Chris- Like past years, United are slow and static in possession
Manchester United has been known to struggle against teams that play in a low block over the last couple seasons, and Sunday was no different, as Erik ten Hag’s side failed to successfully break down Newcastle.
While ten Hag attempts to convert United from a counter-attacking team into a possession-minded side, one of the most frustrating things to watch is the slow speed of play and the lack of runs being made off the ball.
It was apparent today when United had the ball in positions such as out wide with Jadon Sancho and Antony that the majority of their teammates were static and not moving to create an option and open gaps in Newcastle’s defensive block. This could also be seen when players like Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes, and Diogo Dalot would carry the ball into the middle of the field looking to combine with a teammate, but players stood in place and didn’t check to receive the ball and drag Newcastle’s defenders out of position with them.
Lack of movement like this often leads to forcing passes that aren’t on, and we see this a lot with United’s midfield and wingers often trying to force-feed Cristiano Ronaldo or playing wasteful crosses from wide areas.
Additionally, another basic key element of the game is moving the ball quickly to break down defenses. However, what we continue to see with United are players getting possession, taking a couple touches while assessing their options (or lack thereof), and playing the ball sideways or backwards. Off-the-ball movement is integral to allowing a team to combine quickly and slice through the opposition, but it’s nearly impossible to break down a team that sits back and allows pressure if the team in possession is static and takes their time with the ball.
Without one, you can’t have the other, and this leads to the dull, frustrating attacking performances like we saw on Sunday.
Colin- The need for a centre forward won’t be fixed this season, but Ronaldo (still) is not the remedy
United are desperate for a centre forward. Everything Chris pointed out above is spot on, as United still have the same old problems in breaking down teams who sit deep. Centre forward is probably next in the shopping list, and no one currently in the squad is likely to change that, but there are more reliable options than Ronaldo this season.
A big part of that problem comes with who is playing up top and how the team go about getting them the ball. With Ronaldo on the pitch he is always the focus, everyone trying to get him the ball, and him demanding the ball when they aren’t. The problem is he’s not actually the kind of no. 9 people think he is. He doesn’t make all the right runs, in fact he usually expects someone else to and he positions himself to clean things up (part of why he keeps asking for a strike partner). He also drifts left when getting involved in build up, which is fine but he doesn’t do so on the other wing. So once again you have United only able to work effectively on the left while the right wing becomes increasingly isolated and stagnant.
If that all sounds familiar to you, it’s because we’ve seen it in one form or another for a couple years now. That is why simply playing someone else won’t solve anything either. Rashford has been the only other reliably healthy striker this season, and while United looked better after he came he isn’t the kind of player who can play by himself in that role without space to exploit against a low block.
Martial is probably the best bet, whether in partnership with one of the other two or not. He links up well with forward partners and hasn’t lost his touch like Ronaldo has. We know by now he’s streaky and likely won’t have a higher ceiling than what we’ve already seen. Plus injuries and availability have become a persistent problem. Erik ten Hag has had to adapt, and will continue to do so until he can get reinforcements, but for now he must keep tinkering or the goals will dry up and pressure will build.