Manchester United will look to win back-to-back Champions League group games for the first time since October 2020 when they host Atalanta on Wednesday at 8pm (UK time).
The Red Devils beat Villarreal 2-1 in their last UCL match — exacting revenge for their Europa League defeat last season — bouncing back from a shock defeat to Young Boys in match one.
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But United have since regressed once again. A disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Everton was followed up by a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Leicester City on Saturday. On another day, the scoreline could have been much worse for the Red Devils.
One particularly glaring problem was Man Utd’s inability to effectively press Leicester. As pointed out by Alan Shearer on Match of the Day that evening, the Red Devils seemed to have no clear instructions on when to stick and when to twist from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, making it all too easy for the Foxes to play through them.
“It’s slow, they don’t know when to press high and one pass cuts the Man United defence open. It happened again, look. Bruno, does he want to? Not really, it’s half-hearted and he doesn’t know when to sit off,” Shearer said during his analysis.
“Leicester are a very good team, they were superb today, but Man United made it far easier than it should have been for them because they didn’t really know what they were doing without the ball.
“No players closing Leicester down, so you can run with the ball, you can take a touch, you can get your head up.”
As illustrated in the defensive solidity map below, which appears a deeper colour of red the less the opposition is allowed to pass toward goal in that zone, United barely pressed Leicester in the opposition half, only truly engaging when they crossed the halfway line.
Even Leicester manager Brenden Rodgers admitted after the match that United’s lack of cohesion without the ball made it easier for his side.
“I thought we started well, their central players weren’t pressing so we could be patient and work the ball through the pitch, we got into some really good areas and put pressure on their backline,” he said.
Against Atalanta especially, this is a problem that needs solving. Fast.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side are first in Serie A this season for progressive passes (324) and second for passes into the final third (844), behind only leaders Napoli in the latter. Once Atalanta break through your first line of pressure, well, we all know how much of a devastating attacking force they can be. Even if they’re not quite scoring as much this season as we’re used to (14 goals, 7th in Serie A), they’re still second for chances created (101).
On paper, it looks like Gasperini has the tactical plan to crush Man Utd. And tactical tweaks — or lack of — are something Solskjaer is regularly and heavily criticised for. That criticism will become deafening if he’s outwitted again here.
Scoreline prediction: Man Utd 1-2 Atalanta
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Man Utd vs Atalanta previous line-ups & injury news:
- Man Utd (vs Leicester): De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; Pogba, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, Sancho; Ronaldo.
- Atalanta (vs Empoli): Musso; Toloi*, Demiral, Palomino; Zappacosta, De Roon, Koopmeiners, Maehle; Pasalic; Ilicic, Muriel.
Solskjaer will hope to have Edinson Cavani and Fred available after they missed the weekend defeat to Leicester due to arriving home late from international duty. Raphael Varane, Anthony Martial and Amad Diallo are all out. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has seen his suspension reduced to one game, so he can return here.
Wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens are both out for Atalanta, who are also missing defenders Rafael Toloi and Berat Djimsiti.
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