As you know by now one of the cardinal rules of football is you really shouldn’t take much stock out of anything that happens in a Europa League group stage match, FA Cup match, or especially a League match, and that’s why I’ll almost never write about them. Too often you’re facing a vastly inferior opponent, a rotated side, or both. Wins aren’t as good as they look, losses are usually due to poor squad depth but pretty often the biggest factor is simply bad luck.
Having said all that, a League Cup match against a slightly rotated Premier League side where you display the same alarming trait that’s been happening in the last few Premier League matches is enough of a concern to at least merit jotting down some thoughts.
Typically when things aren’t going well in a cup match it’s very easy to just chalk it up to the backups not being as good as the first choice players. It’s not just easy, it’s often the correct assessment. The problem is, the problem that plagued United in the first half of Thursday night’s victory over Aston Villa, has been a notable problem all season including most of the last six matches which have featured their top players.
Erik Ten Hag has come in and established a new structure for United to build up play. It’s very clear for everyone to see. The two center backs move a bit wide, one midfielder pushes forward while the other one drops deep in the center of the park.
The fullbacks will be in one of two places. Either out wide a bit higher than the center backs, or cutting inside to play as an inverted midfielder.
There hasn’t been much variation to this so it’s not really a surprise when teams know what’s coming and sit on it.
The other constant thing about United’s buildup has been they are mightily struggling to effectively move the ball from the back four/five (the defenders and the deep midfielder) to the front four. We constantly see situations where United are able to affectively move the ball through their opponents high press between the center backs, central midfielder, and fullbacks, but when it comes to actually getting it up to their playmakers - or just their playmaking midfielders - it doesn’t happen.
Thursday night United had the ball for roughly two minutes and 45 seconds of the first three minutes of the match. In that time they had 48 touches compared to just six for Aston Villa, yet look at where all those touches came. Despite having quite literally all the possession, United could not get the ball over the halfway line.
Now look at where all those touches came. United’s front four of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, and Donny van de Beek combined for just five of those 48 touches with one of them being Van de Beek taking the opening kickoff. Scott McTominay, the deeper of the two central midfielders, got six touches while the more advanced Fred managed just three. Right there you can see the clear divide between the front five and the back six.
There is no denying that there is some element of personnel at play here. The McFred pivot has never been good at buildup. Donny van de Beek offering absolutely nothing three games in a row hasn’t helped, but it can’t all be chalked up to that. As I’ve said these problems have been apparent over the last few games when Casemiro and Eriksen have been playing rather than McFred. This was pointed out both in writing on Monday, and Monday’s episode of The Busby Babe podcast.
United’s inability to get the ball forward makes their buildup slow and laborious. It allows the defense to move with them and stay set, so by the time United do get it to their forwards they’re not in a position to be dangerous. When your dangerous players can’t be dangerous, you’re not going to generate much of an attack.
United’s attack this season has been very average. They rank seventh in the league in shots per game, eighth in non-penalty xG per game, and 13th in NPxG per shot - and even that number is probably inflated by their good counter attacking performances against Liverpool and Arsenal earlier in the season.
For the past few matches United’s struggles have been chalked up to the absence of Anthony Martial and inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo - the former being the type of striker Erik Ten Hag’s style suits and the latter very much not - has been in the team making buildup much more difficult. There is validity to this argument - United are taking 2.28 more shots per 90 when Ronaldo isn’t on the pitch than when he is. But on Thursday Martial was restored to the team, playing with his usual left wing Rashford with Bruno Fernandes off on the right, but there.
United’s buildup in the first half was no better. They managed just three shots over the opening 45 minutes as Aston Villa knew exactly what United’s kryptonite was.
The longstanding narrative about United has been their inability to ‘break down low blocks.’ This isn’t completely accurate. A better way to describe it would be to say, they struggle against organized, compact defenses, the height of which doesn’t matter.
Villa were incredibly compact Thursday night, restricting any space for United’s midfielders to operate between the lines.
They could play that block in their own box, move it outside the box, or move it higher up the pitch. Either way United’s midfielders didn’t have any space.
It’s important to classify United’s struggles as against ‘organized compact teams’ because the train of thought around ‘low blocks’ has always been ‘if you leave United space in behind, they’ll exploit it.’ That’s not quite true because if you stay compact, all that space in behind isn’t quite easy to exploit if you have a goalkeeper off his line.
As long as your shape stays compact you’re able to protect your defenders from having to deal with runners coming in behind. It’s very hard to time those runs properly and stay onside unless you’re running on an angle, which could take you further from goal.
Where high lines get killed is when you’re not compact in front of them. When the blocks break down and suddenly players are out of position and others have to step out of position to cover them.
It was only in the second half when Villa started playing football that United came into the game. When Villa started opening them up to attack, that made their defense less compact and United were able to get in behind and pick them apart easily.
Villa played right into United’s hands.
There’s a lot of similarities to this United team and the 2019-20 United team. The obvious one being very good defensive teams with the ability to beat good teams by hitting them on the counter but struggling against organized compact defenses.
It’s funny how the narrative will shape the perception of a team though. In the first half of the 2019-20 season United’s Europa League and Carabao Cup results were (rightfully) discarded as the spotlight was pointed on their very inconsistent league form. This season the Europa League has been used to prop up the form of a team that has won just three of their last seven Premier League matches. The last time United won consecutive league matches the Queen was still alive.
United are 9th in xG differential suggesting they’re closer to a mid-table side than a Champions League one. Yet despite the numbers and poor recent form, United are still 5th in the table, just three points out of fourth. Their position has certainly been helped by the inconsistent performances from their rivals Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham.
That’s another similarity to the 2019-20 team who took advantage of many top teams underperforming to hang around and stay within striking distance of the top four while they had a bad team, then take advantage of their rivals not putting them away when they had a good team.
That team was aided by a one month training camp in the middle of the season thanks to COVID. Erik Ten Hag will now have a month to assess and work on things with *some* members of the squad while the rest are at the World Cup.
As not all players will be there, it’s not a perfect comparison. United will still need individual players to make strides forwards. For example, the knock on Rashford used to be he pre-dominantly scored one type of goal - the kind where he gets in behind the defense - but needed to further develop his all around game.
This season we’re now seeing Rashford add headers to his game.
But more importantly it’s not just getting on the end of crosses, but winning headers in the middle of the field as a target man to become a more well rounded striker. Then he follows the play up by getting into the dirty areas and scoring a goal.
We’re almost halfway through the season and United are sitting in a good spot, but there’s still things to be concerned about. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed, but if United want to kick on after the World Cup, they’re going to need both the team and individual players to make a jump up.