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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United are a good defensive team

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United are well organized and don’t concede many chances, but still concede too many goals because of one glaring weakness

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Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

All season long I’ve been saying things like “Manchester United are one of the best defensive teams in the Premier League” and have been crediting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for fixing the club’s defensive issues. United have the third lowest xG against in the league this season, which I’m sure by now you’re tired of hearing because week after week they keep conceding goals and costing themselves points.

United have conceded 29 goals in 25 Premier League games this season, 1.16 per game. That’s down from the 1.42 goals per game they conceded last year, but it still ain’t good. Yet I’m not the only one saying they’re a good defensive team. Statsbomb CEO Ted Knutson agrees, as do other statistical analysts like Michael Caley.

The truth is the numbers are very much there.

Which begs the question: why do we all still think United are bad at defending?

To answer that question we have to understand what actually quantifies good defending. The answer to that isn’t so straightforward.

For one, defending is really hard to quantify. Goals in football are really rare. According to Chris Anderson and David Sally, authors of The Numbers Game, only about 2.66 goals are scored per game. That obviously places a lot of value on people that can score goals. After all, you need to score goals in order to win.

That’s been the general thinking around football for over a hundred years. It’s why strikers cost so much money in the transfer market, and fullbacks cost less. Eventually, and by eventually I mean extremely recently, we realized that we were valuing this incorrectly. Goals that aren’t scored are valuable too.

If you don’t concede, you can’t lose. Winning 5-4 counts just as much as winning 1-0, but since goals are inherently rare, scoring one is easier than scoring five, and if you don’t concede you only need to score one. Now, if fewer than three goals are being scored in a 90 minute game, that means there’s a lot, no, a ton of time during a game where goals aren’t being scored.

How do you quantify that? Are those goals being prevented? If so, how?

We can count how many tackles a defender has, or how many times a center back heads a corner clear, but there’s still a problem with that.

For years the only way we got analysis on defenders was through the player ratings in the newspapers. Player ratings are a terrible way of doing this. They’re incredibly unscientific. A player makes a tackle, add 0.5 to his score. A player puts in a bad cross during a crucial point in the match, deduct 0.5 from his score. A defender doesn’t get involved over the course of a match? Give him a 5, or even a 4.

The player ratings have the same problem as counting tackles or clearances. They only count things that happened. Here, I’ll let Anderson and Sally explain.

We remember active defending; things that happen. When we’re watching a match, we’ll remember Victor Lindelöf sliding in to break up this potential Tottenham break.

Fantastic defending Victor!

But what about things that don’t get counted? Take this play of Victor Lindelöf simply getting into position to force a bad shot.

It doesn’t look like much, but Lindelöf does so much here. His positioning is excellent — the attacker can’t pull the ball back onto his right foot because he’d lose his shooting angle. If he tries to drive towards the line, Lindelöf has the right angle to cut him off. So instead he’s forced to take a shot from the corner of the box, a shot that has very little chance of going in.

Look at Nemanja Matić just stepping in front of the attacker to stop this Wolves break.

Or Lindelöf doing the same thing against Manchester City.

This is fantastic defending from Lindelöf. But at the end of the day, it’ll hardly get remembered. There’s no stat for “stepping in front of the attacker to let the ball run out for a goal kick,” or “forced the attacker to take and miss a bad shot.” And yet, it’s a vital part of defending.

That’s the thing about defending — most of it is done in areas that can’t really be quantified. But if we look at the actual game tape, it’s easy to see right before your eyes.

To say Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has improved the defense isn’t a stretch at all. It’s not just because he signed Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The club still has the same midfield, which offered no protection to the back four last season. It doesn’t matter how good your defenders are, if you don’t protect them with midfielders none of them will be successful.

On an individual level, United are still pretty crap defensively (we’ll get to that later) but as a team, they’re much improved. United are conceding just 10.28 shots per game this year, down from the 13.13 they conceded last year. Of the 257 shots they’ve conceded, 38 percent of them have come from outside of the box.

They simply don’t concede quality chances. They’ve done that with some tactical tweaks as to how they used to play.

Take a look at this map of United’s defensive actions from José Mourinho’s second season.

