One word cropped up during Ralf Rangnick’s unveiling as Manchester United’s new interim manager more than any other: “control”.
“Football, for me, is to minimise the coincidence factor and gain control of a game,” he said on Friday morning, barely a full night’s sleep after a 3-2 win over Arsenal that provided a fittingly chaotic coda to the last three years of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ie “Oleball”.
“Yesterday we conceded two goals, we needed three goals to win the game and if you look at the total number of goals conceded it is almost two on average per game,” Rangnick pointed out. “This is just too much.”
A lot of the talk before Rangnick’s unveiling had been about the intense work that his style of play demands when out of possession. But pressing was of secondary importance, he insisted, to establishing this greater sense of control. “This is the major target,” he said.
After the final whistle had sounded on his first game in charge, Sunday’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, Rangnick was convinced that he had found what he was looking for. “It was about gaining control,” he reiterated, “and we had control most of the time of the game.”
That may come as a surprise considering the narrow scoreline. United were chasing what would be the game’s only goal for 77 minutes, and shortly before Fred’s spectacular winning strike, they could easily have gone behind. Was that really United in control? If it was, how do we know? How do you even measure it?
Well, possession is one simple, straightforward way to know which team was on top during a game, and United dominated on that count against Palace with 61 per cent of the ball. But then, do you have control of a game simply if you have the majority of the possession?
How many times have you watched a team have all the gear and no idea, all of the ball but not a clue what to do with it? Think back to one of those examples. Who looked more comfortable in that situation: the team in possession or the team happy to concede it?
Under Solskjaer, United would regularly dominate the ball without dominating the game. In fact, United had roughly the same amount of possession against Palace on Sunday as they had against Watford during Solskjaer’s final game in charge. Were they in control then too?
No, is the answer, but Sunday was different. This was a possession-dominant win but that possession came high up the pitch and with a purpose.
Dig a little deeper and you see why. United played 530 passes against Palace, with a substantial 237 of them – around 45 per cent – coming inside the final third. This season, only during the dominant 4-1 win against Newcastle have they played a greater proportion of their passes that high up the pitch.
That sounds fairly controlled, perhaps even commanding and authoritative. For a team aiming to impose itself on the game, having the ball further up the pitch is obviously better than passing it around the defence. But then, if it is coming back at you just as quickly, can you really claim to be in control?
That was the issue against Arsenal last Thursday, when Mikel Arteta’s side actually made just as many final third passes as United did – 170 each, according to Opta – leading to an end-to-end contest that neither side ever truly grasped or got a grip on. United lacked control, as Rangnick says, and could just as easily have lost a game they won.
Again, though, Sunday was different. Palace did not counter United’s attacks with the same frequency as Arsenal three days earlier. They couldn’t. Patrick Vieira’s side managed just 92 passes in the attacking third compared to United’s 237. Of all United’s league opponents this season, only second-bottom Newcastle managed fewer.
This is something that Rangnick and his data-driven disciples might call “field tilt”, which is a metric that measures the territorial balance between two teams in a single game. It is essentially looking at possession, but only possession in the final third – ie the area of the pitch that matters most when you’re on the ball.
Against Palace, 72 per cent of the final third passes were made by United players. Compare that to the Watford game, when United dominated possession but allowed 181 passes in their defensive third and made just 101 in the attacking third – a field tilt of only 36 per cent, half of Sunday’s figure.
Before Rangnick’s first game in charge, United’s average field tilt for the league campaign up to date was only in their favour by the smallest of margins at 51 per cent. This is not a team that has been regularly dominating matches this season, as we all know, but Sunday was different.
Still, Rangnick will have seen a great deal to improve on. Despite United playing with greater purpose and authority, clear-cut chances were few and far between. Though United limited Palace to only eight shots, the best opportunity of the afternoon fell to Jordan Ayew who, two minutes before Fred’s breakthrough, would have changed the entire complexion of the game had he converted from close range.
There will always be a risk of moments like Ayew’s chance, no matter how well you shut down the opposition. Keep those moments to a minimum, though, and you will have a better chance of walking away with a favourable result. United did that for the most part against Palace, while giving Rangnick what he wanted more than anything else: control.
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