For two years you knew exactly what you were going to get from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United: They were gonna hit you with a mid block press, stay organized defensively, and - for at least the first year and a half - try and hit you on the counter attack.
The knock on Solskjaer was that he didn’t have “an identity” and the knock on his team was that they couldn’t break down opponents who sat deep. Defensively however his teams were underratedly very solid. United had the third best defense in the league in 2019-20 and despite a horrific start to the 2020-21 campaign United flipped a switch when the calendar flipped to 2021 and had one of the best defenses - especially in open play - for the rest of the year. Despite the horrible start, they finished the season 2nd in open play goals against, 4th in open play xG against, and 2nd in open play xG per shot against.
This season that has very much not been the case. United are 14th in open play goals against per game and 15th in both open play xG against and xG per shot against. Those numbers have since improved under Ralf Rangnick but be sure to cast just a glance of hesitancy as United also haven’t played the toughest of competition.
On the pitch, United it wasn’t a bad formation that was United’s undoing. Over the first three months of the season Solskjaer tried a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, and even a 5-3-2.
But every formation that he threw out had the same fatal flaw. United weren’t keeping their shape, players weren’t holding their lines, and most importantly they weren’t staying compact.
Obviously a lot has been made this season over Cristiano Ronaldo and whether you can press with him in the team or not. It doesn’t really matter if you can or can’t, what matters is that you have a clear plan of what you’re going to do (pressing or not), that everyone does it together.
Too often this season we’ve seen either only one player getting the memo - and everyone having to react to him - or one player just going rogue, pressing when no one else is, and everyone having to react to that.
Whether you’re pressing or not, the most important thing is to stay compact. No matter what formation United played this year, they were never compact. Not staying compact leads to players being late to close players down, which leads to gaps, which typically leads to your midfielders having to cover way too much ground.
Asking your midfielders to cover that much ground just leads to more gaps, and ultimately leaves your back four completely unprotected. If you have centerbacks that lack pace, this is going to leave them completely exposed. When you lack structure, you end up asking your centerbacks to do far more than any reasonably organized team asks them to do and no matter how good they may be, they’re not going to look good.
Enter Ralf Ragnick. A man who very much has “an identity.” He’s considered the father gegenpressing and while he’s not married to a formation, he has a preference for the rare 4-2-2-2 formation.
Every formation has it’s pros and cons. The big pro of the 4-2-2-2 is it’s good for pressing high up the pitch and quickly turning turnovers into attacking chances. Rangnick immediately deployed this formation and the high press in his first match and United took to it pretty quickly.
When Rangnick took over there once again were a lot of questions centered around “will he be able to get Cristiano Ronaldo to press?”
I very very very much look forward to Ralf telling a certain striker he’s gotta press though.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) November 25, 2021
A fairly reasonable question because pressing is Rangnick’s “identity” and if you’re going to press high, you need all 10 outfield players contributing.
Well guess what, in that first game against Crystal Palace Ronaldo was very much doing his job and working hard off the ball.
This wasn’t a one-off like the one player he closed down in his first game against Newcastle either. He did this throughout the match just as much as anyone.
United eventually burned out - which was expected - and didn’t create much when they did have the ball - which is also pretty common when new high pressing managers first take over - but the signs were all positive.
Then it all stopped.
Next time out against Norwich, United significantly backed off their press. They weren’t running down closing players down. The back line as a whole dropped back deeper, a telltale sign that you’re not pressing. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as everyone backs up, which obviously didn’t happen.
The forwards were still taking up positions high up the field, they just weren’t actually pressing or pressuring anyone. You can’t even see anyone else in this picture.
The forwards pushing high while the defenders drop deep naturally creates a huge gap in the middle of the pitch. When you try to close someone down, it takes a long time to get there and it’s easy to go right through you.
Another byproduct of the forwards pushing high but not actually applying pressure is it allows the opponent time to find spaces in those gaps. That in turn exposes your defenders and quickly puts them in 1v1 situations that can be problematic if they don’t win them.
