The key tactical tweak that saw Manchester United beat Burnley
Manchester United’s final game of 2021 was not without its twists. The win over Burnley was quite comfortable, and Ralf Rangnick may leverage some of the game’s key tactical elements in the future. The interim manager has gone five games without losing in all competitions as his team fights for a place in the top four.
United’s starting lineup differed significantly from their previous match against Newcastle United. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw returned as the main fullbacks, while Jadon Sancho and Edinson Cavani were notable changes from the last squad.
Burnley looked to press United’s center-backs and blocked off any passing lanes down the middle when United had the ball, forcing David De Gea to play it long. However, it didn’t discourage United from taking risks and attempting to play out from the back whenever they could. Still, they frequently lost the ball as Burnley managed to isolate the home team’s midfield, preventing them from assisting in the build-up. Harry Maguire had to resort to playing it long most of the time. With a completion rate of 71.4 %, the United captain completed the most long passes from the home side.
United had more time on the ball when Burnley didn’t press. The fullbacks would push high and wide in their own half, forming a 2-4 shape that would allow the team to keep possession more effectively. Wan-Bissaka and Shaw are arguably a better duo than Telles and Dalot when it comes to retaining possession, and they can keep hold of the ball in tight spots. Wan-Bissaka maintained an 84.1% passing accuracy throughout the game, while Shaw managed 75.3%. Shaw was the more attacking of the two players, so he was higher up the pitch and tried to take more risks and be more creative. Wan-Bissaka played to his strengths by being more cautious and defensive. He would frequently hold his position, leaving Greenwood to handle most of the attacking duties.
Rangnick dubbed Nemanja Matic the “quarterback” at the end of the game. The Serbian International played an incredibly crucial role on the pitch, arguably the most important one. His presence gave the team a sense of calmness. His ability to keep possession and maintain it with quick short passes helped United gain control of the game. McTominay was also more progressive in his runs because of Matic’s presence. When the wingers and fullbacks stayed high, the Scotsman would typically keep his position in the middle third before making a late run at the opposition’s box. He scored the game’s first goal and had other solid chances.
United played wide and used the width more than usual, which brings me to the key change and one that Rangnick could experiment with it the long run. During the build-up, Sancho and Greenwood stayed wide. They would’ve been relatively narrow as the two number 10s in previous games, but not against Burnley. They both dropped deep, stayed wide in the middle third to receive the ball, and quickly turned around to advance. They were highly efficient in possession, and the squad took advantage of their flanks to move the ball out of their own half more quickly.
Things changed when United got to the final third. At times, both wingers would come inside and stay narrow, while the fullbacks would push wide and try to take advantage of the space left open by the wingers. Shaw benefited from it mainly because the opposing fullback would be forced to choose between tracking Sancho’s inside or wide run, which would give Shaw plenty of space, or tracking Sancho and leaving Shaw unmarked in a dangerous position. Throughout the game, we watched Burnley struggle with making these decisions.
Playing with wide wingers was a brilliant idea and one that Burnley had not anticipated. Rangnick played to the strengths of Sancho and Greenwood, and United looked more dangerous as a result. In the last couple of games, United had struggled to play through the midfield, so exploiting the flanks, which had two players who are really good at keeping possession, was a deciding factor in the game. Starting a natural defensive midfielder played a significant role too. McTominay thrived because of it, which leaves me convinced that signing a “younger version” of Matic in January should be at the very top of the club’s priorities.