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Tactical Analysis: Direct football for the win

Manchester United v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

(Author’s note: Did I mention most of this in my “Staff Takeaway” yesterday? Yes. Now I’m expanding on it. Sue me)

It was always going to take time for Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag to implement “his” style of play at Old Trafford. That would be true of any manager who’s style differs from their predecessor. It’s even more true when you’re taking over a bunch of players whose aren’t quite suited to playing that style.

It’s important to have patience, something that is incredibly difficult to come by in the current social media driven 15 minute news cycle. One mistake or one slip, and suddenly you’re the latest viral meme.

The million dollar question is how much patience does one get afforded? Or even, how much patience can one have themselves? That was what was on everyone's mind’s after Manchester United’s embarrassing first two matches of the 2022-23 Premier League season.

Erik ten Hag wants to play possession based football. When you don’t have the ball, you work like hell to get it back. When you do have it, you don’t give it away. A big part of possession based football is playing out from the back on goal kicks. It would seemingly be an easy part to implement since United did it often under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and tried to do it under Ralf Rangnick.

Coming into the season, ten Hag implemented a structure for how United were going to play out the back from their goalkeeper. It was pretty obvious what that pattern was. In fact, it was a little too obvious because it didn’t take United’s opponents long to figure it out either.

Seven minutes into the opening match against Brighton, the opposition were sitting on Fred ready to cause problems.

The next week, right from the jump, Brentford were sitting on the same pattern. It took them less than 20 minutes to turn it into a goal.

How patient was Erik ten Hag going to be? Was he going to persist with this style that was ending in embarrassment or change things up to something that more fits the players he has? United were trying to build up with a single pivot in midfield. Against Brighton that was Fred, who failed miserably. Against Brentford it was Christian Eriksen, who didn’t fair much better. Anyone who watched United last season knows that Scott McTominay can’t play this role either.

And so, Erik ten Hag said screw it, no buildup at all!

United weren’t going to try and play out from the back. They weren’t going to try and play through midfield. David de Gea was instructed to hoof everything long. It didn’t matter whether it was to a teammate or not.

The one time de Gea played it short, it ended just as disastrously as you could expect, with de Gea setting up an extremely uncomfortable Raphael Varane for failure.

Defensively, United’s tactics were simple, just get the ball away. Don’t worry about bringing it down, don’t worry about finding an outlet pass or even your teammate, just get the ball out and regroup. From there, the responsibility went to the front four who had one simple job. Run. Work.

It wasn’t about winning the first ball, but winning the second or the third ball. Once United got the ball back, they were to launch quick counter attacks.

Long goal kick, win second ball, quick attack.

United didn’t press Liverpool so much as they trapped them. They came out with a mid-block ‘press’ or what I like to call the three-fourths field trap. This was a tactic United’s Champions League double winners in 2007-08 used quite often. You don’t want to pressure teams in their own box, you want them move the ball up the pitch to create space in behind them to attack. Once they get about three fourths of the way up the pitch you start to force them into certain areas where you can trap them.

You stay organized, but you don’t put pressure all the way up the pitch.

As you do that, you guide the ball to where you want it to go. Here, without pressuring the ball, Jadon Sancho is able to force the ball to go up the touchline by cutting off the pass to the middle.

Once it gets out wide, United are able to trap the ball to try and force a turnover.

The result: bad pass, interception, direct pass off the turnover, chance for United.

A few minutes later it all comes together. Defense first, just get the ball away, don’t worry about anything else.

From there, it’s time for your front four to go to work trying to get the ball back. Jadon Sancho comes away with it here and begins a counter attack.

When he passes it to the middle, it’s one touch to play Marcus Rashford running in behind.

This would be one of the rare times United got the ball deep and actually kept it there. But the payoff was massive, the sequence ending with Jadon Sancho giving United their first lead of the season.

United followed the same blueprint for their second goal as well. A ‘just get it away’ headed clearance from Raphael Varane comes back to Jordan Henderson. United’s forwards looking to win the second ball are ready when Henderson takes a poor touch.

As soon as Anthony Martial turns he’s able to play Rashford in behind.

No passing from the back, no midfield, just a clearance, hard work, and a counter attack.

Ten Hag went extremely back to basics for this match simplifying everyone’s job to an extreme level. Defenders were to solely defend. Per Fbref The back four combined for zero progressive passes and one progressive carry. The back four accounted for only a third of United’s attempted passes and attempted passes on just three out of every five of their touches - an incredibly low number. Look at the location of their passes, hardly any come from the final third of the pitch, the overwhelming majority are higher up when United already had the ball.

With United’s game plan being defenders only defend, Harry Maguire - whose best attributes are on the ball - was dropped in place of Raphael Varane who is a far more agile defender but far less comfortable on the ball. That’s not important though if you’re not asking your defenders to play with the ball at their feet.

With the defenders not passing from the back, the midfield didn’t have to worry about any buildup responsibilities. United attempted only 15 passes to Scott McTominay and 22 to Christian Eriksen (though Eriksen was moved further forward over his last 15 minutes). McTominay has always thrived when his responsibilities are simplified. Stripping away his possession responsibilities allowed him to play a free roaming position where he could do what he does best, disrupt the opponents attacks.

Up top, with Anthony Martial not fit to play the full 90 minutes Marcus Rashford was moved to the middle. Instead of having to follow Liverpool’s fullbacks up and down the pitch, Rashford could concentrate on doing what he does best, running in behind.

There was an element of Jose Mourinho to this match. United routinely were dropping seven or eight men back into their own box to defend.

As United tired as the second half wore on they only dropped deeper. After Ten Hag made three subs with five minutes to go, United reshaped into a 4-4-2 that sat extremely deep, often having all 11 men in their own third.

The result was United doing a ton of defending near their own penalty area, a throwback to the Mourinho days where United sat extremely deep.

According to MarkStats this was the lowest United’s defensive line played since MarkStats started tracking these things. The defensive safety first just clear the ball tactics contributed to United only having 31 percent of possession. United have only had 31 percent or less possession in a Premier League match three times in the last five seasons. Two of them were last season under Ralf Rangnick against Manchester City and Liverpool - two matches where United didn’t really have any sort of plan - the third was in December 2017 against Arsenal. Yes that Arsenal match.

Erik ten Hag answered the question as to how patient and stubborn he would be. He switched things up and went back to basics on Monday. He simplified the roles for his players to get the best out of them and put them in a position where their energy and mentality could carry them to a win.

The new manager passed a big test Monday night. Had United lost to an injury depleted and poor Liverpool side, the Ten Hag era could sunk before it even left the dock. Now ten Hag faces an even bigger test. We’ve seen this team perform in matches like this plenty of times over the years, the challenge now will be how you perform against a team like Southampton who aren’t going let you play 65 percent of the match without the ball.

How will he set his team up with some key players already looking a bit leggy. Will he try and play his possession football again, or be a bit more pragmatic? Southampton like to play with a high line and perhaps Ten Hag will go for a similar approach that plays to the skillset of his team. That is something to be careful of though as the more you sacrifice your own style in the name of results, the harder it becomes to implement that style.

Those are the questions that Ten Hag is going to need to answer in the coming weeks.