Tactical Analysis: Unai Emery’s Villarreal

With normalcy kicking in i.e fans returning slowly and steadily back to stadiums, cup finals will have another aspect to become memorable- now that the 12th man will truly be back. One fanbase which will be travelling to support their team is that of ‘Yellow Submarine’- Villarreal CF who will be playing in their first ever major final- UEFA Europa League 2020-21 final in Gdansk on 26th May. The club also has the chance of winning their first ever major trophy in the club’s 98 year history. Such an occasion would have been bland for Villarreal CF had there been no fans but they have their footballing gods to thank now that it is safe to some extent to allow certain percentage occupancy of stadiums.

The Rise of Yellow Submarine from depths to the surface 

Villarreal, a town of roughly 50,000 occupants is home to the El Submarino Amarillo. A club very close to the small community is an example of how a small club can harbor the ambitions of taking the fight to the elites. The club has spent majority of its time in the lower divisions of Spanish footballing pyramid before going under a change of ownership by a local businessman (and one of the wealthiest persons at that time in Spain) Fernando Roig Alfonso. Under his astute ownership, the club underwent a revolution- rising to Segunda Division at the start of 1990s before reaching La Liga for the first time in their history in 1998. Unlike the usual money-minded profit leeching businessman owners in football, Fernando Roig’s Alfonso focused more on the investment in human resource rather than spending cash just for the sake of it, slowly and steadily building one of the best scouting networks and youth development programs in the Valencian district (and eventually one of the best in Spain), fighting toe to toe with it’s local rival- Valencia CF who also were enjoying their glorious era at the same time. The club suffered the ignominy of relegation after their first season in La Liga but the club learnt from this experience, worked hard and worked efficiently to win back the promotion and build up the team slowly and steadily to climb up the table in La Liga over the years. 

This new-found stability provided the club to compete in now defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup, reaching its final 3 times and winning twice- the latter which provided the chance to play in UEFA Cup (2003-04) for the first time in its history- not bad for a club who wasn’t playing first division football 5 years back. On their major European Debut, the club became a dark horse- reaching the semi finals on their first attempt. This was the chance for the Yellow Submarine to make a name for themselves on the big stage. But their local and arch rivals, Valencia CF, stood in their way. Valencia did overshadow Villarreal yet again, going on to win the trophy themselves. But this budding club learnt from it’s experiences- another appearance in the final of UEFA Intertoto Cup provided the Yellow Submarine to play in UEFA Cup (2004-05) but this time it was yet another budding club in AZ Alkmaar who were themselves looking to break the dominance of the Old Guard of Netherlands- the big 3: Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam- who ended up putting a brave display in the Quarter Finals. Ever gracious in their defeat, Villarreal again learnt from this experience and side by side building’s it’s profile and attracting the interest of some footballing giants- Diego Forlan, Juan Roman Riquelme to name a few with whom they reached to semi finals of UEFA Champions League on their debut- under the stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini.

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

An 88th minute penalty miss by Riquelme in front of the 23,500 seater El Madrigal ended up costing Villarreal an opportunity of contesting for the grand prize in Paris that summer, a miss which sent Arsenal to their first ever UCL final. Yet another heart break but the club yet again gracious in defeat, learned from this experience.A slight slump in form saw the club out of action in UCL. But this absence was short lived. The club achieved it’s best ever league finish-2nd place in 2007-08 La Liga season which ensured them of an automatic place in UCL Group stages of 2008-09- playing in a group which consisted of yet another English giants, reigning UCL winners at that time (and Yellow Submarine’s opponents on 26th May)- Manchester United, the pride of Glasgow- Celtic FC and Danish side Aalborg FC. The Valencian side had the opportunity to play the Mancunian side again- playing against them for the first time in group stages of 2005-06 CL campaign- churning out an entertaining 0-0 draw on both occasions. Even in this campaign, both sides drew 0-0 at Old Trafford and El Madrigal. They finished 2nd in the group- advancing to R16 where they outclassed Greek champions Panathinaikos. Yet another Quarter Final appearance beckons for the budding club. And to add spice and seasoning to the occasion, they were matched up with Arsenal. A feeling of revenge developed among the tiny town- to take the fight to London and finish off the tie after a 1-1 draw at El Madrigal. But it was Robin Van Persie who produced one of his best ever performances in UCL for Arsenal in the 2nd leg- sending Villarreal and their strong fan contingent back home.

