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Three things we learned from Manchester United 0-1 Wolves

Oof…

Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Three things we learned from Manchester United’s pathetic loss at home to Wolves.

1. This isn’t Burnley

There were a lot of eyebrows raised when Ralf Rangnick named his starting XI against Burnley last Thursday. Three shoot first forwards and only one creator in Jadon Sancho? The Matic-McTominay midfield pair that historically has been such a disaster three different managers have done everything they could to avoid using it. How was it all going to work?

Turns out, you didn’t have to worry about those things. Burnley gave United more time and space then you’ll see anywhere outside of the Europa League or United’s home match against Steve Bruce’s Newcastle this season. Burnley backed off and played extremely narrow, letting Luke Shaw and Jadon Sancho run the show down the left while Aaron Wan-Bissaka could look competent down the right. Mason Greenwood had the freedom to run all over the pitch and be a menace. Scott McTominay didn’t have to do any of the things he’s not good at it while he was free to do what he was best at - make late runs to the top of the box.

It was United’s best performance since the Leeds match on the opening day of the season. The only bit of concern that you could take away from it was, ‘what if we forget that this was Burnley - a team in the relegation zone - and actually try this again?” After all, we had just played the other two teams in the relegation zone and didn’t look nearly as good.

That’s exactly what happened. Facing a competent team like Wolves, United were completely exposed. Shaw, Sancho, and Wan-Bissaka didn’t have any space on the flanks. Inside United had no presence. Several players who rarely put together two great performances in a row, failed to play well for the second game in a row. The Matic-McTominay midfield was completely overrun as they usually are - failing to establish any sort of foothold in the middle of the park. And when your midfield is completely overrun, you don’t have much chance.

2. Harry Maguire’s impact felt

Harry Maguire entered the season having not fully rested after returning from injury early to play in the Euros and his form dipped a bit. He then had some really bad games in October/November which has made it popular to blame him for everything bad that’s going on with United and their defense rather than actually take a look at the structure around him and wonder “can this be part of the reason he’s struggling?”

Nah, it’s way easier to just blame Maguire. Varane makes a mistake against Newcastle and Bailly makes a mistake against Burnley that lead to goals, but let’s blame Maguire because he wasn’t able to clean up the messes that they created with carelessness.

As soon as Maguire misses a match it becomes obvious why Gareth Southgate rushed him back from injury to play in the Euros, why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played him when he wasn’t fully fit against Leicester, and why Ralf Rangnick will be desperate to get him back in the team as soon as possible.

It doesn’t have to do with defense, it’s about *everything else* Maguire brings to the team. The organization he provides, the structure, and most importantly his ability on the ball. Maguire is the only centerback United have that drives forward with the ball at his feet. His ability to hit passes all over the pitch helps United stretch play and he’s the only defender United have that consistently can pass through the lines. This is ever more important when your midfielders are Fred, Scott McTominay, and Nemanja Matic - three players who struggle to do this consistently, ergo you need someone who can pick up that slack.

Without Maguire, Matic is dropping in to the back line to form a back three and leave plenty of space for... Scott McTominay. That’s not going to get the ball forward. Matic has always had the ability to carry the ball forward from there but he’s also had the safety valve of having Maguire next to him to lay off the ball once defenders collapse onto him.

This season there’s been a lot made of ‘defending from the front,’ how all 11 players need to contribute defensively. The same is true when attacking. You need all 11 players to pitch in and Maguire does much more than his fair share.

United’s non-penalty xG per game this season when Maguire has played is 1.63 (per understat). In two games without him (I’m not including Chelsea for obvious reasons) that number drops to 0.91. That’s a really small sample size but it’s also right in line with the 1.72 they had with him last year vs 1.03 without him. In six games over the last 12 months without Maguire, United are creating less than a goal per game of xG. That’s not a coincidence.

Without Maguire the defense just passes around the back and up the wings. No one can make those incisive passes through the middle. They can’t make direct attacks or get the ball to the attacking players in space or in positions to attack.

3. Someone tell Ronaldo to stay in his position in buildup

When you’re struggling to build up play effectively, the last thing you need is another player getting involved who slows things down even more. Yet Cristiano Ronaldo loves to do that.

Ronaldo loves dropping deep to get involved in buildup but contributing absolutely nothing once he’s there. It’s just back passes or giving the ball back exactly where it came from, only now there’s no center forward for them to look to.

At best he’s just slowing down the buildup...

Or an example from today’s match

Or at worst he makes it harder for his teammates or traps them in bad positions.

Here you have Luke Shaw and Jadon Sancho - both of whom were progressive monsters against Burnley - open on the the left side. There’s no reason for Ronaldo to drop in here.

Ronaldo takes the pass and just lays it off for Shaw, but those extra seconds - and the presence of an extra body - only serve to trap Shaw with no meaningful outlet.

Not having a midfielder around doesn’t help but the entire thing is just so unnecessary.

It’d be one thing if Ronaldo wanted the ball to try and drive forward with it. To turn with it and become a point of creativity for the attack. But that’s never actually the case and this one particularly highlights the hilarity of it all. Ronaldo drops into space to get the ball - he has space to turn but doesn’t instead going straight back to his centerback. The cherry on top here is Ronaldo urging United forward WHILE he’s passing backwards. Just turn on it if you want to go forwards!

Ronaldo does this when he hasn’t gotten involved in the game. He wants to get a touch on the ball. That would be fine if he was going to try and drive the attack forward but it’s not. All he’s doing is taking a touch to get involved and giving it back.

It slows things down, it helps the defense get back and set, it brings an extra body into the creative players space (and often an extra defender), and it means there’s no CF up the pitch as a focal point for the attack. That just makes it harder for the team to create, which means Ronaldo isn’t involved and wants to touch the ball and the cycle just repeats.