Manchester United have had a typical season so far; certainly not one that their manager Jose Mourinho is used to. For starters, his side have actually looked better when attacking sides rather than sitting back and waiting for a mistake, while for all of the Portuguese’s fame as a defensive mastermind, United have now conceded 16 goals in just nine league games – more than his Chelsea side conceded in the entire season back in 2004/05. Some shambolic defending has undoubtedly contributed to this number, but another glaring statistic is that United have conceded 20 goals from set-pieces since Mourinho arrived at the club – one every four league games or so. This has been evident for a while now, with even a side like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City taking advantage of corners last season to score twice at Old Trafford. This piece will take a look at United’s defensive marking from set-pieces in the Chelsea game, and where the obvious areas for improvement lie.
The most obvious errors came in the lead-up to Chelsea’s first goal. It was a move the Blues had previously pulled off to good effect against Southampton as well, where one man would effectively act as a blocker, leaving his teammate with a free run to make into space that had been cleared by the runs of a couple of other Chelsea players. It was a fairly simple routine, but with devastating consequences, if pulled off. United seemed like they were aware of this; Paul Pogba’s reaction before the ball had even hit the net certainly made it seem as if they’d messed up despite prior knowledge of this strategy. However, while the commentators and social media were quick to blame Pogba for losing Rudiger, it seemed as if it was actually Victor Lindelof who was more culpable, and Pogba’s ire was certainly directed towards him in the aftermath of the goal.
What these images clearly show, therefore, is that there was a communication breakdown between the two United players. Whether it was Pogba who was supposed to continue marking Rudiger, or whether Lindelof was supposed to take over with the Frenchman responsible for Luiz, is immaterial. United have borne the brunt of such lapses of communication and concentration far too many times for it to be an aberration; Mourinho needs to put in some serious work on the training pitch to avoid such situations in the future.
Pogba seems to be liable to lose his man quite frequently from set-pieces; there was another Chelsea corner, this time in the second half, where he allowed Rudiger to get ahead of him, albeit with no further damage to the scoreline –
Yet another example of slack marking from United came towards the end of the second half. This time, it was Ashley Young who was the guilty party, not bothering to cover Marcos Alonso as he peeled away at the back post, and only a poor connection from the Spaniard prevented a potential tap-in for Alvaro Morata or Ross Barkley.
All in all, these images show that the players are susceptible to switching off at set-pieces; most of these situations are arising from individual mistakes, rather than a collective failure to mark opposition players or defend aerial balls. While we cannot know the reasons behind such a consistent lack of concentration, it seems as if there is a lack of responsibility in the side, with no fear of repercussions either. This is unexpected of a Mourinho side; his teams have been famed for their discipline and defensive rigour. Manchester United have displayed a fair amount of mental fortitude in the last couple of weeks, coming back twice from two-goal deficits to salvage results; nevertheless, this resilience needs to extend to the defending of set-pieces as well, or else United will continue to find themselves trailing and having to haul themselves back into games.