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Another slump of form and managerial merry go around kept Villarreal away from defying the odds but again this slump was short lived. Yet again the footballing gods graced the club. This time it was a slot in newly branded UEFA Europa League (2010-11) after RCD Mallorca were found to have massive financial implications. The club, just like it’s hard working population of the town it represents which has historically consisted of Orange and Mango cultivators, took this granted opportunity like there was no tomorrow. A mix of entertaining yet pragmatic performances saw the El Submarí Groguet reach yet another semi-final of European Competition- beating sides such as Club Brugge, PAOK, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Twente, SSC Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen. This resulted in a clash with tournament’s favourite FC Porto led by a young and enigmatic Andre Villas Boas and spearheaded by Radamel Falcao- the competition’s top scorer. But Villareal also boasted some local cult icons- led by Giuseppe Rossi. Villarreal started the match in best fashion- taking the lead at Estadio Do Dragao but the second half saw one of the best ever performances in UEFA Europa League’s recent history. With the support of the fans, The Super Dragons responded with a staggering 5 second half goals to win the first leg. Villareal won the 2nd leg 3-2 but it wasn’t enough. Yet another exit at the semi final stage, yet another ‘what could have been moment’ for the Yellow Submarine. 

The club was flying so high over the years that it eventually was humbled down. But neither the club nor the fans thought that it would happen so soon. 2011-12 La Liga season- a season marred with club crumbling under hefty expectations and a horrendous form in 2nd half of the season saw the club falling down to Segunda. What’s worse is that their recently appointed manager- Manolo Preciado suffered a fatal heart attack on the same day of his appointment and sadly passed away. A tragedy like this coupled with relegation and mass exodus of it’s squad to greener pastures saw the club facing a Herculean task of coming out of this adversity unscathed. 

When all looked lost, the club yet again rose from the ashes like a Phoenix- a brave run in final gameweeks of the La Liga 2 saw the club clinch a 2nd place and automatic promotion back to La Liga. A reborn Villarreal with all of its highs and lows in this glorious 15 year period- straight away secured a place in UEL right after promotion. The 2nd half of 2010s saw the club become a regular of European competition, taking part in UEL and also fighting for CL spots. Yet another strong run in UEL saw the club reach yet another semi final in UEL (2015-16). Another English giant in Liverpool stood in their way. A strong 1-0 win at El Madrigal may just have been enough for Villarreal to secure their place in the final but The Kop provided Liverpool with extra vigour and it meant that another semi- final exit was waiting for Villareal. 

But their fortunes were to change. Another slump in form humbled the club and made them to restructure their strategies. And with yet another blessing from the footballing gods, they got the person who may just be the one who can change their fortunes- who shared the same philosophy about football, about life. The new man-in charge? Unai Emery.

(Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis 

A humble and down to earth person off the pitch, Unai Emery has made a name for himself over the years in the Spanish footballing circuit. His spells outside of Spain haven’t been very successful but he is a person who has always been ready to take a challenge and test himself. Taking a job in Russia with Spartak Moscow, returning back home and achieving a legendary status in Seville. The charms of Paris and PSG attracted him after his stint at Sevilla,  followed by a fairly successful stint at Arsenal (given the North London side was in an era of transition). His flexibility in managing the resources at his disposal in Villarreal has seen him try various formations, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and even on occasion utilizing a 4-1-4-1 shape. At centre-back however, Emery has established the formidable partnership of former Real Madrid and Napoli man Raul Albiol, and youngster Pau Torres who has started attracting attention of various clubs in Europe. Emery has shown faith in the 24-year old Alfonso Pedraza, who previously had four loan spells away from the club. The young Ecuadorian Pervis Estupinan remains a solid rotation option for Villarreal to use at Left back after his loan spell at Osasuna. The creative Dani Parejo has been one of Villarreal’s key men this season after his move from Valencia, and has been partnered most often with another long-time Villarreal player – Manu Trigueros. And the attack is led by Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer. Gerard has been in the form of his life, enjoying his best spell of his career under Emery who has helped him improve even further.

