You may have noticed that there’s been significantly fewer Tactical Analysis pieces written this season. There are two reasons for that. The first, Occam’s razor, is simply that I haven’t had time. The second reason is also pretty simple. This has been a bedding in process for new manager Erik Ten Hag. Like with any manager you need to give him time for the players to learn before you can make judgements about what’s going on. That’s been even more true with Ten Hag simply because he’s already had to drastically change things so many times in just the first eight games to grind out results. We couldn’t get a clear picture of what he was truly looking to do.
Ten Hag opened the season trying to play his style of play, perhaps a bit naively given that most United fans seemed to know this squad is not capable of playing the type of football Erik Ten Hag wants to play. The results were disastrous. United could hardly get out of their own end, couldn’t generate anything in attack, and were leaking goals defensively. A match against Liverpool three games into the season demanded changes.
In the event of a crash, pragmatism can be used as a floatation device
Ten Hag reacted drastically to the opening losses, and in doing so abandoned nearly all of his ‘principles’ to take a far more pragmatic approach. Worry about the attack later but first and foremost fix the defense.
To do that, he dropped United deep. Very deep. It quickly became common to see seven or eight United defenders in their own box.
United began dropping deeper than any point in the past six seasons, including under notorious ‘park the bus’ manager Jose Mourinho. They’re allowing teams to get the ball into the box almost freely. The 17.88 successful box entries allowed by United is a pretty big increase over the 13.74 they allowed last season and a drastic increase over the 11.87 they were allowing in 2020-21 (and 11.55 in 2019-20). The amount of passes they’ve allowed within 20 yards of goal is also the highest it’s been in the last six years.
For context, here’s how many deep completions top four teams typically allow in a season. Only two teams have ever qualified for the Champions League while allowing more than five deep completions per match, both were Spurs.
With very strong in-the-box defenders such as Raphael Varane and Lissandro Martinez United were relying more on reactive last ditch defending rather than proactive defending. They weren’t going to just stop playing out the back on goal kicks, but passing from the back all together. Defenders jobs were simplified to ‘just defend.’ Don’t worry about making passes out from the back too often, when you win the ball back just hoof it away.
This made a lot of sense for the match against Liverpool but it quickly became apparent those were going to be the tactics a week later against the much lesser opponent of Southampton.
The changes helped United grind out four straight wins in the league. 12 points they will happily take and not look back. Four straight wins make it very easy for a results bias to trickle into your mind. A closer look at the numbers showed that four straight wins were painting a much rosier picture than what was really going on.
Over the four match stretch against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester, and Arsenal, Manchester United had a non-penalty xG difference of just +0.7, hardly a number that would suggest you’d get four straight wins. They conceded two non-penalty goals against an xG against of 5.0! In that same stretch David de Gea’s PSxG-G was just 0.8 suggesting United were benefitting from a lot of poor finishing rather than great defending.
These trends carried over right into the Europa League where United’s non-penalty xG difference in their two matches was an identical +0.7 but the results were one win and one loss with neither performance being anything close to good.
If you were basing form only on results then you could be convinced United could go to Etihad and possibly knick a result. If you were looking a bit deeper you were probably worried. Either way United were served a massive slice of humble pie in the derby.
After the match The Busby Babe’s Suwaid Fazal wrote how it was time for Ten Hag to go to plan C. Once again, tactically, we weren’t sure where things were going to go. We didn’t know what plan C was going to be other than it probably was going to include Anthony Martial - finally back from injury.
Plan B was overly pragmatic and was never going to be sustainable long term. What now was plan C going to be, how long will it take for it to come together, and what is it going to look like?
A week later we still don’t have the answer to that question but there have been moments. We’re not there yet, not even close, the match against Everton featured several isolated moments that showed different areas were starting to come together, and once they’re put all together United are really going to have something.
Pieces of a plan
It started with the Europa League match against AC Omonia where United finally went out and rightfully destroyed an inferior Europa League team as they should be expected to do - even if the scoreline didn’t suggest it.
We started to see more consistent things in the buildup structure, like the fullbacks identifying space in midfield and filling it to help with ball progression.
After abandoning playing out from the back after the Brentford match, United have made much more of an effort to do in their three Europa League matches. That’s allowed Lisandro Martinez to really showcase why Erik Ten Hag made it a priority to sign him. Against Manchester City, Christian Eriksen was effectively marked out of the match by City’s midfield, making it extremely difficult for United to build any possession and progress the ball. Against Omonia, Martinez took that responsibility on himself.
Nearly everything started with Martinez making direct passes. He lead the game with 11 progressive passes and passed into the final third a whopping 15 times. He may not have been responsible for creating the 28 shots United took that match, but nearly every time United had the ball near their opponents box the sequence that got the ball there began with Martinez making a direct pass up the pitch.
This is crucial to United’s ability to attack because without direct passes they often end up just playing around the middle and not being able to make any headway in breaking things down.
The bits and pieces of playing out the back in the Europa League started to show themselves against Everton.
Here, David de Gea - who is often (rightly) criticized for his inability to play with the ball at his feet - becomes an outlet to help out Victor Lindelof and rather than hoofing it away makes the smart pass up the middle to Martinez. The sequence ends thanks to a poor touch from Casemiro.
United would keep playing out from the back and later we saw them build successfully from it.
