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Tactical Analysis: The definition of insanity

Erik Ten Hag is using the same failed tactics week after week. Is he expecting different results?

Newcastle United v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Manchester United lost 1-0 to Newcastle United on Saturday in what has simply become a trademark of the Erik Ten Hag era. Since the start of last season, United have not won away from home against a “top nine” team in the Premier League.

The numbers get even bleaker when you look at how United have faired over the last two years against the traditional “top six” as well as the clubs that are competing in European competitions this season - a sample that includes the top eight from last season, plus West Ham and Chelsea. United’s shot differential per 90 in those games is -1.7, their non-penalty xG differential -0.49, and their goal differential -0.74. Against all other clubs, those numbers are +4.52, +0.84, and +1.07 respectively.

It’s very much become a case of United could beat the teams they are definitely better than, but any well-organized somewhat talented team is going to give them problems.

It’s not much of a mystery why that is either. United are using the same tactics every single match, tactics that have already been exposed. Yet Erik Ten Hag has refused to change, running back the same concepts week after week hoping for something different - the definition of insanity.

There have been many excuses thrown around this season but ultimately this comes down to one thing. Erik Ten Hag is not putting his players in positions where they can succeed. His principles aren’t working, leading to clear structural issues, and they are not being addressed.

Log onto whatever Twitter is called these days and you’ll find plenty of people inspired by the work of Guardiola and Klopp telling you that you can’t be an elite manager unless you use certain positional rotations in your buildup or rest defense or some other phase of the game. What these accounts forget to mention is that Pep and Klopp aren’t doing these rotations for the sake of rotation or because of some theory. They’re doing them because they have players whose skill sets are such that it becomes a weapon. In most cases, they’re making these rotations so they can take advantage of the skillsets that certain players have.

Erik Ten Hag seems to have an idea as to how he thinks football should be played. Week after week he sets his team up accordingly, regardless of who is available.

You cannot say United’s players are not well-coached. You can’t say they don’t know what their role or responsibilities are. When United fielded a rotated side against Crystal Palace in the League Cup, the backup players took up the exact same positions as the starters. They made the same rotations as the starters do in the same situations. Everyone knew exactly where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. Thanks to the gulf in class it actually looked coherent as United won 3-0. United’s left-back has played the exact same way this year regardless of whether it’s been Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, Sergio Reguilon, Sofyan Amrabat, or Victor Lindelof.

It’s obvious the instructions being given to the players are clear. They just are bad. The players aren’t being used to the best of their ability.

Manchester United has scored just 16 goals through 14 Premier League matches this season, the 12th-highest total in the league. A big reason for that is they only take 13.8 shots per game, the 9th highest total in the league. Those shots are not high quality, entering the match against Newcastle they were 16th in open play xG per shot.

The reason behind all this is their attacking setup. It doesn’t utilize the strengths of its players. Like Pep and Klopp, Ten Hag is starting in a pretty normal 4-3-3, but he uses different players from different positions to attack different spaces, and it’s usually not the best assortment of them.

Marcus Rashford is elite when it comes to running in behind defenses. Last season United led the league in direct attacks. They scored 10 goals from counterattacks. They’re not doing that this season, and they’ve dropped to fifth in direct attacks. United are playing with the ball more, which means getting into their attacking formation, which means...

United’s issues in buildup this season have been well documented so we won’t focus too much on it here. Let’s skip ahead to when they actually have the ball across the halfway line.

When United gets possession of the ball in the opposition half, they keep their wingers pinned to the touchline to hold their width. Nothing wrong with that in theory, except Facundo Pellistri is the only touchline winger United has. Marcus Rashford, Antony, and Alejandro Garnacho are all players who like to cut inside and shoot. Rashford more than the others is less a winger and more of a second forward who comes from out wide. You don’t want him on the touchline, you want him getting close to goal.

Instead of doing that, Ten Hag keeps the winger on the touchline to allow other players to attack the dangerous spaces, usually his fullback. Take a look here - as soon as Christian Eriksen gets the ball, someone makes a dangerous back post run.