Passing Map depicting the average positions taken by the players

Playing out from the Back

Unai Emery has always had a desire to play out from the back and that has continued on so far this season in 2020-21. In build-up and attacking phases, Villarreal’s formation shifts more into a 2-1-4-3. For purposes of simplifying things, you could also call this a 3-4-3, with Vicente Iborra/ Manu Trigueros dropping in between or alongside the two centre-backs. This allows the full backs to push wide and further up the field, stretching the play and creating possible openings to receive the pass while creating overload in the middle of the pitch- a possible numerical advantage over the opposition in same area by creating a diamond shape and a route both forward and backwards if things go awry. These shapes offer the Yellow Submarine options both forwards and backwards at proper angles to keep possession of the ball and avoid making dangerous sideways passes in their own half.

Villarreal trying to play from the back

Midfield Superiority 

If the opposition are then keen to try and bypass Villarreal’s midfield triangle, they are often forced into longer passes or the wide areas, closer to the touch-line. Dani Parejo and Manu Trigueros are the most frequent ball-winners for Villarreal, and in Francis Coquelin they have another player who can do the exact same job when needed.  In attacking transitions, they have a very vertical approach and as already noted, Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno often drift inside. Their verticality naturally increases their use of through-balls down the middle rather than working the ball out to the wide areas and delivering crosses.

An attempt at through balls in central area of the pitch

While the Yellow Submarine started well in La Liga, their form has been topsy turvy which has left them at 7th place with 58 points, 3 point short of 6th place, ensuring a chance to play in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League next season at minimum. But their performances have yet again come up in the Europa League this season. With the club’s penchant of performing at top level in European competition and Unai Emery’s experience at the same stage complementing each other, their performance in this season’s Europa League have been exciting to follow. They topped their group stage with relatively easier sides- Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel, Sivasspor of Turkey and Qarabag of Azerbaijan. They then went on to defeat RB Salzburg, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Zagreb to reach the semi finals where they were again paired with Arsenal. 

This was a tie which held a lot of importance to both the manager and the club, a chance at redemption and glory and possible revenge against the side who got the better of them twice before in KO rounds of both UCL and UEL. The first leg was played in Spain, at El Madrigal. Villarreal opted for a 4-4-2 with Manu Trigueros starting at left flank, trying to cut in and drop into more advanced midfield areas- creating an overload in the center and Parejo, Capoue sitting in deep midfield space and nullifying Arsenal’s approach of playing a narrower game. The biggest problem for Arsenal in this game was essentially self-inflicted. They tried to press high, with the wingers responsible for helping Smith Rowe. Saka and Pepe would press from the outside in, trying to force Villarreal through the centre where Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Ceballos and Partey would look to overload the Spanish side’s double pivot of Capoue and Parejo. But Villarreal were able to play out of this pressure.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 1)

Villarreal’s centre-backs and midfielders were comfortable handling the ball under this high pressure, combining to find a way out. Arteta’s choice of Smith Rowe upfront naturally led to an extra option in midfield, as the 20-year-old dropped back looking to make angles for his teammates. However, Villarreal were compact and organised enough to minimise space for Smith Rowe and Odegaard between the lines, forcing Arsenal to play more directly – in the end, 11.4% of the Premier League side’s passes were long balls (compared to 9.8% for Villarreal). Ceballos was sent off early on in the second half, which didn’t help Arsenal’s chances.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 2)

At that point they were 2-0 down, with Albiol heading home from a set piece to double Villarreal’s advantage. And it could so easily have been more. Arsenal continued to press as they had before, only now they had one man less. Unsurprisingly, this led to gaps for Villarreal to exploit in a midfield populated only by Smith Rowe (moved back when Arteta brought Gabriel Martinelli on for Odegaard) and Partey. Emery’s introduction of Francis Coquelin worked out, as the ex-Gunner frequently found himself the extra man in midfield and nearly set up a third goal for the hosts. In the end, it took a bit of individual quality and luck for Arsenal to get back in the tie and set-up a mouth watering 2nd leg clash in London. 

But, Villarreal was in control because their players were used to play a more pragmatic approach. Using the basics of seeing out the game, Villarreal defended well against an Arsenal side who again lacked the intensity which was clearly evident from their playing style. A 0-0 draw was enough to finally break the duck- a first ever final appearance in any competition for Yellow Submarine. And it came at the expense of tactically outclassing Arsenal, a sign of relief for Villarreal and Unai Emery.

