Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Missing first-choice fullbacks prove costly

In the end it’s all going to come down to Luke Shaw.
Imagine in October hearing “Manchester United’s top four hopes could come down to whether Luke Shaw is fit on the final day of the season.”
United fans have a pretty meh-hate relationship with Luke Shaw. Not many really love the guy, a substantial larger number think he’s terrible, and the rest are just kinda lukewarm about him.
His absence in the early part of the season paved the way for the emergence of Brandon Williams. The plucky academy kid made such an impression, that when Shaw was ready to return in early December many thought that Williams should be first choice over him.
Even with Shaw showing his best form in a United shirt over the second half of the season there are still many who would rate Williams over him. That has turned out to be premature.
United have played three games since Shaw rolled his ankle against Southampton. In those three games they learned two things.
That’s not to say that Williams is bad. He’s a very good player. When it comes to his defensive abilities and positioning, he’s right up there with anyone.
When it comes to the physicality of the Premier League, that’s not a worry either.
Williams’ biggest issue is that he’s right-footed, and with the way United currently play, they need a left-footed left-back.
United’s current system relies heavily on the fullbacks pushing up to attack. The fullbacks themselves don’t need to be spectacular – they’re merely cogs in United’s attacking machine. But when you take out those cogs, nothing else works right.
United looked dull and completely void of ideas Wednesday against a well organized West Ham team that were sitting deep. It was eerily reminiscent of the first half of the season when United struggled in exactly these types of games.
Which was notable because United haven’t been struggling in these types of games recently. Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth, and Aston Villa all sat deep against United and all were brushed aside relatively easily.
Then Shaw went down and things started getting tricky. United were able to dispatch Crystal Palace, but that was more thanks to some great individual play from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. United didn’t look good doing it.
At this point we’ve exhausted the amount of times we can talk about how to break down teams that sit deep. You need to move the ball quickly. You need to be decisive as soon as you win the ball back. You need to use your width.
That width isn’t just for the final third, it’s also necessary to use it in the buildup, and that’s where United have struggled without their first choice fullbacks.
This is where Williams really struggles. Often in the buildup, Williams takes the ball on his right foot, causing him to turn inside. It slows everything down.
This has been the story of Williams when he plays at left-back. There’s a reason that when United were 2-0 down to Burnley one of the ‘attacking’ subs Solskjaer made was Shaw for Williams.
Too often Williams doesn’t even try to progress the ball. Here he gets the ball twice in a matter of seconds and never even tries to look up field.
Here Williams gets the ball after West Ham break their shape to press Bruno Fernandes. This is the exact time where you want to hit them with a quick forward pass to take advantage of space. Williams goes square.
Again after West Ham break their shape to try and clear the ball, it’s an ideal time to try and pick them out. No attempt is even made.
Williams’ play is very similar to Scott McTominay. He’s not making mistakes or being bad with the ball. But when he’s out there it’s clear there are limitations that prevent the machine from running at full capacity.
Here, he gets himself into a good position to receive the ball. Once he does all he has to do is swing his left boot through it to get Rashford into space. He doesn’t even try.
What is the point of even getting yourself into that position if you’re just going to go backwards with it?
In the short term, United need Shaw back simply because he knows the role inside and out. On Wednesday, Williams’ struggled with that.
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