Last week Manchester United played three Premier League matches in an eight day period. Uniquely, those matches came against the teams that were sitting second, twelfth, and first respectively in the table. United came out of that run with a win, a draw, and a loss picking up four points in the table. That total is something that a week ago fans might have signed up for but given the way the matches played out, it was a bit disappointing.
The quality of the opponents and the players available in each match presented an interesting situation where in the space of just eight days Erik Ten Hag had three different tactical plans for each match.
This presents us with an opportunity to look at how the plans varied for each match, and also how they contributed to each of the results.
Manchester City - When pressing doesn’t mean pressing
To put it shortly, the first time United played City this season was a disaster. United came out very aggressive and City took advantage of this by using clever movements to drag United players out of position to either create space or favorable matchups. One minute into the match Jack Grealish came off the touchline and made a banana shaped run to create a favorable angle to receive the ball and put Diogo Dalot in a vulnerable position.
Dalot was booked and that set the tone for the whole match. United’s shape never looked fully coherent and there seemed to be space for City wherever they went. When United pushed high, City went right through them. When United backed off, City still had no problem finding spaces between United’s lines. United simply couldn’t stop anything.
On the day, City made 36 progressive passes and successfully passed the ball into United’s box 13 times. They took 147 touches in the attacking third with 47 of them (31.97%) coming in United’s box.
In the reverse fixture, this is what Erik Ten Hag sought out to stop. He did it by aggressively pressing unaggressively.
How does that make any sense?
Unfortunately pressing data isn’t available publicly anymore so we have to make do with what we got. United weren’t pushing up to press City high in their own box. For the most part they were waiting until City got to around midfield before they launched a soft press.
The key part of this “press” was United weren’t actually trying to win the ball back. Their strategy was to keep their shape, and keep City in front of them. The number one rule was, don’t let City do what they want to do.
Watch as United move with the ball and cutoff the most dangerous passing lanes. They’re content to let City pass the ball around the perimeter until City naturally opt to go backwards.
United are more than happy to let City have the ball in their own box. They’re more focused on cutting off the passing lane to Rodri, which is who City want to build through. Watch as Christian Eriksen and Anthony Martial are always aware of where Rodri is and in position to deny him a pass. Even when attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva drops in with the back line just to get on the ball United are fine with it. Bernardo Silva touching the ball back there is not nearly as dangerous as him touching the ball further up the pitch.
Remember, you don’t need to win the ball back when you’re defending. The number one goal is prevent the other team from scoring. If you just keep the attackers in front of you and take away what they want to do, eventually you’ll get it back either from a missed shot, saved shot, bad touch, or bad pass.
Behind the front four, United had Fred man marking Kevin de Bruyne so as to not give him space, or make his life difficult as soon as he thought he found some. If City’s main creator can’t do anything with the ball, they’re going to have a much more difficult time creating scoring chances.
Man-marking can be dangerous as it leaves you exposed to your opponent making dummy runs just to drag you out of position and leave your shape exposed. This was the tactic United used so effectively two years ago with Bruno Fernandes against Leeds. With Fred in a man-marking role it was even more important for the players in front of him to maintain their shape.
When you’re aggressive and trying to win the ball back you leave yourself exposed to being bypassed easily. When that happens, it puts a strain on the rest of the team as someone now needs to cover your position and someone else will have to cover his. Factor in there’s a man behind you who could be out of position due to man-marking and you can be badly exposed. By not trying to win the ball back and just keeping City’s players in front of them, United were able to keep their shape and make things incredibly difficult for their opponents.
We can see this in the numbers, but unfortunately since pressing data is no longer freely available we’ll have to improvise. Looking at tackles and interceptions are far from definitive metrics but they can offer you a glimpse into how aggressive a team is being and do tell a bit of a story in how here.
Against City, United attempted 26 tackles. That seems like a big number but City had 70 percent of the possession. When you adjust the number for possession it comes out to just 3.58. City attempted 758 passes - the most against United in a match this season - and United intercepted just six of them - the fewest total they’ve had all season. This tells us how unaggressive United were being. If City passed the ball, they let it get to it’s destination. They weren’t taking risks to try and win the ball back.
As a result City took 194 touches in United’s final third but only turned that into 26 touches in United’s box. They had to work for ‘em, and they weren’t getting good looks. They mustered just six shots against United with only one of them being of any quality, which naturally came from a United mistake.
The final moments of holding on to a derby win are always nervy and I don’t know about you, but this time I was far less nervy than ever before. City hadn’t been threatening all match and it didn’t feel like that was changing.
Crystal Palace - More aggressive, more taxing
Three days later Manchester United travelled to Selhurst Park to take on Crystal Palace. This would predictably a much different affair as you wouldn’t expect Palace to dominate possession. United were going to have to take the game to them.
United came out far more aggressive. They were pretty relentless swarming Palace players as soon as they got the ball. This was especially true of the center backs. United weren’t going to back off and let Palace advance to the halfway line. If Palace moved it up the pitch the defenders were closing quick to try and win the ball back.
