Turn back your calendar for a few months to Saturday, February 12, 2023.
Three days earlier Manchester United had to frantically score two late goals to claw back a 2-2 draw against a Leeds side that would ultimately be relegated. Now, an hour has gone by at Elland Road but United are still deadlocked with Leeds at 0-0.
Marcus Rashford has been the biggest goalscoring threat for United all season, but stationed out on the left wing, Leeds have effectively managed to mark him out of the match. Wanting to get Rashford more involved, Erik Ten Hag has an idea. First, he brings on Lisandro Martinez to replace Tyrell Malacia, allowing Luke Shaw to move from center back to his natural left-back position.
His next move is a little less conventional. On comes teenage left winger Alejandro Garnacho replacing Jadon Sancho who had been playing out on the right wing. But rather than shift Garnacho or Rashford to the right, he moves no. 10 Bruno Fernandes out wide, sends Rashford up top, and drops bulky striker Wout Weghorst to the number 10 position. It’s a move not so dissimilar from Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho playing Mauroanne Fellaini as the no. 10.
Less than 20 minutes later, United reaped the rewards as Shaw set up Rashford for the game's first goal.
Four minutes after that, Ten Hag looks like a bonafide genius when Weghorst assists a goal for Garnacho from the no. 10 position.
Four days later United faced Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Europa League playoff round. Ten Hag runs back the same concept, only this time Weghorst is less of a number 10 and more of a straight-up central midfielder.
Logically everything about playing this way made sense. Weghorst plays deeper as he’s going to do more defensive work, while Rashford can stay high and focus all his energy on attacking. Having Rashford up high allowed United to launch outlet balls knowing he’d be able to run them down and wreak some havoc on Barcelona’s backline.
The tactic worked. Rashford scored a goal and was the driving force behind Barcelona’s own goal that stood for United’s second. He created several other chances that United squandered, leaving a 2-2 draw feeling like United really should have won.
Naturally, it came as no surprise three days later when Rashford started up top with Weghorst as the no. 10 when United returned home to play Leicester City. But this wasn’t Barcelona at the Nou Camp. This was another team who would ultimately be relegated at Old Trafford.
Again the tactic “worked.” United went into the halftime break leading 1-0 thanks to a goal from, you guessed it, Rashford. But don’t let the scoreline fool you. Among games United won last season, this was arguably the worst half of football they played. They were outshot 11-8 and had an expected goals against of 1.25. After the match Ten Hag called them “rubbish.”
At halftime, Sancho replaced Garnacho while Bruno, Rashford, and Weghorst went back to their natural positions of no. 10, left wing, and striker. United blew Leicester away in the second half. Their 17 shots in the second was the most United managed in a single half all season. Their 2.99 xG was their second-highest single half xG of the season, bettered only by the 3.26 they had in the second half against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
Weghorst retained his place as striker for the second leg against Barcelona and three days later when United beat Newcastle to lift the Carabao Cup. Ten Hag would dust off the tactic a few more times over the rest of the campaign but it never had the success that it did those first two games (United would only win one more match where Weghorst played in the no. 10 position).
The simple lesson is, that sometimes the game state calls for something unconventional, and doing the unusual could pay off. But that doesn’t mean those tactics will work in all situations or that they should be used more often.
Fast forward now to October 7, and United are not only trailing Brentford 1-0 after 85 minutes at home, but they’ve been absolutely awful the entire time. Poor performances have been a theme all season and another loss would put United’s Premier League record at three wins and five defeats heading into the second international break of the season.
Three minutes from time, Ten Hag takes one last roll of the dice and introduces Scott McTominay to the action.
There may have been some eye rolls coming from some fans upon seeing McTominay’s introduction but if ever there was a spot for him, this was it. McTominay is in his seventh season with United’s first team and over that time he’s shown what his strengths and weaknesses are.
Few United players can strike a ball from the top of the box the way McTominay can.
Where the Scot really excels at making late runs into the box, finding the loose ball, and finishing.
It’s these qualities that have seen McTominay score six times for his country during their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign including twice against Spain.
McTominay struggles with passing, creativity, showing for the ball, and positioning among other traits needed to be a good midfielder not just in the Premier League, but to be at the level Manchester United wants to be at.
But with three minutes to go against Brentford, Erik Ten Hag didn’t need to worry about those things. United had pinned Brentford back into their own box. They didn’t need someone who could pass between the lines or pick out a pass to unlock a low block - those guys were already on the pitch. They needed someone who could run into the box and finish.
Just five minutes after coming on McTominay got his first touch, in the box of course, showing tremendous skill to bring the ball down before sweetly striking the ball into the bottom corner.
McTominay wasn’t done. Three minutes later the Scot got on the end of a Harry Maguire header and showed off that finishing ability once again, giving United three undeserved but much-needed points.
The game-state was perfect for McTominay and he delivered, sending United into the international break in a much better place than they’d been in just 10 minutes earlier.
United resumed their season against Sheffield United on Saturday and wouldn’t you know it, following the successful tactic at the end of the Brentford match, McTominay was included in the starting XI.
United were without Casemiro who had picked up a knock with Brazil, but given Sofyan Amrabat’s presence and £55m signing Mason Mount’s availability, this seemed less like covering for injuries and more of a deliberate selection from the manager.
Just like the Leicester City match in February, the tactic “worked.” United went ahead after 28 minutes thanks to Scott McTominay doing what he does best - finding a loose ball in the box and finishing.
United weren’t as lucky as they were against Leicester City. At halftime, the score was 1-1, with United having taken just six shots with an xG of 0.6 - 0.4 of which came on one chance. Prior to stoppage time in the first half, United had taken just four shots for 0.17 xG - a measly 0.04 xG per shot. This wasn’t working.