A fairytale run across Europe will reach its final destination- Gdansk, Poland. With fans ready to back the Yellow Submarine against the Red Devils, a historic Europa League final is on the cards. A victory against Manchester United will not only mean a first ever UEL trophy (also first ever major title) but a victory against an opposition of the prestige of Manchester United, one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ of ESL will be such a sweet experience for Villarreal. 

No matter what happens on the pitch, this Villarreal side will not be just playing for a trophy, this side will be playing for it’s colours, for it’s Barrio, for it’s philosophy. 

The Ramones’ ”I Believe in Miracles” which has been heard quite a few times at El Madrigal on matchdays, will actually hold a brand new meaning for Villarreal if they end up taming the Devil in front of them and get their hands on that Europa League trophy.  

“I believe in miracles. I believe in a better world, for me and you”- the ethos on which this club, deeply attached to it’s smaller community, has worked during its entire history. 

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The Importance of Fred – Season Report 19/20

Tactical Analysis: The importance of Fred – Season report 19/20

by Varun Vasudevan

Tactical Analysis

There are many Manchester United players who divide opinion among the passionate fanbase. None more so than Brazilian midfielder Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, better known as Fred. After a torrid time under Jose Mourinho, Fred has found his feet under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and delivered some of his best performances in the first half of the 19/20 season before being shifted to a backup role after the return of Paul Pogba in the second half. From a failed transfer to Player of the year candidate to backup player, the last 18 months for Fred have been a whirlwind. The reality for the player is somewhere in between all these opinions. Let’s dive deeper to analyse Fred’s season, strengths and weaknesses and indulge in some conjecture over his Manchester United future.

Strengths & Weaknesses
We start with a simple analysis of what Fred brings to the team. The infographics below highlight Fred’s ranking of various statistics among all Premier League midfielders to have played 15 games or more over the 19/20 season. There are about 100 midfielders who fit this criteria.

We look at the defensive stats first since that’s been a huge part of Fred’s achievements this season and immediately we see that he ranks 8th, 2nd, 3rd and 5th for tackles won, pressures, steals (Number of times the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure) and pass blocks respectively among Premier League midfielders this season. Additionally, he also ranks 6th for tackles in the defensive third and 2nd for steals in the defensive third. His defensive aura reduces in the middle third (ranking 11th for tackles and 6th for steals) while its almost non-existent in the attacking third (ranking 64th for tackles and 50th for steals) indicating much of his defensive work comes deeper than higher up the pitch. The reasons for this will be highlighted further when we discuss his tactical fitment. But the above table also points out a glaring weakness of Fred’s game. He ranks third in times dribbled past in the league suggesting that shielding the defence and positioning are big weaknesses. The amount of aggressive pressures he makes often lets opposition players slip by. It’s a catch-22 situation where the benefits of a successful pressure and opportunity to counter come at the cost of attackers getting past him.

Looking at the possession stats, we see positive rankings for successful dribbles, players dribbled past and carries (Number of times the player controlled the ball with their feet) indicating Fred’s strength as a dribbler. He is confident enough to make dashes with the ball after recovering them in midfield and a decent progressive distance (Total distance a player moved the ball towards the opponent’s goal) rank of 12th also indicates that most of these are purposeful vertical dashes towards goal. His pass target (Number of times a player was the target of an attempted pass) rank of 8th also indicates how the other United players have looked at him to carry the ball out of defence often. The big weakness here is the high dispossessed rank of 10th suggesting that often in these attempts he also loses the ball which is further confirmed with his miscontrols (Number of times a player failed when attempting to gain control of a ball) rank of 28th – suggesting that Fred isn’t the ‘safest’ option in midfield from a ball retention point of view. For a team that prioritizes keeping the ball this would prove to be an issue.