Even when United’s forward line was holding a ‘just keep them in front of you’ shape, the center backs were playing very aggressive to step up and try to win back the ball.
If we look at the tackles again, United attempted 32 tackles against Palace, more than twice as many as they did against City. Now factor in that this time United had 60 percent of the possession. If we adjust for possession that number comes out to almost 47 tackles. They also intercepted twice as many (12) Palace passes despite Palace attempting 337 fewer passes. United were playing very aggressive, running hard and working hard to win the ball back whenever they lost it.
United came out of the gates sharply and ended up outshooting Palace 10-3 in the first half, racking up an xG of 1.17 compared to Palace’s 0.38. But United didn’t finish. They only scored once and that aggressive game plan started to wear down United.
United’s legs started to go as the second half wore on. Despite the game still moving back and forth and United still having most of the possession, they only managed five shots in the second half. Tiring legs meant they couldn’t firmly control the match to slow things down and see it out.
This has been a theme in many of United’s post World Cup matches and while there’s some reason for concern it hasn’t been too concerning. That’s because despite the helter skelter back and forth nature of the matches, they’re still not conceding many chances (big thanks to Casemiro), let alone good ones. In the second half Palace took seven shots but had an xG of 0.17. None of them were high quality chances and once again the result never seemed to be in doubt.
But with football being football, sometimes someone just hits an amazing free kick.
As I mentioned last week on The Busby Babe Podcast, when this match was originally scheduled back in September, United were in the midst of a run where they were getting wins despite the numbers, suggesting the odds of winning each game weren’t any greater than a coin flip. United were playing extremely close to the margins where one mistake could ruin a result for you. Had this game been played in September, you might have expected this to be the result.
Ironically you get this result in a match that United thoroughly deserved to win. But that’s football, sometimes a moment of magic happens and that’s why as Erik Ten Hag said, you need to invest in the second goal.
United’s aggressive approach from the outset created those chances, but when they failed to convert them that aggressive strategy wore them down, decreased their chances of getting that second goal, and increased the chances of something crazy happening.
Arsenal - Something in between
There are a lot of similarities between Arsenal and Manchester City so one would expect Erik Ten Hag to employ similar tactics against Arsenal as he did against City.
There was just one hiccup.
As United couldn’t grab that second goal against Crystal Palace, Ten Hag couldn’t remove Casemiro - who was one yellow card away from a suspension - from the match. We all know what happened next, the Brazilian made a lazy pass to lose the ball and then committed a cynical foul to clean up the mess. Yellow card and United head to the Emirates missing their most important player.
With the Brazilian missing, no one really knew how Ten Hag was going to line up. Would he bring in Scott McTominay, the in form Fred, push Eriksen high and Bruno out wide again and put the McFred partnership in midfield?
Each option had it’s own pros and cons but about two minutes after the match kicked off two things became very clear:
The first is despite no one knowing what Ten Hag would do, Mikel Arteta seemed very prepared for exactly what Ten Hag was trying to do and the second is, Manchester United didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to be doing either.
Ten Hag made two changes from the City match, bringing in McTominay for Casemiro and dropping Fred for Antony. McTominay has very little sense of positioning and can be dragged out of position quite easily while Antony could sometimes be lazy - for lack of a better word - when it comes to tracking back.
Arteta was ready for that right from the jump. With Antony (and Rashford) staying high in United’s 4-2-3-1, that allowed Arsenal’s fullbacks - specifically Zinchenko - tons of space in the middle of the field if they just tucked inside. Just 90 seconds into the match Zinchenko finds himself in acres of space as Arsenal are able to get their first (of many) threatening opportunities.
Off the ensuing corner, Arsenal run a short corner routine that so easily carves United open and leads to another high quality shot. The routine is important because it would come up again, but it was telling how easy Arsenal were finding things.
The play was indicative of United’s approach to the match. Are they being aggressive or are they trying to keep the attackers in front of them, don’t let them do what they want to do, make them work for everything? You would think after the success they had against City a week ago it would be the latter, instead it was the former.
Notice in the play above how Arsenal drag three United defenders outside of the box.
This would be a time where you’d want to keep them in front of you, don’t give them anything easy. But instead Bruno runs at the ball, allowing himself to be easily bypassed. Xhaka has the ball in all this space, and despite United out-numbering Arsenal players in the box, several Gunners are able to get very open, all because United made it easy for them.
United were constantly chasing the ball and never seemed to keep their shape, making it easy for Arsenal to move the ball along and get it into open spaces.
With United being over aggressive, Arsenal thrived on making runs and rotations to drag defenders out of position. This resulted in United constantly finding players filling in for others where they may not have been sure what to do. For example, he’s a situation where left back Luke Shaw is defending Bakayo Saka 1v1. With Christian Eriksen coming to help, Arsenal run a clever overlap which Shaw follows, giving Saka space to take a dangerous shot.
