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In the Zone: Villarreal 0-2 Manchester United performance analysis

UEFA's Technical Observers take a closer look at how Manchester United booked their round of 16 spot with victory away to Villarreal on Matchday 5.

In the Zone: Man. United's quick counterattacks

Manchester United secured qualification as Group F winners with their 2-0 victory at Villarreal. With Michael Carrick in temporary charge of the side, United owed their victory to several factors: the goalscoring touch of Cristiano Ronaldo, the productive pressing of Fred, and the substitutions made by Carrick which gave an injection of energy and speed for the last 30 minutes.

In this piece presented by FedEx, UEFA's Technical Observer Panel provides a tactical breakdown of how they did it.


Highlights: Villarreal 0-2 Manchester United

0-1: Cristiano Ronaldo (78)
Villarreal's game plan was to build up the game from goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli and work the ball through the defenders and midfielders, even in the face of United's high press. This backfired with the first goal which followed the goalkeeper's attempted pass out to Étienne Capoue.

Anticipating perfectly, Fred flew in and got a foot to the ball ahead of Capoue, knocking it forward to Ronaldo who responded clinically, applying a first-time lobbed finish with his right foot for his 15th career goal against Villarreal.

0-2: Jadon Sancho (90)
The second goal was the product of the fast transitions that were an impressive feature of United's play throughout. Typically Fred was involved, harrying Juan Foyth out of possession inside the visitors' half on the left and combining with Ronaldo to work the ball inside to Scott McTominay.

Cue the swift counter as the ball was fed to Ronaldo, now inside Villarreal territory. He played it forward to Marcus Rashford, speeding through on the inside, who then moved it across to Sancho, via Bruno Fernandes. Sancho's finish from the right side of the penalty area was emphatic, the winger drilling the ball in off the crossbar for his first United goal.

Best player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Watch Ronaldo's lob against Villarreal

Dangerous both coming in from the wide area and as a centre-forward, United's No7 struck the breakthrough goal, his sixth of the group stage, and played a part in the second too. Additionally, his work rate, defensively and offensively, and his anticipation and movement were "outstanding" according to UEFA's Technical Observer Mixu Paatelainen.


The decisive feature was the pressure applied by a United side who took up high pressing positions whenever Rulli, the home goalkeeper, had the ball. United's central midfielders pushed forward to press and the whole team were hungry to win the ball back as soon as they lost possession. Fred was key to this, using his energy to press and win possession – making ten recoveries – and showing good discipline over when to go forward or not. His passing forward was excellent too.

Another noteworthy aspect of United's victory was the impact of their substitutes, who made a difference with their speed and runs in behind the Villarreal defence, adding to the pressure on that back line. United have now scored six goals (of a total of ten) in this season's competition between the 75th minute and final whistle, earning seven of their ten Group F points in the process.

Despite the result, Villarreal passed the ball well and controlled the game for significant periods. They had good movement up front from their strikers and in the wide areas too. Key to this was Manu Trigueros, one of the front two who kept dropping off into the hole to create good goalscoring opportunities. Indeed, Unai Emery's men produced ten chances (the metric measuring key passes and assists) to their opponents' four, albeit they ended the night with only three attempts on target.

Another important player for Villarreal was central midfielder Capoue. Though he lost the ball for the opening goal, he had previously caught the eye by dropping deep to help build up play, showing the power to dominate his area of the pitch as well as precision in his forward passing and runs upfield to join in the attacks.

Team formations

The home team played in a 4-4-2 formation. Defensively they stayed tight and narrow, presenting a compact and well-organised unit. In their offensive play, full-backs Juan Foyth (8) and Pervis Estupiñán (12) went forward on both sides to support attacks while wide players Yeremi Pino (21) and Moi Gómez (23) came infield. Inside, Capoue (6) and Dani Parejo (5) sat and controlled the game, going forward one at the time on occasions and also dropping off one at a time to help the defenders build up play.

Up front Trigueros (14) came short into the space between United's midfield and defence, while Arnaut Danjuma (15) concentrated on runs behind the defence. When, in the 73rd minute, Trigueros made way for Alberto Moreno (18), Moi Gómez came in off the left to play up front with substitute Moreno playing out wide.

Manchester United
The visitors set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and their approach was about defending solidly and then attacking with fast transitions and counters. Both their team structure and individual players' roles were clear. To illustrate the point, left-back Alex Telles (27), for instance, went forward at will while right-back Aaron Wan Bissaka (29) sat more.

In midfield, McTominay (37) sat deep and provided balance while Fred (17) supported the attacks at times. Donny van de Beek (34), the attacking midfielder, made runs forward between the Villarreal central defenders and full-backs. As for the wide attackers, Anthony Martial (9) looked to come in from the left while over on the right, Sancho (25) stayed mostly on his flank. As centre-forward, Ronaldo (7) concentrated mainly on running behind the defence and being in good positions for any crosses into the box. When Marcus Rashford (10) replaced Martial, he took over in the centre and Ronaldo moved across to the left.

Out of possession, United's formation resembled a 4-4-2 at times as Van de Beek pushed forward to support the centre-forward in defending against Villarreal's central defender and deep midfielder. At the same time Fred pushed forward to challenge the other central midfielder.

Coaches' assessments

Unai Emery, Villarreal coach
"I am going to take away the positive – 70 very good minutes against Manchester United who were the group favourites. We didn't allow them runs [behind] and didn't give away chances. Their changes gave them a boost and at that stage it was no longer even – they went up a gear and we lost control."

Michael Carrick, Manchester United interim manager
"I don't think we could have hoped to come here and play pretty football. When you've suffered results-wise and you're not in great form individually and as a team, it's not easy to make everything click. In many ways, this was the best way to win for me.

"The subs made a massive impact. We know what Ronaldo's like with those sorts of chances. I know how much Jadon loves the ball at his feet, but I thought the other side of the game tonight was great – he put a real effort in defensively."