Underdog tactics: How Man Utd and co tried this week…

Date published: Friday 7th December 2018 9:40

It doesn’t take much to see that the Premier League is severely stratified. Already in December you have clear Champions League contenders, clear relegation battlers and clear mid-table sides. As a result, more and more often we get weeks where a large proportion of the match-ups are mis-match-ups of a sort, where one team is noticeably better. Here’s the fixture list for this past midweek:

Brighton-Crystal Palace
Watford-Manchester City
West Ham-Cardiff
Manchester United-Arsenal

Fully nine out of ten matches were between teams at distinctly different levels. Only Brighton-Crystal Palace matched sides of roughly equal class – early Winner/Loser noted the current gulf, but it’d be no surprise if they ended the season in the same postcode. You can’t say that for any of the remaining nine match-ups.

Big deal, you say? Well, maybe not, at least not anymore. But a round like this invites a tactical perspective. It’s the eternal question: What Do You Do When You Know The Other Side Is Better? In this column we’ll take a brief look at the answers in all nine matches, roughly by descending degree of difficulty:


Tottenham v Southampton
A relegation candidate, an interim manager, a trip to a Champions League contender. The Saints might have been excused if they’d parked the bus. In fact, they tried to play some football. The formation was 4-4-1-1, itself fairly conservative – but although the Saints rarely pressed high, they consistently harassed Spurs when defending in their own half. The striker was Manolo Gabbiadini, not a target man, so they hoped to keep it on the carpet and advance as much as possible. At half-time they had 41% possession, which may not sound impressive, but was huge compared to some of the other underdogs.

Unfortunately, as they advanced, the midfield wasn’t particularly compact, and so Spurs had little trouble sending longer balls to attackers in front of the back four. As it turned out, the first goal came early from a set piece, but the defence never looked secure. The Saints had one look at the game: down 1-0, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg hit the post from distance, and Stuart Armstrong couldn’t put in the rebound. A second goal came from another set-piece, and the third started with a sequence in which Spurs passed through the lines easily.

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Burnley v Liverpool
Sean Dyche didn’t figure to change his basic approach for a game like this. It was 4-4-2 with two target men up front, with the long ball as both attacking weapon and relief from pressure. Burnley sometimes pressed high, sometimes in their own half, and never simply sat back. It worked fairly well in the first half, with Liverpool’s best chances coming from outside the area, and Joe Hart making a couple of good saves. At the interval, the Clarets had only 22% possession, but it was scoreless, and Liverpool had only four shots to three.

Even better, early in the second half the Burnley press led to a corner kick and the opening goal. Liverpool would come back to win, but you couldn’t fault the tactics. The equaliser came on a perfectly placed shot by James Milner, the winner on a set-piece. A decent try overall.


Watford v Manchester City
What can you do against City? Javi Gracia decided to sit back, abandoning his usual press. There wasn’t even much pressure on the ball in their own half. The Hornets attacked when they could, and might even have taken the lead through Troy Deeney. But they looked uncomfortable in defence, with runs from City attackers repeatedly tearing holes in the back line. The opener didn’t come until the 40th minute, thanks to Ben Foster. A second goal followed early in the second half, and then there was little choice.

In the end the Hornets made a game of it out of nowhere. Still, the initial tactics didn’t convince. Would they have done better with a press? Probably not. What can you do against City?


Wolves v Chelsea
As the match started, Wolves pressed aggressively in their own half, with wide central defenders Ryan Bennett and Willy Boly frequently coming out of the back line to challenge. After Ruben Loftus-Cheek scored the opening goal, Wolves got even bolder, switching to a higher and much more risky press, backed up by a heavy dose of tactical fouling. Even so, Chelsea several times seemed one pass or dribble from a clear shot on goal. But they never got there.

At the other end of the pitch, Morgan Gibbs-White started as a kind of false nine. It was his pass that provided the assist for the equaliser. What might have been another tactical foul, on Willian, led to the second, whereupon Wolves reverted to their initial strategy and Chelsea folded. It was the only win by any of our nine underdogs, achieved mainly through an impressive willingness to risk. But let’s not forget the cynicism as well.


Everton v Newcastle
‘Impressive willingness to risk’ isn’t a phrase you associate with Rafa Benitez, and he didn’t. But his side was the only away underdog to pick up a point. How did he do it? A 5-4-1, extremely active pressing in the defensive half. If Everton penetrated through the middle, the defence quickly collapsed around the ball. The attack usually began with long balls to Salomón Rondón. They didn’t send many men forward when on the counter, but they didn’t need to. In the 19th minute, six Everton defenders were no match for three Newcastle attackers, and Rondón tapped in Jacob Murphy’s cross.

