Carabao Cup Semi-Final First Leg – Manchester United shoot themselves on the foot


Manchester United made sure they secured defeat in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final with poor team selection and tactics.

You could feel the discontent in the stands. While Man City passed the ball around in the first half, the murmurs of mutiny could be felt in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. “You’re f****** s***,” sang the City fans with glee, as the Manchester United players chased shadows.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United had been a frightening proposition against possession-based teams such as City this half-season. Just a month earlier, they had made City look pedestrian, with the likes of Rashford, Martial and James looking devastating on the counter. With the amount of space City leave behind their full-backs, it was supposed to be so easy for Manchester United to get in behind.

But Pep showed the experience of a serial winner. And Ole, meanwhile, showed the naivety of a newbie. Pep changed his system completely, turning his weaknesses into strengths while bamboozling everyone with his new system. What did Ole do? Went with pretty much the same formula as he did last time, except that he didn’t have the personnel that had made it work so well last time out.

The game was pretty much lost in the first half. The biggest problem was the lack of a proper screening midfielder in the starting lineup. Fred is many things, but he is not one to sit in front of the back four and sniff out danger, especially when he has to do the job of two men. Witness the space that Bernardo Silva had for the first goal, which changed the dynamic of the game. Fred, Pereira, and Lingard are not an adequate midfield triumvirate, especially against a team like City. The introduction of Matic for Lingard really helped United in that respect. Although Matic is someone who slows down United, he helps bring a little control to midfield (by then City seemed to have taken their foot off the gas though).

This problem was amplified by the lack of Harry Maguire. Phil Jones seemed extremely rusty right from the beginning; the crowd would get jumpy as soon as he was on the ball. He set the tone for the first half by almost falling on top of the ball and handing possession to City outside his own penalty area. This panic spread to the entirety of the backline. Suddenly, De Gea was kicking poorly. Lindelöf wasn’t being able to bring the ball out of defense. United were often forced to go long in order to get out of their half. This uncertainty was another reason behind the first goal. No one was willing to take responsibility and get tight to Bernardo Silva as he lined up his shot (which was an absolute stunner, by the way).

After the first goal, City could play their commanding possession game, and get United to come further up the pitch to press. That’s how they got the other two goals; by counter-attacking the counter-attackers. But it’d be a simplification to say just that. City didn’t hold empty possession. They were regularly finding space between the lines and De Gea was needed on several occasions to keep the score down.

In contrast, Man United looked lost having gone behind. They didn’t seem to have an answer to the City press, being forced to go long; their midfielders were just unable to hold possession! One couldn’t understand what Pereira’s role was supposed to be – while he was listed as a defensive midfielder, his heatmap shows he was often on the right wing. He was neither defending nor attacking, and against Man City, you can’t afford to carry people. Speaking of carrying people, Lingard seemed like the end of almost every United attack. He made zero dribbles over his half of football, attempted two tackles, made zero interceptions, and in general just took the safe option. So, de facto, United had one defensive midfielder playing against a City side with so many attacking riches.

Overall, Manchester United had lost all of that defensive solidity that had actually won them the game at City last month. They were already without McTominay and Maguire, two of the biggest reasons for their win at City, and yet Ole chose to go with a solitary defensive midfielder. Although the changes in tactics that Pep made were certainly helpful in City holding possession and making the United centre-backs uncomfortable, United pretty much brought this defeat onto themselves. Now that United need to score three goals to win, it’s going to take a miracle (like the Parisian one) for United to get to Wembley. Oh, and they’d better make sure they don’t shoot themselves on the foot with their tactics, like they did that day.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.

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