Sixty one minutes had gone by at Elland Road and Erik Ten Hag needed to find a way to kickstart a Manchester United attack that had taken just three shots up to that point. The options on the bench were bleak with Anthony Elanga, Facundo Pellestri, and Alejandro Garnacho the only attackers. At 21 years old Pellestri was the oldest but least experienced of the group having just made his Premier League debut four days earlier.
Based on how Ten Hag has used them this season - and performance - Garnacho was the only viable candidate. That wouldn’t be straightforward either. Garnacho was coming off arguably his worst performance of the season and bringing him on would force Marcus Rashford to move to the right wing.
Ten Hag introduced Garnacho but with it, made a second far more unconventional change. Rather than move Rashford to the right wing, he moved Rashford up top and dropped six foot six striker Wout Weghorst into the number 10 role.
The move worked, United scored two goals to grab a 2-0 win and Ten Hag looked like a genius. As I wrote last week, the logic behind the move was pretty straightforward.
The logic is pretty straightforward. Weghorst is the best United player at receiving with his back to goal and actually holding the ball up and maintaining possession in those situations. Since United coudln’t get the ball all the way to the last line, why not drop him deeper so you can get him on the ball and slowly work the ball up the pitch? Ten Hag essentially turned back the clock and put United in a 4-4-2 with the classic tall guy/fast guy partnership up top.
This was an innovative solution to a unique problem. The day after the match I spoke with The Busby Babe’s Suwaid Fazal about how player availability may have actually been the biggest driver behind this change.
It was unclear if Weghorst as a 10 was a one off for the final half hour against Leeds or if it was now going to become a thing. After all, injuries are often the catalyst behind managers finding new ideas or new players.
In a now deleted tweet, Suwaid also mentioned that someone should look into how Jose Mourinho used Rashford and Mauroanne Fellaini because as there were a lot of similarities here. Sure enough against Barcelona United deployed the same tactic from the start, and it looked a lot like how Mourinho had previously used his striker.
Weghorst dropping into midfield as a workhorse and using his height as an outlet as 10 players would drop deep to help defend leaving Rashford up top. This is also how Mourinho played with Romelu Lukaku. The difference is Lukaku didn’t have the pace to beat his man in behind, so he had to hold play up for an eternity to get support. That often made him look isolated and wasn’t effective. Rashford on the other hand has the pace to blow right by his man, so leaving him alone up top becomes very dangerous, especially in a match against a team like Barcelona.
Mourinho’s use of Fellaini worked wonders in matches where you would expect it to work wonders. One of Mourinho’s flaws was when United had a good match against a big team, he’d run back the same tactics in the next match. Even if United were facing a completely different type of opponent - say one where United were going to have much more possession and Fellaini’s limitations would be exposed.
The same thing happened to Erik Ten Hag on Sunday. Weghorst as the 10 proved to be very effective in consecutive matches so he ran it back against Leicester. That was a curious decision because Leicester are not like Leeds and they’re not like Barcelona.
As the tactic worked twice, the fans were always going to fall in love with it. And once the fans fall in love with it, anytime they see Weghorst do things you don’t typically see a striker do are going to stand out and make you love it more. Such as Weghorst ending up as the deepest midfielder behind Fred and Marcel Sabitzer.
Or Weghorst getting back to make a crucial tackle at the top of the box.
The fans love seeing Weghorst being a hard worker and defending. When you see that it’s very easy to quickly attribute this to being a good idea. The problem was United themselves weren’t actually good. While Weghorst was getting chance after chance to show off his defensive industry it was more of a case of him getting to clean up a mess that he’s indirectly making. Because Weghorst is playing as the 10, United weren’t keeping as much control in the middle of the park. They weren’t able to generate substantial attacks and Leicester were taking advantage of this.
United have struggled all season in buildup play and its become commonplace to see David de Gea hoofing the ball long to bypass the midfield who struggle in this area. This isn’t dissimilar to when United had Fellaini and they’d simply hoof balls forward for him to use his chest to bring under control.
Weghorst is best described as a target man who’s not quite a target man. Despite being six foot six he isn’t particularly great in the air and doesn’t win a lot of his aerial duels. If you’re hoofing the ball long to him and he’s not winning those duels, it could create problems, especially when you don’t have Casemiro behind you to clean up the mess.
Those problems can quickly come back the other way, and a team better than Leicester might make you pay.
While Weghorst isn’t a goal scoring striker, he does a lot of other things, one of which is he’s very good at leading the press. When you drop him back to the 10 you lose that bit of his game. Moving Rashford to center forward also means someone has to come in on the wing.
On Sunday that was Garnacho, a player who is going to bring a lot of good things to the table, but at 18 years old, you can expect his defensive awareness to not be fully up to speed yet. Leicester took advantage of this early and often, with a combination of United’s press and the inexperienced Garnacho often resulting in RW Tete being left free.
Such as this situation, where Luke Shaw is playing narrow and Garnacho seems to lose track of where Tete is.
With one pass Leicester move the ball into a very dangerous position and United are left scrambling, bailed out by a fantastic save by David de Gea.
In Erik Ten Hag’s words, United’s first half was “rubbish.” United were outshot 11-8 and conceded an expected goals against of 1.25, their fourth highest total of the year behind only the 6-3 loss to Manchester City and the opening two matches against Brighton and Brentford. United managed to come out ahead thanks to Rashford scoring against the run of play. They came out on top of the xG battle thanks to Diogo Dalot’s incredible miss.
Neither chance came from a sustained attack, rather coming from what we now refer to as quick transitional attacks but a few years ago might have been called counter attacks. While United could have easily been 2-0 up at halftime, they also could have easily been down 3-2.
To Ten Hag’s credit, he knew that United might have been 1-0 up at halftime but if they kept playing like this they were asking for trouble and he adjusted. For the second half Weghorst went back to his natural striker position, Rashford went back out to the left wing, and Jadon Sancho came in as the number 10.
Sancho was a catalyst for United’s attack. In 45 minutes he had four successful box entries and created six shots. Only Bruno Fernandes (11) and Fred (7) had more. His introduction brought more control into the middle of the field as he could control the ball in tight spaces and also have players run off him.
Whether he’s on the right or left, Sancho has never been a take your man and beat him winger. He’s someone who thrives in the half spaces around players who keep moving. For a lot of his time at Borussia Dortmund he operated as a duel 10 with a wingback providing width. This moved him into the half space and surrounded him with runners, which is what he had on Sunday. Within 15 minutes of his introduction, Sancho had found the back of the net after utilizing his wide player. It with a goal that was nearly straight out of his days in the Bundesliga.
The result of Ten Hag’s halftime adjustment United producing one of their best halves of the season. They played absolutely brilliant football to blow Leicester off the pitch. In the second half Leicester managed an xG of just 0.38 - most of which came in the final 10 minutes - while United’s was an eye popping 2.99. That number would be good over a full game, over one half is truly exceptional. Things were so under control over the last 20 minutes that United turned fully into ‘let’s just try to get Weghorst a goal’ mode.
Unconventional tactics work in situations where a specific skillset can exploit something happening in a match. They can force the defense to adjust to stop a new threat, or be something that neutralizes your opponent’s threat.
Sometimes they work so well that managers get a little cute and continue to use that tactic even in a match where it’s not needed. Sometimes all you need to do is keep things simple and let your players cook.
Erik Ten Hag got cute on Sunday. He realized this, adjusted, and ultimately produced one of United’s best performances of the season.