, sprinted with it for fifty yards, undid himself of Shaw in the process and put in Wolves’ second goal.

After this, United attempted to pound Wolves with long and aerial balls, but this turned out to be a fruitless approach. In the 95th minute, Rashford produced one of his few flashes of brilliance in this match. With his back to the goal, he turned and placed the ball in the side netting, even though the ball took a little deflection along the way.

Overall, this was a tale of better conversion by Wolves, of a close match that could have gone either way but went to the better finishing side. Sounds familiar, Ole?

Expected goals pitch plot Wolverhampton Wanderers Manchester United 2-1 FA Cup


Wolves are genuine contenders for the FA Cup. On their day, they cannot beat just every team in England, but frankly, every team in the world. They form a hyper-disciplined unit that is able to cede possession without giving away territory. In addition, they have great players who know what to do in transition from defense to attack. For that reason, they are the ultimate cup fighter and they have a real shot of winning it this season.

As for Manchester United, well… They have now lost two games in a row. In the game against Arsenal they had the better chances, but this game was more or less equal in terms of goal-scoring opportunities. Solskjær’s early spell as manager was defined by good conversion and a shaky defense. Now, reality is starting to catch up.

After the international break, Manchester United have to play Watford, Wolves again, Barcelona, West Ham, Barcelona again, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea. A potential career-defining spell for Solskjær.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots.

Erik Elias (27) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Videoscout at digital scouting consultancy 11tegen11. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]


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