Yikes. That’s all over the field. Basically when United lost the ball, someone was supposed to maniacally press to win it back, only he didn’t really have any support behind him. So not only would it not work, it would take him out of the play. Once the opposition was in possession, Mourinho liked his teams to sit deep, hence all the red near United’s box.

The issue with sitting deep is, if you’re not organized, things can go south really quickly. Often times, they did, with a super human season from David de Gea often required to bail them out.

This year under Solskjaer, take a look at where United are defending.

That is significantly further up the field, which has its benefits. By defending high up the pitch, United don’t let teams get anywhere near their goal. This was how they earned a point (and should have had a win) against Liverpool. They pushed the fullbacks high up the pitch to not let Liverpool’s fullbacks get deep, cutting off Liverpool’s supply line.

This was probably best exemplified in their match against Tottenham. Contrary to what you’ll hear from pundits or fans who just want the manager out because there are “no tactics,” United didn’t sit back that match. They played on the front foot and didn’t allow Tottenham near their goal, holding Tottenham to an xG of just 0.54. In fact, the only games where United have really sat back and tried to absorb pressure have been the three matches against City.

So how are they doing it, you ask? United stay really organized defensively.

They don’t just do that when deep. They do it higher up the pitch too.

The entire team moves as a unit. This system requires every player to know their role, and know who they need to cover for.

Check out Scott McTominay immediately covering for Wan-Bissaka as soon as this ball goes wide. He’s not reacting to what City are trying to do, he’s simply reacting to Wan-Bissaka’s movement.

Higher up the field, United press with their fullbacks high.

What United are trying to do is force teams to hoof the ball long to alleviate pressure. Hoofing the ball long isn’t great defending, because most of the time you’re just giving it back to the other team. Most of the time these long balls are harmless.

All of this comes from organization, which itself comes from coaching and getting all the players to understand exactly what their roles are.

I’d say being organized is half the battle, but it’s actually much more than that. For years defending could be broken down like this:

  • 80% of defending is just simply being there.
  • 15% is just not allowing your opponent to do what they want to do.
  • 4% trying to win the ball back (engaging in tackles, etc.)
  • 1% actually winning the ball back.

The two actions that make up the first 95% of defending often go hand in hand. By simply being there, you’ll more often than not prevent a player, or team, from doing what they want to do.

Take a look at United getting back and staying organized to prevent this Tottenham counter attack.

United get back in unison, forcing Lucas Moura to eventually pull up. Or how about this situation early in the season against Wolves?

In neither of these situations do United win the ball back, but that’s okay. Both times they forced their opponents, who were looking to counter attack, to hold up and pass the backwards. In both situations, three passes later United had possession of the ball.

For defenders there’s also the case of deciding when to try and engage in a challenge or to simply “just be there.” This Luke Shaw play against Arsenal is a great example.

United’s attack breaks down and the ball rolls out to Nicolas Pepe.

Shaw can engage Pepe in a one on one challenge with the reward being United winning the ball back right outside the box. But look at what the risk is.

If Shaw doesn’t win this ball back he’d be out of the play. Worse off, there would be five other United players behind the play. Fred is even with the ball, but on the other side of the field. That’s seven United players, leaving just Maguire, Lindelöf, and Wan-Bissaka back. Furthermore if Shaw does win the ball back, there are still nine Arsenal players in the area ready to defend. United wouldn’t even have a numbers advantage.

Shaw chooses not to engage, but to just be there. He makes the right call.

He may look stupid at first, and the commentators would say that Pepe is “tormenting him” but he plays this very well. By just merely being there, he makes Pepe slow down and try to figure out what he wants to do, which gives Dan James time to track back and trap Pepe. Pepe barely gets the ball to the halfway line and as an added bonus, United get the ball back.

Or check this one out, where Adama Traore breaks out from his own end. He’s running straight at Lindelöf and Maguire. What does Luke Shaw do? Instead of tracking back to his left back position, he runs at Traore, forcing him to give the ball up.