Finally, as we check the passing stats, there is a clear skew towards progressive passing rather than safe/short passing. Fred excels at purposeful passing ranking 8th best for passes into the final third, 6th for completed passes distance (Total distance, in yards, that completed passes have traveled in any direction), and 8th in progressive passes distance (Total distance that completed passes have traveled towards the opponent’s goal. Note: Passes away from opponent’s goal are counted as zero progressive yards) only being bested by pure attacking midfielders in these stats which is unique given the time he spends in his own third of the pitch while defending. He ranks 28th for short passes completed and 37th for short pass completion % indicating that he’s better at going long and direct instead of short and safe. His number of key passes are decent (rank 28) for his position while his zero assists statistic this season isn’t a huge surprise considering his defensive role.

To summarize the stats above, this is a midfielder who presses and wins the ball in his own third, progresses with the ball purposefully in the middle third and attempts and pulls off many direct passes into the attacking third – but all this comes at the cost of safe possession and control.

Tactical Fit
Our understanding of Fred will be further highlighted if we spend some time analysing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics for the season. Without diving too deep, (that can be a whole other article) it’s clear that Ole preferred to play on the counter in the first half of the season while going for a much more possession-oriented game in the second half of the season. The Norwegian made the best of what he had starting the season based on the strengths of his newly formed defence, pace of the attack and ball winning ability of his midfield. This was where Fred shined. The aim was to drop deep, absorb, press, steal, and play progressive passes to the front 4 who could then hit teams on the break. This was what Fred was good at. There was no pressure to keep possession or play safe. There was no playmaking burden placed on the Brazilian as he displayed his tenacity, energy and drive to consistently defend and initiate counter attacks at the cost of possession. By December, Fred was already a frontrunner for Manchester United’s Player of the year award.

But, it has to be said, he seemed like the best piece of a team that wasn’t doing all that well. While results came in big games where the counter approach suited United, it was games against the bottom half where the lack of creativity cost them heavily keeping them far from the top 4 where they aimed to be. Bruno’s arrival and Pogba’s return offered Solskjaer a great opportunity to change that.

Now armed with creativity in the middle of the park, Ole resorted to a possession based system. While the shape remained a 4-2-3-1 on paper it resembled the classic 4-3-3 possession-oriented shape in game. The perfect foil for a midfield containing Pogba and Bruno was Nemanja Matic. The Serbian, though aged, possesses a few things Fred doesnt – positioning, build up play and safety in passing. Using the same data and scope given earlier, Matic ranked 6th in passes completed and 8th in pass completion % while playing the 8th most passes into the final third. He was tailor-made to play the deepest role in a possession-based tactic. This system now meant Matic’s lack of aggression, pressing and progressive dribbling was not an issue. His ball retention, safety on the ball, positioning and shielding offered things Fred could not. 

 

The images show the average position of the players in two games picked out from both halves of the season. Earlier in the season against Bournemouth, the 4-2-3-1 shape is more prominent with Fred (#17) and Scott Mctominay (#39) shielding the back four as a pivot. The formation is skewed towards the left as Rashford remained the threat on the counter. In comparison the other image is from the game against Leicester towards the end of the season which clearly shows a deep-lying Matic (#31) giving Pogba (#6) and Bruno (#18) creative control at the center of the park. The attacking pattern and shape is much more uniformly distributed thanks to the possession and positional play of Matic.

As United blazed through an unbeaten trail of 14 games to clinch an important 3rd placed finish, Fred watched from the sidelines. And he would have watched knowing he doesn’t fit anymore. The few times Fred took to the pitch as a substitute during this run, the team’s ball retention dropped heavily as they ceded possession and invited pressure. One of these occasions cost the team 2 points against Southampton as the substitutes Fred and James couldn’t imitate the ball retention of Pogba and Greenwood. The FA cup semi-final saw Ole revert to a back five with Fred in midfield in an attempt to channel the counter-based successes from the first half of the season. But it backfired horribly as United failed to create anything of note and Fred had another poor outing. 

What does the Future hold?
United ended the league season on a hugely positive 3rd placed finish and three respectable, if not emphatic, semi-final finishes. It won’t be a big surprise if Fred isn’t as ecstatic as the others in these celebrations. If the possession-based tactic remains Ole’s blueprint for long-term success, the Brazilian has enough cause for worry. He is neither as creative as Pogba, nor as output-oriented as Bruno nor as safe and effective as Matic in possession. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Fred now feels like a square peg in a round hole. Turning 27 this year, the opportunities to be a starter for a big club at his peak will only reduce from hereon, increasing the doom and gloom around his current situation.

