Manchester United have only won a single league game in which they have had the majority of possession. An impressive draw with Liverpool and wins over Chelsea, Leicester, Brighton and Spurs were all achieved with under 50 per cent possession while a 3-1 victory over Norwich is the only anomaly in their other 10 matches, which ended in draws or defeat. The more of the ball they have, the worse the result.
This makes the game against Manchester City on Saturday a curious one: City average 64.8 per cent possession - the most in the league - which should, or could, play into United’s hands.
Key to this possession game is summer purchase Rodrigo, who has slotted seamlessly into midfield as the ‘six’ in Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 this season - the same position the City manager perfected during his own playing days. His statistics from the 2018/19 season are remarkably similar to another of Guardiola's old players:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may well target Rodrigo as a way to disrupt City’s passing from the back. Burnley tried it in their 4-1 defeat last Tuesday, with Jeff Hendrick tasked with marking Rodrigo out of the game but were undone by Rodrigo’s brilliant off the ball movement.
The 23-year-old never stands still, operating as a constantly floating anchor point. One of the ways he escaped Burnley’s close attention was to drop into a back three in buildup, another was to tease the strikers into making a tackle before bursting past them - how do you stop a player one step ahead?
Here Rodrigo stands positioned at the head of the defensive triangle, aware that two Burnley forwards are creeping up on him.
He scans, receives the ball and takes a beat. The forwards press.
Rodrigo bursts through the gate and puts City on the attack.
"It was outstanding the way he played, not just with the ball,” Guardiola said in an enthusiastic appraisal of Rodrigo’s performance. “He was so clever moving right to left. That's why the reception for the players up front was easier and quicker.”
United will almost certainly play on the counter-attack, meaning they will drop behind the ball and block the space when City have possession. Rodri’s passing will be tested in transition phases, the Spaniard told to look for, and thread, passes from deep through the lines to Kevin De Bruyne or a forward quickly to prevent United shutting the game down.
Here Rodrigo drops to the right of the two centre-backs to maintain shape, receives the ball with an open body and uses his first touch to shift it onto his right foot.
The press is too slow and Rodrigo is able to pick out Gabriel Jesus 30 metres up the pitch with a pass that takes out five Burnley players in one go.
Jesus turns and runs at goal.
United must decide between a high press or a mid-block - if they are caught in two minds, players like Rodrigo will find gaps.
Rodrigo must also be highly aware of his defensive responsibilities. Marcus Rashford will fancy running at Fernandinho and as the midfield protector, Rodrigo will be expected to cover and support whenever United have the ball. If Solskjaer’s team can catch him high up the pitch they will have a route to goal but the problem is forcing the mistake in a player entirely in tune with his surroundings, who reads the play as though authoring it.
"He was in the right moment for the transitions,” Guardiola continued. “Always he helped us. He's adjusted and he's perfect for this league. I think Man City bought an incredible player for the next years."