Much has been said about United’s ability - or inability - to press teams. To many, pressing simply means defending high up the pitch, swarming opposition defenders and goalkeepers to try and create turnovers near the opponents goal. That is the fundamental point of high pressing but not everything has to be about pressing high. The most important aspect of pressing is winning the ball back within five seconds of losing it. That way you can attack your opponent while their players are in the midst of switching from their out of possession structure to their in possession structure and aren’t ready to defend.
Against Everton, both of United’s goals came from attacking right after they won possession. Both sequences began with United losing the ball...
And then winning it back within five seconds and springing an attack...
Admittedly this goal is more Casemiro defending well, then him launching a counter attack, then a pressing situation, but the first goal is exactly what you want to see from him and the team.
United lost the ball in midfield, and while the midfielders hold their shape and delay, the United forwards begin running back to apply pressure.
Just five seconds after losing the ball, Bruno wins it back and plays it forward to launch a quick direct attack that results in a goal.
You can see that these concepts are beginning to take hold.
Those that have been reading The Busby Babe for a while now are familiar with Marcus Rashford’s habit of getting tunnel vision when running down the left side and wanting to take on every defender. That’s what made this sequence eye catching and nice to see.
Rashford makes a nifty move to split the two defenders but then... he lays the ball off to Bruno. In previous years, once Rashford beat the first two defenders and got here...
In the past Rashford would often try to take the third defender on as well, and keep going himself until he either lost the ball or the opportunity had gone. It usually wouldn’t end successfully and would leave every fan with their face in their hands.
Instead, Rashford lays the ball off to Bruno and continues his run, allowing Bruno to play it wide to the over lapping man and give United a good attacking sequence. It didn’t lead to a third goal, but it’s a promising change of decision making.
He’s still making some curious decisions, like taking this shot, and intentionally shooting it wide of the defenders even though there is no way it could possibly go on target that way.
It reminded me of in ice hockey when defensemen intentionally shoot wide from the blue line because the priority is not to get their shot blocked. Only in ice hockey the shot goes wide and bounces off the boards, here it goes out for a goal kick. Oh well, baby steps.
But the biggest bright spot of the match likely belonged to Cristiano Ronaldo.
How a changed Ronaldo (could) fit the plan
Ronaldo has not had an easy year. Father time is catching up to him and he’s not taking it well. He’s been rightfully dropped to the bench and he’s not happy there. Over the weekend he lashed out again when Duncan Castles - a well known Jorge Mendes mouthpiece - reported that Ronaldo was unhappy with Ten Hag’s tactics and training methods, which isn’t much of a surprise considering those methods involve not playing Ronaldo.
The irony is, if Ronaldo were to just play the way Erik Ten Hag wants him to play he would probably thrive in the sunset of his career. That doesn’t mean just running around pressing players when out of possession.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how we need to stop talking about Ronaldo’s pressing as ‘pressing’ has just become a buzzword that cannibalizes the entire conversation preventing us from actually talking about the real issues of Ronaldo. Ten Hag simply wants Ronaldo to play less like Cristiano Ronaldo and more like a striker.
I am well aware of how ridiculous a statement that is to write. How could you tell the greatest goal scorer to ever play to not play the way that allowed him to reach that level. The answer is simply, at 38 years old Ronaldo just can’t play that way anymore. He’s no longer that player.
Ronaldo has a tendency to drift around looking for the ball even if there’s no point in him being in that position.
Because he’s Ronaldo he’ll often get the ball but then typically doesn’t do anything with it.
This doesn’t help anyone and it’s why if Ronaldo would just play like a striker, not only would United benefit but he would benefit too.
Against Everton Ronaldo played that way. It was easily his best game of the season and one of his best in the last two years. He was justly rewarded with a goal, one that was vintage Ronaldo - using pace to run away from defenders and beat the goalkeeper, something that was nice to see considering how often he hasn’t seemed to have that kind of pace this season.
But it wasn’t the goal that raised my eyes about Ronaldo’s performance but a sequence later in the second half.
As I mentioned above, out of possession it’s not so much about ‘pressing’ as it is about keeping the shape and simply working hard with the team. Last season, Ronaldo couldn’t even be asked to get back and keep the shape even when United weren’t pressing.
On Sunday we saw this...
Ronaldo gets back to win the ball, allowing them to quickly launch a counter attack. He then charges back up the pitch towards the back post, and only doesn’t have a goal thanks to some fantastic defending, none of this happens if not for Ronaldo working hard on defense.
There is still a long way to go. While there were moments on Sunday that looked very promising there is still the caveat of this was just Everton and Everton are really bad. (Don’t let Everton’s numbers fool you. They came into the match 16th in xG differential and while they entered the match having conceded the fewest goals in the league, they also had the third worst expected goals against).
United still need to improve, a lot. They’re 11th in expected goal difference in the league - which is right about where they were before the Manchester Derby. They’re playing very close to the margins, which leaves you very little room for error as we saw on Sunday. Despite Everton having just two shots in the first half and a total xG of 0.6, one mistake - a giveaway from Casemiro - and a well placed shot suddenly puts you at risk.
Earlier this season Southampton failed to score on 1.6 xG against United and lost. A week later they scored twice on 0.8 xG and beat Chelsea. That’s football for you. Despite not allowing their opponents nearly anything over their last two matches, United came very close to dropping points late in both.
There’s still a lot of work to be done here but there were moments on Sunday. Noticeable moments that made it look like things were starting to click. Moments that made you believe progress was being made in a sustainable way, and would lead to improvement in the not too distant future.