For Manchester United it's 'Work Smarter, Not Harder'
United have often struggled coming out of the gate this season but maybe their slow starts aren't so accidental after all?
An interesting thing happened in the 74th minute of the first leg of Manchester United’s Europa League semifinal vs Roma last Thursday night. Luke Shaw was preparing to take a corner (which Paul Pogba would score from) when the commentator said, “Roma are tiring noticeably. Having made those three first half changes and now having to go with the same personnel.”
That doesn’t seem particularly interesting or noteworthy because it’s true. Injuries forced the Romans into using all three of their substitution windows in the first half leaving them unable to bring on fresh legs over the final 20-30 minutes.
Except, at that point, Manchester United hadn’t made a single substitution all game. The XI players that started the match were all still on the pitch and were running Roma right off of it. You can’t blame that on ‘we had to use all of our substitutions in the first half,’ but also, this wasn’t the first time this happened. In fact this isn’t even a rare occurrence. United seem to be doing this weekly. Their fitness levels are simply astonishing. This is Paul Pogba in the 91st minute full on sprinting into the box to get on the end of a cross!
This current Manchester United squad is probably most well known for not starting games particularly well. Their first halves are often slow dredges where they don’t even look like scoring. They’ve conceded the first goal 13 times this season and I can’t even tell you how many times that opening goal has come in the first 10 minutes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been asked numerous times about the slow start and has given a whole variety of answers ranging from, empty stadiums, to lockdowns being tough mentally, and even saying ‘sometimes they just need to be jolted awake by an early goal.’ There might be some credence to those reasons but then we should also remember that Solskjaer never gives straight answers in his press conferences.
This is especially true when he’s asked about tactics,1 where he’s typically very quick to change the subject and talk about basically anything else regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. Well, ‘sometimes they just need to be jolted awake by an early goal’ is pretty ridiculous, and exactly the kind of thing you would say if you didn’t want to give a more truthful answer.
What if United’s slow starts aren’t happening by accident? What if it’s a tactical decision to be starting so slow? We’re not talking about ‘started slow because the manager got his tactics wrong,’ but started slow because the manager specifically ordered them too.
Before you twist my words, I’m NOT saying United are under tactical instructions to play bad defense or to let their opponents score. We’ll get to it but we’re talking about not playing on the front foot and attacking full throttle. If you’re not attacking, you’re inviting pressure onto you which leaves you susceptible to a mistake happening. You play a man onside, concede a goal from a set piece, James Ward-Prowse hits a perfect free kick, Lindelof gets molested and a foul isn’t given…
We’ve all seen those headlines from The Sun or similar awful papers about how if matches ended at halftime United would be 12th in the league which is really dumb because matches don’t in fact end after 45 minutes. They actually play an additional 45 minutes after halftime where United happen to be really good. In fact, if you started every match at halftime United would be top of the table. But they’re not because matches don’t start at halftime.
This isn’t simply a case of ‘the manager picked the wrong starting XI.’ Sometimes that has been the case - especially early in the season such as the matches against Southampton and West Ham - but plenty of other times the manager hasn’t made any changes and the team that comes out of the dressing room for the second half looks completely different to the one in the first half.
There seems like there’s something more here.
United have scored 23 goals in the first half of games this year and conceded 20. That’s an average of 0.70 scored and 0.61 conceded per match. If you played at that pace over the full 90 minutes it would be 1.39 scored and 1.21 conceded. That’s not a good margin by any means and with those numbers you’d ultimately draw or lose a lot more games then you win.
The second half has been a completely different story. United are outscoring their opponents 41 to 15 after the break, an average of 1.24 goals per match scored and just 0.45 conceded. Extrapolate those numbers over 90 minutes and you’re looking at 2.48 goals scored and only 0.91 conceded. You’ll win a lot of games playing like that.
You know me. Simply looking at raw goal numbers isn’t enough. You’re probably not getting the whole story there. So I went through all 33 Premier League matches so far to see the breakdown in shots between the first half and second half as well as the xG to see if there’s anything going on here. Guess what, there is!
This season United outshoot their opponents in both halves but they’ve taken 67 more shots in the second half than the first - or if we extrapolate per 90, 2nd half United would be taking 4.06 more shots per match than first half United. The xG is the same story, the second half blows the first half out of the water, and on a per game basis you can expect them to score nearly a goal more per 90 minutes.
On the flip side United also concede two more shots per 90 in the second half than the first. As United attack more they become a bit more vulnerable at the back, or since United are in the lead their opponents start attacking more. However, the xG per 90 in the second half barely rises with the xG per shot remaining at 0.092 which tells us that even though they might be conceding more shots, they’re not conceding more dangerous scoring opportunities.
This breakdown gives us a little glimpse at United’s tactics. United have only lost four league matches since February 2020. They’re a very difficult team to beat and a difficult team to break down.3 United are coming into matches and for the first half they’re not going all out to attack, rather they’re just focusing on being difficult to beat.
In 15 matches this year (42.86%) United’s Expected Goals against in the first half was higher than their expected goals. Sounds really bad but in only five of those games was their opponents xG higher than 0.6.4 Essentially they’re just trying to eat 45 minutes off the clock as they’re confident that they can wear their opponents out and have enough time to beat them in the second half. That strategy isn’t without risk, sometimes you run out of time.
United didn’t start attacking until late on in the Chelsea match back in October. Had it gone for another 10 minutes you get the feeling United would have won. The match against Arsenal at the Emirates and Liverpool at Anfield gave off the same feeling. It’s a tight margin, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. More often than not this year it’s been working.
