Manchester United vs Zorya Luhansk – A Tactical Analysis

Manchester United vs Zorya Luhansk – A Tactical Analysis
Sep 30, 2016

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Manchester United vs Zorya Luhansk – A Tactical Analysis

 After a drab performance against Eredivisie leaders Feyenoord in the last run of Europa League fixtures, Manchester United needed to make a statement against Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford. The fans, the media and the world expected a win at the very least. Though it was never going to be easy against a disciplined Zorya side, who would’ve been more than happy to take a draw away from home given their result against Fenerbahce earlier in September.

As expected, United dominated possession and manipulated the ball well. Zorya remained patient in defence and counter-attacked United in numbers during their opponent’s transition from attack to defence. The Ukrainians were tight at the back and overloaded the centre of their own defensive third to put a stop any intricacies between a dangerous United front four – the same four in fact, that started in United’s dominant 4-1 display against Leicester at the weekend.



United lined up in a 4-2-3-1, which became more of a 2-4-3-1 when in possession, due to the attacking nature of both Marcos Rojo and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Fellaini and Pogba played as the two holding midfielders in the centre of the pitch. Pogba was given the freedom to push forward and swap positions with Mata, who started in a much more natural central attacking midfield role. Ibrahimovic started upfront while Rashford and Lingard were used as inside forwards, running in behind Zorya’s back four from wide positions. United were fluid in attack, with the front four interchanging positions in order to confuse and disjoint Zorya’s defence.


Zorya lined up in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid. Kulach lead the line, while Karavayev and Patryak provided essential width to their counter-attacks. Kamenyuka proved to be the more attacking of the two full-backs, overlapping Karavayev and becoming the fifth man in Zorya’s attacks, along with Ljubenovic. Kamenyuka’s attacking movements kept United honest and forced United to attack down the opposite flank. Defensively, Zorya remained vertically compact, leaving little space for Mata and Ibrahimovic to work the ball and forcing United to go over the top or wide. Their deep line made it difficult for United to break them down and their zonal marking scheme counteracted United’s fluidity perfectly.

Zorya’s zonal marking scheme


(Zorya’s compact setup)

With their narrow focus and vertically compact defensive setup, Zorya moved across the pitch as a unit. Their “position-oriented” zonal marking scheme, paired with their solid setup made them impossible to break down. Though they were on the back foot for the vast majority of the game, their discipline and defensive work was a joy to watch. It was once they had opened up in the second half to attack United, that their concentration lapsed and United were gifted with a somewhat lucky, but much-deserved goal.

“Position-oriented” zonal marking is something we see a lot of in European football, particularly from lower-level teams who are huge underdogs against the best clubs in their league/competition. More famously, it’s part of what made Iceland so successful during the European Championships.

Defensive orientation is one of, if not the, most important factor to take into account when deciding how to organise yourself against an opponent. In football, there are four reference points – The goals, the ball, the opposition and your teammates. “Position-oriented” simply means that your reference point is the position of your teammates, and so you position yourself accordingly. Maintaining your defensive shape as a unit is paramount, regardless of opposition runs. As it’s also a zonal marking scheme, as the team moves across the pitch, you would cover any opposition players within your zone – a 5-16yd area around yourself for which you are responsible. Once the opponent leaves your zone, you would then drop back into position.

As Zorya were happy to sit back with eleven men behind the ball and allow United to attack, this scheme suited them perfectly. Moving as a unit and positioning themselves in relation to their teammate’s positions meant that when Lingard, Rashford and Mata swapped roles, Zorya remained compact.

Attack, attack, attack 

United were good in possession but lacked any penetration due to Zorya’s defensive setup. They moved the ball well across the field to carve out an opening, opting for short, quick passes as opposed to long-balls from wing to wing as the game went on. The short, horizontal passing across the field drew Zorya’s midfield towards the ball, creating space between them and the defence.  This change in style midway through the first half meant that United were much quicker with the ball and therefore much more dangerous.

Short, simple passing from wing to wing is basic stuff, but when utilised correctly it can be deadly. It allows the attacking team to change the direction of their attack almost immediately in order to exploit the space left behind an out-of-position midfielder. Not only that, if the ball is travelling across the centre of the pitch, the opposition will be drawn towards it, creating space for a wide player on the opposite side to either run in behind or cross the ball into a now-stretched defensive line.

As the game went on, United focused their attacks down the wing. They overloaded the corner of the 18-yard box with two or three players at a time and played high crosses in towards Ibrahimovic. The overload meant that if the ball were to be cleared by the head of the defender – it would be won on the edge of the area by a United player, in a threatening position. United’s goal came from something similar, whereby each defender followed Ibrahimovic’s run, leaving Rooney in acres of space on the penalty spot. Rooney scuffed it, but luckily Ibrahimovic was there to turn it in.

Zorya weren’t afraid to attack in numbers. Their transition between defence and attack often caught United off guard, and the Ukrainians often found themselves outnumbering the United back line. Often counter-attacking with five players, Zorya spread the play well. Kulach ran at the half-space between the CB and FB, while Ljubenovic and Karavayev made late runs into the box to get on the end of a cross. As I mentioned before, Petryak and Kamenyuka provided width, forcing United’s defenders to spread, which opened the channels for Kulach to run into.


United could, and probably should have had more goals, though Zorya’s defensive efforts were incredible, United simply lacked any real penetration in the final third, and failed to work Shevchenko. However, they’re slowly but surely starting to look like Mourinho’s team. It wasn’t a convincing win by any means, but it’s an important three points. Fellaini – seen as a liability by many United fans – impressed me in his role as holding midfielder. One or two lapses in concentration lead to Zorya attacks, any of which could have resulted in a goal, however, he made it his job to win the second ball and recycle possession, allowing Pogba to push forward and dictate the game from an advanced position.

I cannot compliment Zorya’s defensive work enough. Yuriy Vernydub got his tactics spot on for this game, and they were unlucky not to come away with at least a point, given their resilience and the passion they showed throughout the game.


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