Rashford downs Hull: Tactical analysis as Manchester United emerge from the KCOM stadium with three points

Golden boys of past and present combine to maintain Jose Mourinho’s sides perfect start

Rashford downs Hull: Tactical analysis as Manchester United emerge from the KCOM stadium with three points
He's done it - Rashford downs Hull. Photo courtsey theguardian Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

You almost expected to see Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline pointing at his wrist watch, such was the nature of Manchester United’s win against Hull City in an unlikely top of the table clash.

Mike Phelan, himself an Alex Ferguson protégée and his Hull side looked set to add another feather of achievement to their cap by remaining unbeaten against Jose Mourinho’s high flying reds. But the spirit of Alex Ferguson’s United was conjured and in the dying minutes of the game, a young upcoming super star from the youth team combined with a player Ferguson had signed at a similar stage in his development to give Manchester United the lead and 3 all so precious points ahead of the international break and a small matter of the Manchester derby. But what did we learn tactically about this game?

Hull set up to frustrate

The difficulties facing Mike Phelan and his Hull side going into this season has been well documented but they had defied the odds so far with two impressive victories over defending champions Leicester City and Swansea City. To get anything from this game though, Phelan knew his team needed to defend well.

The Hull side sat back and did their best to crowd the space in front of their penalty box. The Manchester United players were allowed to have the ball and play from the back but the moment they got within 25 yards of goal they were chased, harried and given no breathing space.

Hull were also well prepared and drilled to deal with the aerial threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic with their captain Curtis Davies particularly impressive in mopping up everything United threw into the box in the air

United consistently tried to break Hull City down using the power of Paul Pogba, the creativity of Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney and the skill of Zlatan Ibrahimovic but the Hull rear guard stood firm, denying United the space to operate through the centre as was their preference for most of the game.

To this end Hull contributed little in an attacking sense but the plan was always to frustrate United and try and nick a goal on the counter attack.

The superb athleticism and speed of Eric Bailly and the excellent ball reading ability and technique of Daley Blind meant that even the few times the ball broke to a Hull player to counter attack they were rarely able to do much with it as their two shots on target reveals.

United attacking trio given freedom to roam

A big change from the Louis Van Gaal system is the freedom afforded to the three attacking players who are stationed behind the centre forward. Under the Dutchman the players in these positions were under strict instructions not to abandon their positions while the centre forward was expected to live within the 18-yard box.

Under Jose Mourinho however, these players are given the freedom to interchange positions and the independence to think for themselves in relation to which space they need to occupy on the pitch in order to influence the game the most.

A key element of this tactic is to create a fluid system that makes players difficult to mark because of their constant movement and ability to appear in dangerous pockets of space rather than in a static position.

Previous Mourinho sides have thrived in this set up; MesutOzil, Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid showed just how effective this approach could be as in tandem with Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain as the centre forward they stormed La Liga scoring 121 goals to boot.

This system also worked for Chelsea’s title winning team with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian operating like three very fluid musketeers behind the marauding Diego Costa.

In this game Jose persisted with the trio of Rooney, Mata and Martial. However, against Hull’s stubborn defensive set up, the trio failed to sparkle or interchange positions effectively. This was mainly due to the predictability of the movement of the United players. While Rooney, Mata and Martial may have swapped positions over the course of different passages of play, their style of play was always similar.

Each player wanted the ball to feet and wanted to come inside the pitch. A good defensive set up always denies space in the centre of the pitch and United’s attacking trio’s insistence on always coming short and moving inside played completely into Hull’s hands. It meant it would have taken a ball thread through the eye of a needle or a Lionel Messi like dribble past 3 or 4 players to create a goal scoring opportunity.

It wasn’t until Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on that the freedom of the players behind the striker began to bear fruits. As both players were happy to receive the ball to feet as well as to run in behind the opposition and both were willing to come inside and go outside of the opposing defender. This unpredictability of what the player might do in addition to their fluid movements in taking up dangerous pockets of space rather than standing static in one position, helped to carry United to the three points as in the last 15 minutes the team looked more dangerous than they had in the preceding 75.

Jose’s substitutions

Mkhitaryan put on an impressive display against Hull City. Photo: Sky Sports
Mkhitaryan put on an impressive display against Hull City. Photo: Sky Sports

One of the frustrations of Manchester United fans with Louis Van Gaal was that on match day he never seemed to do anything to help the team on the pitch when they were struggling. Whether that was giving tactical instructions on the touchline or making substitutions that impacted on the outcome of the game. Indeed, the Dutch man was content to sit back on his seat making notes and when his substitutions were not forced by injury they were most of the time completely baffling.

Jose though prides himself on being able to read a game and influence it through a tweak in tactics or substitutions.

Against Hull he threw on Mkhitaryan in the 60th minute to replace the ineffective Anthony Martial and Rashford replaced the fading Juan Mata in the 70th minute. The two players proved to be instant live wires especially as the Hull City defence tired in the final 15 minutes. Their movement, particularly their courage in taking on defenders helped to create a nervous atmosphere in the KCOM stadium as well as causing trouble for the Hull City defence.

In the final minutes, Rooney received a pass from Luke Shaw, beat his defender, before putting in a perfect ball into the box which Rashford tucked home to the joy and relief of all Manchester United supporters.

Before that Mkhitaryan’s guile and Rashford’s constant running caused Hull city a lot of problems. Problems they had not had to face when Martial and Mata were on the pitch. On a different day, United would have made better use of the number of free-kicks and crossing opportunities that the two substitutes created and come out of the game with a more comfortable victory.

Tactics for the future

For the upcoming game against Manchester City, which is a big one for numerous reasons, there may be a need for a tweak in tactics.

Currently Pogba enjoys a free role in midfield. He is allowed to do what he wants and given the freedom that a player of his talents deserves. However, against City, there may be a need to either curtail Pogba’s freedom or sacrifice Rooney and replace him with another midfielder thereby still allowing Pogba to play with the creative freedom that he thrives best in.

Another tactical issue to consider is which 3 players are best suited to play as the three behind the centre forward. The more mobile and lively Mkhitaryan and Rashford have made a case to start but in the case of the latter, Jose Mourinho sees him as a centre forward and so is unlikely to start with both him and Ibrahimovic or him over Ibrahimovic. United are in desperate need for the Anthony Martial of last season to show up as well as the re-emergence of Memphis Depay. One of both of these happening, which would make for an interesting and appetising line up.

At worst they could fall back to the tactics used by Ajax, Inter Milan, AC Milan and PSG; give it to Zlatan.

Match Stats

 

 

Hull

Manchester United

 

Possession

 

38%

    62%

 

Shots

 

 8

    29

   

Shots on Target

 

 2

     9

 

Corners

 

 1

     6

     

Fouls

 

 9

     6