But can a run of 20 games be that damning for a player? Probably, but if football has proven anything, it is that short-term judgements often remain just that. Fred has done enough this season to stay and get chances to prove himself. With Matic’s age and Pogba’s slightly-concerning injury patterns, Fred will find himself in Manchester United’s midfield a few more times for sure. Fred can improve on the things he lacks to prove useful in a possession-based system. It’s not unheard of for ball-winning midfielders to adapt and obtain a pro-possession orientation especially later in their career. Jordan Henderson comes to mind. The Englishman mostly operated as a ball-winner or box-to-box player for most of his career but has displayed unrivalled maturity and reliability in a deeper role in recent seasons under Jurgen Klopp. Nemanja Matic himself started as an attacking midfielder, then played as a ball-winning midfielder for large parts of his Chelsea career before his current stint as an efficient deep-lying playmaker at the age of 32.

Fred can take faith in these transformations and add a possession-oriented dimension to his game which most top teams demand in some way or the other. If Manchester United are going to improve as a team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leadership, it will require players like Fred to improve and be counted as well. Additionally, Fred can also take faith in the fact that he still remains United’s best option if a counter-based approach is needed. He had a good outing against Sevilla in the Europa semi-finals where the red devils’ adopted a more counter-pressing style of play, ending his personal season on a positive note. United are still some way off to dominating the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool in terms of possession and with Champions League teams to face from next season onwards, the chances of playing on the counter and relying on Fred’s strengths will never be too low.

A combination of these 2 factors can see Fred extend his United career and still be a contributing member of a grand new era under Solskjaer. All said and done, Fred has already shut up those who doubted him after the 18/19 season by standing tall as one of United’s best players in the 19/20 season. It won’t be a surprise if he shuts up the ones (like me) who doubt whether he can improve even further.

Marcus Rashford and Half-spaces

When Manchester United welcomed the Danish side FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in 2016 for their second leg tie in the Europa League Round of 32, the then United manager, Louis van Gaal was down to bare bones in the attack department. Injuries to senior attacking players such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young meant the only striker fit enough to start was Anthony Martial. 18 year-old Marcus Rashford occupied a place on the bench, but an injury to Anthony Martial in the warmup meant that Marcus Rashford would make his full first team debut. The Englishman scored twice on his debut en route to a 5-1 win for Manchester United. Rashford also scored twice in his first full Premier League debut 3 days later against Arsenal and hasn’t looked back ever since. 

Marcus Rashford, when he first came into the side, was what could be regarded as an explosive striker. Running and going past defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, the 18 year-old was direct and took no prisoners. Rashford scored 7 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions in that breakthrough season, cementing his place in the first team for Manchester United that won the FA cup.

Then came Jose Mourinho and the Portugese never saw Rashford as his main no.9 and the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in consecutive seasons only backed Mourinho’s claim. In the 2016/17 season, in a fully fit squad, Rashford usually played on the left although he did play as a striker whenever the main striker was injured. As time went by, it became largely evident that Marcus Rashford’s best position was playing on the left and not through the middle. 

Even though Mourinho found the position in which Rashford has since excelled, the Portugese was very shrewd in giving him minutes on the pitch. Rashford made more appearances from the bench rather than from the get-go. In the 2017/18 season, Rashford made 35 appearances in the Premier League but 18 of them were from the bench. He played only 1792 minutes in the whole campaign. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival in January 2018 resulted in Rashford dropping down the pecking order. 

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has truly begun to excel. Playing mainly from the left this season, the 22 year old has scored 17 goals in the Premier League, already his best ever goal scoring return and 10 more than compared to when he played on the left under Mourinho in the 2017/18 season. Not limited to goalscoring output, his xG per 90 has improved as well from 0.28 to 0.57. 

Both managers played him on the left wing, and both primarily preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. So what has changed? How has his goal output improved so much in the same position?

Of course, one could argue that it’s nothing but a case of a young player maturing, and for some part, it is. But, Solskjaer has made a small tactical tweak to Rashford’s positioning in the build-up and link-up play which has made the majority of the difference. That being, Rashford being deployed into half-spaces instead of playing out wide on the left. That has made a difference in 3 aspects of his game.