This was yet another situation where Ten Hag made a late game change, it worked, and then he decided to run it back for the next match. The issue is against Brentford the situation was perfect for McTominay. You didn’t have to worry about his passing ability or positioning. They only needed him to do the things he was good at.
Playing from the start is a whole different ballgame. Now, those things matter. Unfortunately for McTominay, there just isn’t a role in a Champions League team that can ask a player to only worry about making runs into the box and shooting.
If you’re playing deeper, you need to be available to receive the ball and move it up the pitch. If you’re playing further up the pitch, you need to be an outlet and drive creativity. If your midfielder isn’t doing any of those midfield things, you’re essentially playing a man down.
On paper, playing away to the 20th-place side in the league is the perfect time to rotate your squad and reward a player like McTominay for his good form. Sheffield United are very bad, and United should have more than enough firepower to brush them aside even with some of their top players missing.
McTominay “justified” his selection by scoring a goal, but the question is how many goals did United not score because they didn’t create enough chances? That is not entirely the fault of McTominay, but as a central midfielder, he’s a big part of that.
McTominay was picked so that when the ball came to him in the box, he offered a threat. The one time it happened, he came through.
The question is, what are you doing the rest of the time?
The answer was not much.
When the match kicked off, it appeared as if Bruno would drop deeper to help Amrabat out in midfield, while McTominay would be pushed higher so as to maximize the chances the ball would find him in the box.
Even as the game ticked on, we still saw Bruno popping up as the deeper of the two number 8s.
However, a look at the team’s pass map and average positions tells a different story. Here McTominay looks much more like he’s playing in a double pivot with Amrabat while Bruno is playing as the number 10.
McTominay’s touch location further backs that up. The Scot took 17 touches in 62 minutes, with 14 of them coming in either United’s own third or the middle third of the pitch. McTominay’s personal pass map tells the same story.
This was not someone getting on the ball in the final third of the pitch. This was someone playing deeper, but not getting involved in the match.
Things like this make an impact throughout the team. The obvious one is if you play a man down in midfield it’s much harder to get the ball to your attackers. The fewer touches your attackers have, the fewer opportunities your attackers have to create chances.
The less obvious impact is how Bruno Fernandes gets involved. Fernandes had 87 touches of the ball, which was 12.22 percent of all United’s touches. However, only 42.53 percent of those touches came in the final third. In the previous two matches it was over 50 percent, the two before that - against Brighton and Burnley - were 30.11 and 43.75 percent respectively. There’s a theme there.
Bruno having to come deeper means when United do get the ball forward they are short one player in attack - the one who happens to be their most creative player - impacting their ability to create good chances.
All of this is endemic to a bigger problem within the team.
All five of United’s wins this season have come by one goal. I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t sustainable because the proof is right there in that they’ve won five and already lost four.
Manchester United are only winning by one goal for one simple reason: They don’t score enough goals.
This was a problem last season when United finished with 10 fewer goals than they were expected. They aimed to fix this problem by signing a striker but simply bringing in a striker and expecting the goals to come missed the larger problem at play. United don’t create enough chances to score goals.
Last season United scored the seventh most goals in the league. If you add the 10-goal difference between their expected and actual goals, that would only put them tied for the 6th.
Not only did United need to add creativity to the team, but they also needed to factor in how adding an out-and-out number 9 - who doesn’t contribute much creatively - would impact their ability to create.
It doesn’t seem like this was thought out and it’s showing.
United are third in shots per game this season but 10th in non-penalty xG per 90. Their 0.09 NPxG per shot is 16th best in the league, far below the league average, and they’re 11th in “big chances created.” This team isn’t creating or taking good shots.
United have now played 28 more minutes with Hojlund on the pitch than without him, but their xG per shot is much lower. They haven’t quite figured out how to play with but it’s also showing a larger problem.
This has become a team of individuals. Hojlund is selected for every match because of the things he’s good at and the threat he offers. On the left wing, Marcus Rashford is selected because of what he’s good at and the different threats that he can offer. The same thing applies to Antony on the right wing.
Only it doesn’t seem like anyone has given any thought to how - or even if - those skill sets all work together. How can we utilize our players to get the best out of each other?
On Saturday, all three players were selected based on their individual merits. McTominay was also selected due to his ability to offer the final action on a ball. There didn’t seem to be any thought behind it, if you start player 1, you gain these x traits but lose y traits, and therefore you’ll need someone who can pick up the slack on y traits.
United started a striker who is good in the box but doesn’t create chances for himself or his teammates. They started two wingers who can shoot from range, but their creativity is extremely limited to the same types of actions, and don’t create in bulk. They added a midfielder because he also gives them more ability to finish chances in the box. They never seemed to think about who would create those chances - a question that’s even more important when you remember they had to start a center back at left back (who, naturally finished with an assist and pre-assist).
Rasmus Hojlund only had 11 touches in 62 minutes. Of course, he did. Who was going to get him the ball? Rashford has developed some chemistry with the Dane, but there’s still nothing on the other side with Antony. Their most creative player had to drop deeper because their other midfielder didn’t get on the ball in the final third. Who exactly was Hojlund expected to link up with?
Sheffield United are bad, but remember they picked up 91 points in the Championship last season - 11 clear of third place Luton Town. They are bad compared to the rest of the teams in the Premier League, but they are not slouches. They’d probably hold their own in the group stage of the Europa Conference League. It speaks to the strength of the Premier League and in the Premier League, you cannot afford to have two starters who combine to touch the ball less than 30 times in an hour.
United had enough individual talent to just grab the three points on Saturday. But the trend of players continuing to get picked because of their individual quality without taking into account how they’ll play together or running back tactics that worked in specific game states in a completely different environment continues to be concerning.