But that player isn’t a forward, it’s right-back Diogo Dalot, not the most threatening of players. Eriksen plays the ball out wide to Rashford, who has nothing to do with it. This isn’t where you want Rashford to be getting on the ball.

Once Rashford has the ball on the right, that is when Dalot will make a run out towards the touchline.

But this is a completely different angle than you normally see. Instead of this being an overlapping run, now you have the fullback coming from the box, toward the touchline. He’s essentially heading in the wrong direction. And once he gets the ball what happens? Rashford is still out wide rather than being in a more dangerous area.

Against FC Copenhagen we saw the same scenario. Rashford gets the ball wide and the full-back Wan-Bissaka makes the narrow run.

Wan-Bissaka has nothing to do other than turn back. On this particular time, he buys enough time that he’s able to find another underlapping run, this time from central midfielder Scott McTominay, who squares a ball to Rasmus Hojlund.

When it works, it’s really good. But look at how many players United needed just to make that happen. That’s the thing about Ten Hag’s system, United will, on occasion, create really really good chances, but in order to do that they have to send so many men forward that they are constantly exposed going the other way. It’s a big reason they are 14th in open-play expected goals against.

A cynic might say this is due to the fact that Rashford is right-footed, but it’s the same tactic when the left-footed Antony plays.

And it’s the same tactic on the left side with Garnacho (or Rashford).

It’s still the winger out wide with the fullback starting narrow only to move towards the outside. This has a further effect. These wingers are players who like to run inside with the ball, but having a narrow fullback who runs towards the outside just serves to bring an extra defender closer to the winger, preventing him from doing so. This is especially true for the extremely left-footed Antony.

The Busby Babe has previously highlighted how even on the right side Rashford is dangerous when he can come inside and run at defenders because he becomes an unpredictable threat. But with the fullbacks and midfielders occupying those half spaces, there’s nowhere for him to go.

Beyond the wingers staying wide, there’s more positional rotations that remain questionable. Here United has Diogo Dalot in midfield while Christian Eriksen fills in at right back.

What this does is allow central midfielder Scott McTominay to make a run into the box. Victor Lindelof tries to pick out that run with a long ball, while Rashford is following the play in midfield.

What this is though is a complete misunderstanding of what makes McTominay good and how to use him. Scott McTominay topped the goal charts for Euro 2024 qualifying with seven goals for Scotland. He did that by making late-arriving runs into the box and finishing. The overwhelming majority of his goals for Manchester United have been scored in the same ilk.

You want McTominay making runs into the box but you can’t lose sight of the fact that they have to be late arriving runs. In the above situation, McTominay is making the first run. That’s not what he’s good at as he’s easily picked up by the opposition center-backs. Often times this season United have had McTominay standing level or even further forward than striker Rasmus Hojlund. He’s right on the shoulder with the center backs.

He’s not making late-arriving runs from this position, he’s making early runs that are easily marked. Those early runs into the box while the ball’s at Lindelof’s feet are Rashford’s bread and butter, but now he’s standing out wide so inferior players can make those runs.

This all seems like rotation for the sake of rotation. Diogo Dalot is ok at doing those midfield things, but is he better than Christian Eriksen? Even if he was, Aaron Wan-Bissaka certainly isn’t, yet he’s asked to do the same thing when he’s picked ahead of Dalot. Unless you have someone with an elite talent you’re trying to utilize, why not let the midfielders be midfielders, the fullbacks be fullbacks, and the forwards be forwards?

There was a sequence against Galatasaray that should be highlighted here. After a turnover, United moved the ball quickly to Antony who this time was inside with Wan-Bissaka on the touchline. Antony turns and runs forward, putting the fullback in a difficult position.

Antony continues to run at the defender forcing him to choose between committing to him or Wan-Bissaka. When he commits to the ball it’s an easy layoff to the overlapping fullback.

And that overlapping fullback puts in an easy cross for a tap-in. Crazy what happens when you do simple basic things.

After a performance like Newcastle, the narrative cycle dictates that you must start questioning whether United players even care about the shirt. Rashford’s performance was terrible, but it’s funny how the story always becomes the players aren’t even trying rather than looking at how the players aren’t being put into a position to succeed.