1.Proximity to goal

Firstly, he is closer to the goal and the main striker, Anthony Martial. Under Mourinho, the closest player to the main striker was usually the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Jesse Lingard. Mourinho deployed Lingard to act as a secondary striker, linking up with Lukaku and finding spaces in and around the box. Solskjaer shifted the onus of the no.10 from scoring goals to more of a playmaking role. By shifting Rashford in the half-spaces, Ole has allowed him to act as a secondary striker. These are Marcus Rashford’s heatmaps for the 17/18 and the 19/20 season.

As it is evident to see, Rashford is occupying the Left sided half spaces a lot more as compared to 17/18 where he’s mostly occupying the wider areas. Being in these areas has allowed him to be closer to goal and Martial and his link-up with the Frenchman has been the cornerstone of many of the attacks that Manchester United have structured this season. 

Here, Martial occupies the striker position, Rashford tucks into the half-space to be closer to Martial. This enables Luke Shaw to get into the space left by Rashford and become an enticing passing option for Lindelof (on the ball) for a crossfield pass. 

Instead, Lindelof passes it to Mata on the right wing, who cuts in and crosses to Rashford, still occupying the half space. Rashford completes his far post run and scores past Tim Krul in the goal. 

Switch to another move, where Rashford occupying the half space and being close to Martial, helps the no.10 (Pereira in this case) drop deeper to get the ball and release the runners. In this case, Wan Bissaka receives the ball from Pereira, who makes a great forward run and crosses for Rashford who continues his same run in the left hand side half-space and scores. 

2.Positional interchange with striker

Secondly, Rashford operating the half space has allowed him to constantly interchange positions with Martial and the understanding between the duo has been one of the key reasons for both playing well this season. Their link-up was clear to see in the 3rd goal that Manchester United scored at Carrow road this season.   

3.Pressing centrally

Lastly, Rashford’s pressing awareness has improved a lot this season as well. He mainly presses in the half spaces, attempting to cut off the right sided centre back’s supply to the right back and the defensive mid. This forces the centre back to pass it back to his keeper or his defence partner. Even if the ball gets to the fullback or to the defensive mid, Rashford is quick to change direction and press depending on where the ball is played.

In this situation, Rashford presses Schar who looks to pass in the middle. He misplaces his pass which ends up to Greenwood, who darts ahead and scores a sensational goal. 

Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow Rashford to express himself. The Portugese has always associated himself with having a strong no.9 – A focal point whose hold up play, physical strength and ability to play in runners are the best traits. Rashford was never that player – far from it as he isn’t even a proper no.9. 

Another aspect which has had an effect on Rashford excelling is Solskjaer’s counter attacking set up. Under Mourinho, the two players exempted from tracking back and staying forward for counter attacks were the striker and the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. Solskjaer’s set up while not having the ball is quite the opposite. He insists on the attacking midfielder dropping deeper and helping the midfield while the front 3, most recently Martial, Rashford and Greenwood stay forward for United to counter attack with blistering pace. 

It is no surprise that Jesse Lingard had his best season under Mourinho where the attacking midfielder had the role of a secondary striker and has struggled under Solskjaer due to the attacking midfielder having more playmaking duties. Similarly, Rashford has thrived in a system where he has been used as a secondary striker and been allowed to express himself more. 

Goal (Green)

Shot on post (yellow)

Saved shot (blue)

Blocked shot (purple)

Missed shot (red)

These are the shot maps of Marcus Rashford from the 17/18 season and the 19/20 season. It is clear to see that Rashford has matured a lot and is playing with real swagger and tenacity. 


Now, just allowing Marcus Rashford to operate in the half spaces isn’t the only reason for the improvement that the 22 year old has shown this season. Statistics show that Rashford is outperforming himself in almost every aspect of his game including passing, dribbling, shooting and pressing. This shows a real maturity in his game and how well Rashford is developing into becoming a complete player. This only bodes well for Manchester United going forward as the Englishman is going to be key for the rebuild that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have planned.

All in all, it is fair to say that Marcus Rashford has come a long way since his debut in 2016 and he is constantly improving at each stage of his career. The 22 year-old still has a long way to go, but his work ethic and the way he has adapted to tactics over the years only suggest that the Englishman is well on his way to becoming a truly world-class player.