Just forcing Adama to give the ball up is a win for United. Wolves are more dangerous with Adama running at a defense than Jimenez running at them from farther out wide. Even though Maguire goes for the interception and misses it, it’s okay. Raul Jimenez is so far wide that Maguire can recover and Lindelöf can cut off his angle to the middle. That means Jimenez has to stay wide, and takes a tough shot that De Gea should save.

Moving on, that final point on the last 1% of defending probably caught your attention, so I’ll explain. It’s often not the job of the player who’s making the defensive action to actually win the ball back. What he’s supposed to do is force the opponent to cough up possession, and one of his teammates then scoops up the ball.

Over the past few years Statsbomb has developed a stat for this called “pressure regains.It counts exactly what you would think it does: “how many times does a player pressuring an attacker lead to his team regaining control of the ball.”

Take a look at United’s midfielders’ recoveries per 90 minutes.

  1. Fred (9.52)
  2. Paul Pogba (9.40)
  3. Nemanja Matić (8.06)
  4. Scott McTominay (7.68)

When Pogba and Fred play with McTominay, they are the deepest lying midfielders. When Matić plays with anyone, he is. McTominay never is. It’s no coincidence that the deepest lying midfielders have the most recoveries. United’s defense is built on having the fullbacks push up and the wings/central midfielders collapse to pressure opponents. Opponents cough the ball up and the deep lying midfielder recovers. They get the recovery stats, but the hard work is done by the others.

Over the last decade or so, thanks mostly to Pep Guardiola, that last 1%, winning the ball back, has become far more important. It’s not just enough to make a clearance like this anymore:

That just gives the ball back to your opponent and lets them mount another attack. No, these days defending is no longer just about defending. Defending is where your attack begins. As soon as you win the ball back the attack starts, and that requires you to not just win the ball back, but maintain possession of it. Get it to one of your teammates, and do it quickly.

This is why defenders who are good passers, like Lindelöf and John Stones, are preferred nowadays, even if they have some defensive shortcomings. It’s why Harry Maguire was worth £80 million. That first pass is crucial, especially when you’re trying to mount a counter attack.

It’s clear that Solskjaer wants this team to play out from the back at all times. Nowhere was this more evident than in the League Cup semi-final against City.

In the first leg, United really struggled to play out from the back against City’s press, mostly because of Phil Jones. Eventually they stopped trying. In the second leg at the Etihad, that determination to play out the back was on full display.

I broke the whole sequence down frame by frame in that thread so I won’t repeat it here. Here’s the whole sequence and when you watch, pay attention to how many times this looks like a complete disaster and United should just hoof the ball away and reset their lines.

And yet, they never do. They keep their composure the entire way, including Brandon Williams — a 19-year-old playing in his first away derby — and eventually are able to not only beat the press, but start their own break.

All of these things are just a series of tactical adjustments made by Solskjaer to improve United’s defense. If you don’t let teams get near your own goal, then it’s pretty hard for them to score. It’s telling that they’ve kept clean sheets in all but three non-league games, in one of which they played their U23 side.

United are a good defensive team because they defend so high up the pitch. And it’s a good thing they do that because when they do let teams get near their goal, my god are they terrible.

God it’s so bad.

I mean, so so bad.

Make it stop already!

Of course, there’s also the set pieces. United have conceded 10 goals from set pieces this year. Plus a penalty, plus an own goal. That’s 41.4% of the 29 goals they’ve conceded this season. That comes down to coaching, and being bad in front of your own goal, but mostly coaching. It’s entirely preventable!

United only let teams get close to their goal two or three times a game. Over the course of 90 minutes that’s really good! But of those two or three times their opponents are scoring on one or two of them.

Most of these set pieces come from lazy fouls, usually from Andreas Pereira or Fred.

That’s criminal. Considering you don’t let teams get close to your goal, every time you concede a set piece you’re giving the opposition a free chance to get the ball close to your goal. Most of these set piece goals have come against plucky mid-table sides (though they did concede on corners to City and Liverpool - why do you think those two teams are so good?) who really value set pieces because, they’re a great way for them to score goals!

That’s been the undoing of United’s season. They’re not a bad defensive team. Their opponents efficiency in scoring from very few chances — a partly self-inflicted wound — has ultimately been the difference between United being where they are in the table right now and being in the top four.