And of course this also invites a callback to the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. One player going rogue and just running aimlessly which only goes to create more gaps.
Which as you know, gaps are very easy to break through.
Against Newcastle it was the same story. Again United weren’t pressing, the entire back four played deeper, but the forwards continued taking up high positions.
If you’re not pressing, playing a high line is risky, thus the defense as a whole dropped back. But United’s forwards playing so high just leaves so much space for McTominay and Fred to cover in midfield their job is impossible. That leads to more free runs at your defenders.
It should not come as a shock to you that United were doing more of the same on Monday against Wolves! Right from the get-go we can see how not compact they are.
And when they’re only jogging around not really applying pressure, it’s not too hard for Wolves to pass around them.
No wonder McTominay and Matic were completely overrun in midfield, they once again were being asked to cover far too much space.
In five (Premier League) matches so far, Rangnick hasn’t wavered from the 4-2-2-2 formation. That’s his identity and it’s clear he’s trying to mold the team into this. But Rangnick may know how he wants to line his team up, but from there it doesn’t seem like he’s settled on how he wants his team to play. Are we pressing or are we not?
He started out with it but he’s scaled that back. Not just one time, but three times now, which seems to be a sign that he doesn’t want to press - possibly because he knows that certain players aren’t going to be able to handle it and he doesn’t feel like dropping them.
In that case, what’s the point of the 4-2-2-2? It’s not a formation that’s particularly adept at breaking down well organized teams with tons of possession. It makes up for that by being really useful when you want to press high and converting turnovers into quick chances. That’s the point of the narrow-ness but if you’re not pressing, you’re just too narrow and the formation doesn’t have many benefits.
As a result over the last few matches United’s 4-2-2-2 has gone from looking more like this,
to more like this.
You may notice that once again the result of this change is the midfielders having a lot more ground to cover.
The 10’s playing wider makes the passing angles from the midfielders more difficult, which isn’t good considering the passing range of Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, and Fred is limited at best. Sure it opens up a direct line to get the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, but passing to Ronaldo from midfield during buildup play is most likely going to end up with the ball coming right back to where it started on his first touch.
You can say another benefit of this formation is it allows United to play with two central strikers, which is a good way to get Edinson Cavani on the pitch. However, thanks to everything else that happens (the gaps, the width of the 10s, the large amount of space for the midfielders to cover) it was difficult for United to get the ball from the back to their front four (Harry Maguire’s absence also really hurt them in that regard).
In possession they needed a bridge, in defense they needed help. Both those things required someone to drop deeper. That player was Cavani, which lead to this.
Not only is this not Cavani’s game at all, but this is literally what a number 10 would do. United just so happen to have a player whom this is his best position. He’s been really good at playing exactly this role for the past two and a half seasons. But in the 4-2-2-2 Bruno Fernandes has been forced to play either as the right or left number 10, which probably isn’t the best use of his talents.
It’s a managers job to put his players in roles that will best maximize their talents. It’s no secret that most of United’s pieces don’t fit together quite perfectly so there’s never going to be a one size fits all solution.
But right now Rangnick seems caught between two worlds. On the one hand he wants to play the 4-2-2-2 as that’s the style he knows. On the other he seems like he’s not pushing with a high press to better accommodate Ronaldo and the other forwards that don’t work hard off the ball (and possibly because Edinson Cavani’s hamstrings and tendons will explode if he has to do that much running twice a week). Those two things don’t seem to mix. If you want the 4-2-2-2 you should press high, if someone doesn’t fit don’t play them. If you want a non-pressing team with Ronaldo then you should probably find a better for your other players than a formation that doesn’t suit them.
It’s only been five games so there’s plenty of time for things to change, but it’s now been four games in a row where Rangnick hasn’t quite made a decision and is trying to toe the line down the middle. The result of that is the same problems rearing their ugly heads yet again: A stretched out team, gaps forming, midfielders having to cover far too much ground, and a team that’s way too easy to play through.