Many teams see United as their cup final. When the Red Devil’s come to town they get up for it and want to have a go at them. United’s strategy this year has been ‘let them.’ We’re tough to break down so let them use their energy trying, then in the second half we’ll pick them off. In other games where their opponents let United dictate the tempo United typically play very slow in the first half - saving their energy.
The only times United have really started matches well were the two games against Leeds. They’re a team that plays at a high tempo and if you don’t match it, you’re screwed.5
Again - it’s not without risk. Playing slow against a team that isn’t leaves you open to counter attacks and catching you off guard for a quick strike. Scaling back your attack invites pressure onto you and leaves you vulnerable to a player making an individual mistake or a team capitalizing on a set piece (see above).
All that begs the question, why in the world would you play this way then?
Well, simple. This isn’t a regular football season. This is the COVID football season. We’re jamming more matches into fewer days and it’s taking it’s toll. The football has frankly become quite horrible (Michael Caley aptly refers to it as “Covid Struggleball”).
This isn’t just a United thing. This is an around the league thing. When United were putting out incredibly drab performances during February and March6 fans were freaking out that they’d fall out of the top four. United actually gained ground on fifth place during that time because everyone was struggling!
You need to have a deep squad to withstand this ridiculously taxing season (not a coincidence why City are doing well this year) and United simply don’t.
For a team that looked like the manager would be able to rotate throughout the season it very much has not played out that way. Donny van de Beek didn’t settle in as quickly as anyone would have hoped. Nemanja Matic can barely play more than once every three games. Paul Pogba has been injury prone for a second straight season and needs his minutes managed to keep him fit. Likewise minutes to be rationed to protect the fitness of 33 year old Edinson Cavani. Anthony Martial never started scoring this season. Mason Greenwood only started a month ago.
That’s put extra strain on Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes though let’s be honest, they’d both still beg to play every minute even if you amputated their left legs. The one game Bruno didn’t start (West Ham away) was United’s worst first half of the season.
The fact that United are pushing on so well late in the season - they’ve won five of their last six and six of their last nine - as well as blow teams away in the second half is a testament to their fitness levels but fitness levels don’t simply get developed like this.
United were exhausted by the end of Project Restart last season and never got a chance to recover. Two weeks later they were playing in the Europa League. Two weeks after that many of their players were playing internationals. You don’t develop better fitness levels if you never fully recover and spend an entire season playing catchup. But you do have something left in the tank at the end of the season if you’ve been minimizing the amount of time you need to use your peak energy.
Work smarter not harder.
United may be better when Cavani plays but you need to watch his minutes so he doesn’t wear out. If he only has to play 45 minutes for him to help you to score three goals (Southampton (A), Burnley (H)) then why play him any longer?
But why bring him on at halftime and limit how much time he can make an impact? Why not start him and pull him off when United grab a lead?
Simply put, blitzing doesn’t always work. Sometimes your opponent is up to the challenge and absorbs what you’re throwing at them. Then you end up playing more than 45 minutes and even though you may get the win, you’ve played more minutes than intended and that could negatively impact you in the next game.7
United tried this last season. During project restart they threw their best XI on the pitch game after game and used the five subs to pull them off. But soon it started to take them a little longer to gain control of a match, and the next game even longer. They started to wear out and by the end of the season they were zapped.
When you start attacking from the get-go your opponent also has fresh legs and they can deal with those attacks. So while you’re tiring them out, you’re also tiring out yourself. United have had 10 matches this season where their first half xG was higher than their second half xG. They’ve only won five of them.8
Work smarter not harder. Let them tire themselves out and then punish them with freshness. That’s why you end up starting the McFred pivot in a home match against Burnley. That was an absolutely ludicrous move but in reality the purpose of that was to simply eat 45 minutes and start tiring Burnley out. Then bring on Cavani’s fresh legs and let him run at tired ones.
United have been running teams off the pitch in the second half all season long despite the fact that more often than not United had a midweek match in Europe while their opponents got to rest. That probably lead to their opponents thinking United were ripe for the picking and trying to attack them from the jump - thus playing right into United’s hands. It’s probably not a coincidence that United’s worst stretch of the season (besides September) came when there was no European football and everyone was playing midweek.
United getting off to slow starts at the start of the season was probably the result of the lack of preseason and match fitness, but it didn’t take long for Solskjaer to realize it could advantageous to eat time and go for the win late.9
Work smarter not harder. United have been doing that all season and it’s gotten them this far. They’ll need to do it even more given their crazy schedule over the next few weeks.
Which he’s asked about far more than any other manager
This would be tied with six other teams for best in the league
Seriously, according to WhoScored they’ve only conceded 18 goals in open play - 0.55/gm - the 2nd fewest in the league
Obviously one of those matches was Spurs (H), one was Brighton (H) thanks to 1.36xG coming from the two shots on Danny Welbeck’s goal, the other three were West Ham (A), Man City (H), and Sheffield United (A)
United did have a very bright first five minutes against City but the next 40 were very much not
A time which also coincided with the absence of Paul Pogba hmmm
Think back to those matches in late December early January vs Wolves, Burnley, and Fulham where United went strong from the start but didn’t win them until late. Guess which two players got hurt shortly after that?
It will come as no surprise to you to hear that two of those five were the Leeds match and the match against 10 man Southampton. A third (Aston Villa) was won thanks to a penalty