For about ten minutes in the first half, the tactics stopped working. Everton were passing slickly both through the middle and on the wing, and a goal seemed sure to come soon. It did, if only on a set-piece. But Newcastle stayed with the same recipe, and it did the job the rest of the way. Everton were largely stymied, and the visitors nearly stole it on two late chances for Christian Atsu – both from sequences starting with long balls from the back.


West Ham v Cardiff City
Neil Warnock wasn’t interested in passive defence either, even while playing away to a superior side. The Bluebirds had played three central defenders home to Wolves, but here they went 4-1-4-1 and harassed actively in their own half. Nor did they go exclusively with the long ball, looking more like Southampton with passes through the opposition. Early on they looked nervous, and by the 23rd minute they were down 7-1 in shots. But they righted the ship, started to dominate in turn, and by half-time shots were 7-5, and possession up from 22% to 38%.

The score at the interval was 0-0, and had Joe Ralls converted his penalty, Cardiff would probably have been ahead. Early in the second half, only Arthur Masuaku’s block stopped Victor Camarasa from giving the Bluebirds the lead. But a defensive mix-up handed West Ham a goal, Cardiff had to get more aggressive, a counter-attack meant a second, and that was that. The tactics had worked reasonably well, but you have to execute, and when the other side has superior quality…


Bournemouth v Huddersfield Town
Back in early October, Watford had tried their press against Bournemouth’s counter, and got smashed. So would famous pressers Huddersfield play it safe on the south coast? Not a bit – in fact the press was probably their most vigorous and sustained of the season. It was already creaking at the back when Bournemouth scored early on a set-piece, and when Callum Wilson assisted Ryan Fraser on a classic 22nd-minute counter, David Wagner looked like he’d put his head in the lion’s mouth and got it bitten off.

But Huddersfield kept coming, soon halved the deficit, and eventually embarrassed the Cherries to the tune of 23-6 on shots and 67.2% possession. Except for Man City, it was the most dominant performance of the round. But, as I’m sure you know, they lost 2-1. Sometimes you run into a hot keeper, and this time his name was Asmir Begovic. End of story.


Fulham v Leicester City
At home to a mid-table side, Claudio Ranieri probably saw a decent chance for three points. And so he unleashed the hounds. It was physical, high tempo, get the ball forward, sometimes even kick and rush stuff, with Alexander Mitrovic the target man. In the first few minutes only the two centre-halves stayed back, and Sergio Rico had to save when James Maddison put Kelechi Iheanacho through. But soon afterwards Fulham got the balance right, holding one central midfielder back a little, and were much the stronger side. In the 41st minute a long ball got to Mitrovic via two deflections, and Aboubakar Kamara applied the finish.

The second half started much the same. Leicester looked completely flummoxed by the assault, and seemed unlikely to score, or even get close. But Fulham missed a few chances to put the game away, and in the 73rd minute, perhaps tiring, they simply forgot to defend, and a quick Leicester sequence led to a Maddison finish. Both sides went for the win at the end, and both had chances. As with Cardiff City, it was execution, not tactics, that was at fault. But at least Fulham got a point.


Manchester United v Arsenal
I’m sure most of you saw it. Mourinho went for the best of both worlds, high pressure from a forward line and five at the back. I thought it was pretty successful. Even with Aubameyang up front, Arsenal aren’t by instinct a direct side, and they never really threatened at pace. Almost all their best attacks came from basic runs and passes on the left.

The goals were all pretty mental. In the end, though, the game went kind of the way you’d expect, with the hosts wearing down against a superior side, and David De Gea making the necessary saves. As has been pointed out, United needed three points to close the gap to fourth. But looked at as a standard match-up, a mid-table side home to a Champions League contender, it was a decent result from decent tactics.


Looking at the matches from this particular perspective, what’s striking is how rarely the underdogs played it passive. Only Watford failed to engage the opposition aggressively while defending. Even Newcastle, who played the most conservative formation, made life very difficult for Everton while defending in their own half. Conservative, not passive.

At the same time, Wolves’ win, the only victory for the underdogs, resulted from a risky high press. Had Asmir Begovic not been in form, Huddersfield might have made it two in the same manner. Not that this proves anything, but if you want to see teams have a go, nothing in this round would persuade you otherwise.

The final results: one win, three draws, five losses. The win and two of the draws came at home. In fact, except for zero clean sheets, a perfectly ordinary set of results. It’s hard to get points when the other team is better. But managers will never stop trying, and hopefully this quick survey has suggested what they have in mind.

Oh, one more thing. Depending on how you look at it, the Boxing Day round could have 10 out of 10 mis-match-ups. Nothing to do but tote up the presents and think tactics – my kind of holiday.


Peter Goldstein

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