Analysis: Why United's first half was impressive

Sunday 16 January 2022 07:00

Ralf Rangnick described it as the best 30 minutes of his tenure at Manchester United, and pundits and fans alike were pleased with what was on show, so what made the opening half-an-hour at Villa Park so encouraging for the Reds?

It came down to three aspects, really. United stayed compact in the defensive shape, scored an early goal and retained possession well. All in all, this allowed for a great deal of control over the game.

Rangnick has regularly emphasised his desire to see United control games. Matches can swing to and fro, any football fan knows that, but the ultimate aim, as Rangnick has outlined, is to control the vast majority of the 90 minutes.

United couldn’t quite do that on Saturday evening, as a frustrated Bruno Fernandes summed up: “We let the result escape at the end.” Nevertheless, the first half-an-hour was a template for future performances.

Ben Thornley says

"We played the first half really, really well. I thought it was probably just about the best half of football I've seen United play this season."

Maintaining a compact team shape

“I think when we played well was the moments when we played more compact, more calm, with the clear ideas about what we are doing and everyone was following the ideas,” Fernandes said, while analysing the match with MUTV.

“So that’s why I think the first 30 minutes was really good. After, the game started to be a little bit more [in the] balance for both sides.”

Out of possession, United were disciplined, as Bruno says, and it paid off. Aston Villa’s first shot on goal came in the 32nd minute. That’s the longest it’s taken an opponent to register a shot against United all season.

Beyond the 32nd minute, United allowed a further three on De Gea’s goal before the break, with only one in return. The control was lost slightly. In the second half, after a tricky opening few minutes, United reasserted some control. Villa didn’t manage a shot between the 57th and 74th minutes, while United managed four.

This was down to compactness, Fernandes and Rangnick were sure. The gap between the defensive line and midfield unit was small, limiting the space for Villa to pass into, and Edinson Cavani led the press from the front, forcing the opposition into mistakes.

A trend of early goals

Fernandes was admittedly fortunate to see his dipping strike find the back of the net. It needed Emi Martinez to fumble the ball and allow it to trickle through his legs.

That being said, United attacked consistently, and, as Rangnick pointed out post-match, “could have been two or three-nil up by half-time.”

There was an intensity to United’s play that has sometimes been missing early on in games this season. Before the opening three minutes were out, Bruno and Alex Telles had between them taken two corners and two free-kicks in dangerous locations.

Ben Thornley says

"The performance was really good and we got an early goal. I said pre-match that we look a different team when we can get our noses in front early. And the first goal was our reward for the amount of pressure we put on Villa.”

After the opener, Anthony Elanga got up to meet a cross from Fred in the 11th minute and Martinez smothered an effort from Mason Greenwood in the 18th minute. Greenwood fired wide in the 28th minute and was denied by Martinez again five minutes later.

Perhaps United should have taken more of those chances, but that they were being made is a positive. And it’s part of a wider trend. United have scored in the opening 10 minutes in four of Ralf Rangnick’s eight matches in charge now.

Highlights: Villa 2 United 2 Video

Highlights: Villa 2 United 2

Watch all the goals – including Bruno's double – from our hard-fought Premier League draw at Aston Villa...

Retaining possession

Key to controlling the game early on was how United’s forward players showed composure on the ball. Fernandes, Greenwood and Elanga all kept things simple, rather than trying audacious chipped balls, back heels or unlikely crosses.

It shows in the first-half stats. Fernandes completed 27 of his 32 attempted passes, Greenwood 22 of 23 and Elanga 13 of 15. For the creative players in the side, those who lose possession most frequently, such numbers are good.

Ben Thornley says

“They were comfortable in possession, they hunted the ball down, they won it back well, they used it well. In Anthony Elanga, I thought they had a real plus point in somebody who was able to counteract the attacking threat of Matty Cash down that right-hand side.”

So what to improve in future?

Rangnick and Fernandes offered good insight into what went wrong post-match.

“We showed in the last 15 minutes if we open up the space, if we are not compact enough, other teams can create chances, which is what happened,” Rangnick said.

Meanwhile, Fernandes admitted that United might have been too gung-ho in seeking to close the game out with a third goal.

“The game was too open,” he said.

“I think it probably could be that, we tried to score another goal and tried to close the game out. We made the distance bigger [between defence and midfield] and when you make that happen, it’s difficult for the back line. They played with a lot of players in the middle of the pitch and they could find passes easily. It’s difficult for the back line to handle with a lot of quality players ahead there.”

The boss and Saturday’s captain agreed that United played at our best when staying compact. The key going forward, then, is to maintain that good team shape throughout, whereby the gap between the defence and midfield is small enough to prevent the opposition passing to their most creative players in dangerous positions.