Neville: Why Man Utd must get better at creating space
Written by Simon Austin — May 4, 2019
GARY NEVILLE says Manchester United's players must dramatically improve their running off the ball in order to mount a title challenge next season.
The former United defender contrasted the runs that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's forwards make off the ball with those of their Liverpool counterparts.
“If you think about the amount of runs that Sadio Mane and Mo Salah make from those wide positions - through centre backs and full backs - well, Anthony Martial doesn’t do that," Neville said (below). "Martial likes to play when he wants to play, which is when he gets the ball.
“I don’t see him running without the ball anywhere near as much as he should. If Solskjaer wants to take this team from one that plays in fits and starts, making runs five times a half, to one that makes runs in behind (defences) 20 times a half, then he is going to have to make changes.
“If he wants to play a style which involves a lot of quick sprinting - which is counter attacking play or lots of runs in behind to penetrate defences - he is going to have to change some personnel or else get them fitter.”
Although both Manchester City and Liverpool have excelled at using runners off the ball to create space this season, particularly in the wide areas, it is not a new concept. There is a great quote from the late Johan Cruyff, the godfather of the modern Barcelona, about this:
“When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players have the ball for three minutes on average. So the most important thing is what you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball."
"That is what determines whether you are a good player or not.”
It is no surprise that one of Cruyff's most notable disciples, Pep Guardiola, has made creating space the cornerstone of his playing philosophy. In a piece on the half spaces last year, we explored how his sides do this.
Former Barcelona forward Thierry Henry explained: ”Just from you being high and wide, and then coming back in, you are actually freezing four players because we are threatening to go in behind.
“With Samuel Eto'o and me running in behind, and Xavi and (Andres) Iniesta on the ball, with (Lionel) Messi dropping, either you die... or you die.”
What is new is the use of data science to produce models for creating space by running off the ball. Mladen Sormaz, the new Head of Football Analytics at Leicester City, presented on this subject at the Opta Pro forum earlier this year (you can watch his presentation in the video below).
With the use tracking data, clubs are able to “measure complex movements of a set of players,” Sormaz explains. “This is much richer than traditional match data, which would tell you things such as the number of shots or passes.
"With tracking, you can get data for all 22 players at the same time, every 20th of a second. It measures the runs players make off the ball as well as what they do on the ball.”
Sormaz has looked at how this movement off the ball can cause what he describes as ‘shape damage’ - namely pulling players out of strong defensive set-ups.
Liverpool also have a data science team, called their 'research department', headed up by Director of Research Ian Graham. Their lead data scientist is American William Spearman, a Harvard graduate who has been using statistical analysis and computer modelling to work out how to create space and goalscoring opportunities.
These insights then feed directly to Jurgen Klopp and his coaching team, which is another reason why running off the ball has been such a potent feature of Liverpool's play this season.