Now look at a similar situation later in the match. This time it’s Fred out in the left back position. Eriksen’s man makes an overlapping run but this time neither player goes with him, allowing him to get into the box pretty easily.
This would be what happened on the first goal. Arsenal run the exact same short corner routine as above. United defend the first wave of it but never get possession of the ball back. This results in Aaron Wan-Bissaka playing in an unfamiliar spot as a left back. Wan-Bissaka is beaten at the back post by a good run from Eddie Nketiah who equalizes.
It’s really poor from Wan-Bissaka, but there are so many breakdowns that come beforehand that the cross never should have happened.
Watch below as Antony starts the sequence by running all the way out to Zinchenko. When Zinchenko easily bypasses him with a pass Antony just gives up, rather than staying with his man who quickly gets the ball back. Bruno tries to win the ball back off Xhaka and fails. At first he lets Xhaka back up and take space, then decides to aggressively go after him, only for Xhaka to take him out of the play with a simple pass to the unmarked Zinchenko.
Look at the first clip again, once Zinchenko gets the ball Bruno just ignores Xhaka and Martin Odegaard. The open Zinchenko makes a simple pass to the open Odegaard who passes out wide to Xhaka whom everyone completely ignored. This is truly abhorrent defending.
Even when United’s forwards locked into their ‘passive press’ it looked more like what we saw last season than anything we’ve seen this season. They weren’t keeping their shape, they weren’t staying compact. There was a massive gap between the front five and the back six, which made it very easy for Arsenal to exploit.
Look at how much space Thomas Partey finds himself in!
Let’s look at the numbers again. Against Arsenal United attempted 23 tackles with 43 percent possession. When we adjust for possession that number comes out to 13.94, not a crazy amount but far more then what they did in their more passive controlled match against City. Arsenal had 236 touches in the attacking third and turned that into 59 touches in United’s box, the most United have conceded in a match all year. Arsenal were patient and eventually the opportunities came for them. The 25 shots is also the most United have conceded this season and the 3.1 xG is second only to the 3.2 Manchester City had at the Ethiad. Similar tactics yields similar results.
United did manage to get 43 percent possession in this match but their tactics virtually ensured they wouldn’t do much with it. McTominay in place of Casemiro meant United were very much lacking passing out of central midfield, as well as some defensive cover. That meant both Bruno Fernandes and Wout Weghorst would have to drop deeper to help out.
That’s all well and good but it also means you don’t have your striker and playmaker up the pitch where they’re most dangerous. United’s only outlets were Antony and Rashford, meaning the basis for all their attacks was going to be ‘let’s see how lethal you can be on the counter attack.’
Just look at how deep Bruno drops to win possession of the ball and launch a potential counter attack here.
There’s only one problem. Antony has been dreadful on counter attacks all season long, and Sunday was no exception.
United somehow managed to score two goals, thanks to a set piece and a moment of individual brilliance from Marcus Rashford. Because of that they were somehow in a position to nearly come out of this match with a completely undeserved point.
But United were undone by exactly the same issue that had plagued them all match. They were overaggressive and missed. It starts with McTominay lunging to try and break a pass that he has no shot at, effectively taking himself out of the play and isolating Aaron Wan-Bissaka against two attackers.
United are playing catchup the whole way. Fred never sees the man behind him and Luke Shaw doesn’t seem to inform Fred that he’s passing him off to him. Arsenal have the ball in tons of space in United’s box and by the time Fred lunges for the ball it’s too late. Arsenal get the win that they thoroughly deserved. They were that good.
Three matches, three tactical plans, and three different results, with the only one you can really feel hard done by being the draw to Palace.
The loss to Arsenal doesn’t change the picture much at all. United’s xG goal difference per 90 sits at +0.30. Fifth best in the league and just behind Liverpool at +0.34. That number is a bit skewed by the City and Arsenal results but the important thing is, they have a 10 point lead over Liverpool and Liverpool despite their numbers don’t seem like they’re going to be figuring it out anytime soon. Neither do Spurs who are playing much more towards their numbers than underachieving. United remain favorites to finish in the top four.
There aren’t many teams you have to worry about closing the gap on United as long as United continue to take care of business.
That’s what make the Crystal Palace match the most concerning. United are done playing the City’s and Arsenal’s of the world, but they’ve going to face a lot more Palace type teams. Those game are going to require them to be aggressive both with and without the ball.
How long will United be able to play this style before they burn out? How long will their hamstrings hold up? Anthony Martial is already hurt (again) and Rashford is definitely carrying an injury. Christian Eriksen can’t play the full 90 minutes at this level.
Unless United lose in the Europa League, they don’t have a free midweek for the rest of the season. They still have to make up a game against Leeds and should they reach the League Cup final - which they are favorites to do - that will force the rescheduling of another match. So too could late round FA Cup fixtures.
How are they going to hold up? Well that’s going to be the question that defines the rest of United’s season.