Explaining Manchester United's late game onslaughts
Manchester United have registered a near-perfect start to the season under Jose Mourinho. In the opening five games, they have won four games and drawn one, scoring 16 and conceding 2.
The performance of the team, both starting XI and bench, have been impressive in general.
It is fair to say that things have not gone as planned for the English giants after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
There was a section of fans that were confused with the football played under Fergie’s replacement, David Moyes.
Louis van Gaal took over next and revolutionised the style of play, albeit to the dismay of fans.
To be fair to them, all the possession and domination that were visible in the stats table never really converted to results.
The abundance of possession without any purpose and potency turned off many a fan, eventually leading to the sacking of the Dutchman.
Mourinho’s appointment was seen as an opportunity to turn things around, to revitalise the team’s performance on the pitch, to play aggressive attacking football.
As the fans say it, to play football the ‘United way’. Although Mourinho started off as expected, the results lasted only for a couple of months and were erratic afterwards.
The increasing numbers on the treatment table allied with competing in four different competitions meant that Jose was forced to focus on result first.
Although there had been attacking intent in the final third, United had the most ‘big chances’ missed last season.
In the end, the offensive, yet measured play orchestrated by Mourinho meant that United finished only sixth in the Premier League, but managed to win the Community Shield, EFL Cup and the UEFA Europa League.
With that, United were now among the elite in the UEFA Champions League, one of the targets given to Mourinho.
This season is only five gameweeks old, but, the shows an improvement to last season’s United side.
The defence has kept four clean sheets and De Gea has been outstanding between the sticks.
New addition, Nemanja Matic has also settled down quickly at Old Trafford. But it is upfront that has been grabbing all the headlines.
Lukaku, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Rashford and Martial have all chipped in with goals. The one away game at Stoke, proved to be the only exception to an otherwise dominant routine.
The games against West Ham United, Swansea City, Leicester City and Everton were a goal fest that also followed a pattern.
United held onto the lead at 1-0, 2-0 for large parts of the game and they were thoroughly comfortable going forward or absorbing anything thrown at them at the other end.
The Red Devils have scored 9 out of 16 goals in the last 10 minutes of their games. It has been United’s substitutions that have outshone the others, scoring themselves or ensuring the team scores.
Pogba and Matic form the base of the midfield.
Rashford and Mata seemed to have been the preferred options on either side of Mkhitaryan, who has been handed his favoured No.10 role.
Once United is able to get a break-through, courtesy Rashford’s pace, Mkhitaryan’s vision or Lukaku’s finishing, they ensure the ramming continues until the defences become wearied.
That’s when the substitutes are brought in.
There is a shift in formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3.
Fellaini/Herrera is brought in and fills into a deeper role to his predecessor.
Along with Pogba and Matic, the substitute forms a strong central midfield to shield any opposition charge and to supply the ball to the other two vibrant subs.
Martial and Lingard are brought in as direct replacements to Rashford and Mata.
Both of them are quick footed and can be used to devastating effect straight off the bench. Martial’s three goals and an assist off the bench is proof of his ability to intimidate defences.
The substitution that often goes under the radar is that of Marouane Fellaini.
Also read: The curious case of Marouane Fellaini
The tall Belgian is a vital cog in the central midfield that complements the glitzier plays up front.
Out of the 10 goals scored in the three matches he was involved in, six of them came after Fellaini was brought onto the field.
The 29-year-old provides a genuine threat on set pieces, while in open play, is always available in the box for wingers to target.
At the same time, he does the dirty work as well and proves to be a great disrupter of opposition play.
He is also assigned to stay in the United box to head out any air balls that come in.
Fellaini remains a key player who can fill in multiple roles for the team. In Jose, lies a manager who seems to have finally solved the Fellaini conundrum.
Mourinho said, “Sometimes when you have a little bit more space you try, so in the last part of the game they (Everton) were losing 1-0 and then 2-0 and they tried to come more, and they gave us more spaces. So I think it is up to that”.
Yes, he was right about it. As the clock ticks down, the concentration levels drop, fatigued legs begin to show and the losing team inevitably frees up space and gets higher up the pitch to make a comeback.
It is this opportunity that the Red Devils have capitalised on.
In these situations where tight-lipped gaps begin to open up, the energy and pace of the fresh substitutes prove too good for the opposition.
Whether this strategy would work against the top teams or in games where United have fallen behind, remains to be seen.
But definitely, the analytics team of every Premier League club would have taken notice of this trend and would now plot to tackle it with a counter strategy of their own.
Knowing this, Jose Mourinho would have a Plan B ready to take on everything their rivals throw at them.
Manchester United have shown, so far, that they are ready for a challenge at the top level.