Rashford didn’t press or track back well against Newcastle but Rashford has never done those things. If you want your right wing to do things Rashford doesn’t do and you’re not asking him to do the things Rashford is good at then why are you picking Rashford to play there?

Once again on Saturday United had Rashford standing out wide, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a fullback not known for his attacking, ability to attack all the dangerous spaces.

United managed just three shots from open play against Newcastle, two of the three were taken by fullbacks. Rashford’s effort off the ball is not excusable but you can understand why a human would start getting frustrated having to watch tactics designed for exactly this to happen fail week after week.

Then there’s United out of possession.

We’ll start with the press. The way Ten Hag presses he asks the wingers to come narrow and press the center backs. This has the result of leaving the wide players wide open.

The result in one simple pass teams can easily break United’s press, and then easily move the ball up the field.

This isn’t anything new. Earlier this season Spurs ran rampant over United in the second half after Ange Postecoglou’s halftime adjustment was simply, to have the fullbacks stand wider in the buildup. Last season even Leicester City was taking advantage of United by just leaving the wideman open.

Beyond United’s high press, United has had several defensive issues this season that come down to a lack of midfield structure. That lack of structure is entirely down to their choice of tactics.

Out of possession, United’s base formation is either a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-1-4-1. It’s hard to say for sure because they don’t defend as a unit, they defend man to man. This makes it incredible for teams to drag people out of possession, and for people to end up in weird positions.

This creates scenarios where defenders step up to follow their man, while midfielders are dragged out of the middle. It’s a complete mish-mosh with no one in the middle.

That can make things look really easy. Take this scenario against FC Copenhagen where Scott McTominay has a man to mark, therefore no one is around to pick up the man with the ball.

As the ball carrier moves forward, McTominay’s man continues moving ever so slightly more forward and wider, taking McTominay with him. That leaves a whole bunch of space right at the top of the box for Rasmus Falk to dribble into and shoot.

This sequence against Galatasaray combines every one of Ten Hag’s tactics. It starts with the winger wide, the fullback on the inside, and McTominay on the last line. Bruno plays it out wide, and McTominay makes a run towards the outside leaving space for the other midfielder to barge forward - maybe create a really good scoring chance, but throw a lot of people forward in order to do it.

When the goalkeeper comes away with the ball, United has too many men caught deep. In one simple pass, you get Lucas Torreira running freely at United’s back line.

This is where you would want a holding midfielder, like Sofyan Amrabat, to be back protecting you. That midfielder can come over and slow down the counterattack long enough for United to get men back. But Sofyan Amrabat isn’t a holding midfielder, he’s just another midfielder who has his own man to mark, so instead of coming over to the ball, you’ll notice eventually he stops so he doesn’t get too far away from his man.

Once the ball comes close to United’s box they seem to combine the two defenses into sort of a man-to-man but also, don’t worry about the wide player. This results in situations like the following, where the right wing is actually defending much lower than the right back but there’s still no midfield.

Against Galatasaray, United left the wideman open with a very simple pass to him.

With all that time and space he created one of the higher xG chances of the match.

It was the exact same pattern of leaving the wide man open and then playing a ball back into a runner that saw Galatasaray get their equalizer. Newcastle’s goal on Saturday also came from United leaving the wide man open.

Oddly though, once the ball gets into the box United seems to switch from man-marking to defend the six-yard box and don’t really worry about the man. This leaves them highly susceptible to pullbacks, a flaw that has already been exploited several times this season.

Next up for United is Chelsea, the team that leads the league in pullbacks.

United have dealt with several injuries this season but those injuries only highlight Ten Hag’s inflexibility. Rather than adapting the system to accommodate the players that he has - or at the very least acknowledge that certain backups can’t do what some of the starters can do - he still plays exactly the same way. This does nothing but set your team and players up for failure.

The league has figured out Ten Hag’s system. Yet week after week after week Ten Hag is doing the same thing. It’s no wonder the players look like they’re losing faith in him. They could see first hand it’s not working.

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That’s exactly what Erik Ten Hag’s current tactics are.