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Manchester United Tactical Preview: Stopping the penalty box assassin

Could the return of JP Gbamin be the key?

Manchester United v Everton - Pre-season Friendly Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Everton head to Old Trafford this weekend in what is undoubtedly the most difficult game of Rafa Benitez’s tenure so far. A team full of superstars who at times haven’t exactly looked like a proper team and this may be something Everton can take advantage of. Hopefully one or two of Everton’s long injury list can make their return against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men.

United and Everton share identical starts in terms of results so far this season, with both sides winning four, drawing one and losing one game. United sit in fourth place with Everton level on points in fifth with a slightly worse goal difference. They are a possession-based side, a lot more so than Everton, having had an average of 59.2%. This ranks them third in the table, behind rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. They love to play out from the back, with David De Gea only playing thirty passes (excluding goal kicks) that have gone further than forty yards. This is the lowest in the whole Premier League. Knowing how Everton have setup in games this season, I imagine we will allow them to do what they want to do and let them play out from the back rather than pressing them high up the pitch.

Undoubtedly, Manchester United have some of the best attacking talent in the league. The majority of their goals coming from forward trio Mason Greenwood, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, sharing ten goals between them. If you total the number of shots these players have had, it comes to a whopping sixty shots. This is something Everton must try keep as low as possible. In comparison to others in the league we’ve managed to restrict the number of shots on our goal so far this season. We rank thirteenth for amount of shots faced, with sides like Leicester, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham all conceding more. Something we have also done extremely well is try and force our opponents into shooting from distance. The average distance of all our shots against us is 18.9 yards which is the second highest in the league, only bettered by our opponents at the weekend. This leads me on to someone who we must limit to shots from distance, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Manchester United v Villarreal CF: Group F - UEFA Champions League
The main threat of the weekend
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

The greatest player of all time according to lots of people, but whatever you think of him in terms of where he ranks amongst others, there’s no doubting he’s a player we need to watch out for this weekend. He’s returned to the Premier League and settled in like he’d never left. All his goals so far have come from inside the box, with the average distance of all his shots being 14.4 yards out, so the majority of them coming inside the eighteen-yard box. I imagine we will setup very defensively and try and absorb pressure for ninety minutes. Whoever plays centre back this weekend must be extra wary of him as his movement is up there with the very best in the world. All he needs is to break half a yard away from a defender and with the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba behind him, they will always be looking for that killer pass in behind. Obviously, Ronaldo isn’t the only threat and as I mentioned we must try and eliminate the threat of the playmakers behind him.

One of the main men to worry about is Paul Pogba. He has racked up an incredible seven assists already this season. I expect him to play in advanced left midfield position, with Jadon Sancho failing to impress so far. This is a role which gives Pogba a lot of freedom. This is because he can drift inside and pick up the ball between the lines. The full back he’s up against won’t be able to follow his movement as it will drag them out of position, so this is where Andros Townsend will be vital this weekend. He’s managed fifteen tackles so far this season, which is incredibly high for someone in his position, only bettered by our midfield duo Allan and Doucoure for Everton. He will be able to track back as he always does and will have more of a license to drift out of position to mark Pogba, more so than whoever is playing right back as it will be important to keep our defensive shape.

With Alex Iwobi confirmed as a doubt for the game, this could signal the return of Jean-Philippe Gbamin. Rafa announced he was fully fit in Friday’s press conference and a midfield three could be the key to nullifying the threat of United. Bruno Fernandes is likely to start just behind Ronaldo this weekend. With a midfield three, we can then sacrifice one of our midfielders to focus solely on Bruno and try to stop him creating chances. He’s created 35 ‘shot creating actions’ this season, the sixth highest in the league. If we pack out the midfield and have two hard working wide midfielders, it’s going to mean there will be very little space for the United players to work their magic. Another option may be for us to revert to a back five which we’ve seen a few times this season. This will allow us to stay really compact centrally and allow one of our centre backs to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo. With Coleman also ruled out, we could easily see all four of our first team centre backs starting.

Everton Training Session
Gbamin declared fully fit
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

I’ve seen a lot of Everton fans on social media expecting the worst and unfortunately, I have to agree. We’re going to have to really frustrate them for large periods of the game and hit them on the counter attack at every opportunity. It wouldn’t surprise me if Salomon Rondon finishes the game only touching the ball a handful of times. If we get any kind of result, with the injuries we’ve got, everyone involved on Saturday including the manager should be very proud.