Erik Ten Hag was going to need to come up with something different. With Manchester United missing both their first choice center backs - Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane - top left back Luke Shaw, and top attacker Marcus Rashford, plugging in changes and playing the way United have been playing all year was never going to work. Not even against a Nottingham Forest team in the relegation zone, United just don’t have the the personnel to play that way.
Erik Ten Hag is a smart man.
A few weeks ago, The Busby Babe highlighted some of the differences between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United and Ten Hag’s. A key difference between the two was how United defended and where matches were being played. Defensively, Solskjaer’s United was about preventing, preventing the defense from getting close to your goal, whereas Ten Hag allows teams to get forward and defends more in his own box. This resulted in much of the game during Solskjaer’s two full season being played in midfield, whereas this season United are playing in their own third and their opponents third, with each team seemingly moving through midfield like a knife through warm butter.
Both styles were suited to the personnel available to them. With Martinez and Varane out, asking Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof to defend the way the top two defend would be a recipe for disaster. They’re at their weakest when doing last ditch defending in their own box or making recovery runs when United are caught with too many men high up the pitch.
Not surprisingly, Ten Hag didn’t ask them to do that, rather he adapted to them. United pushed their line higher up the pitch - compacting the space between the forwards and defense and thus limiting the chances of having Forest’s pacy attackers running right at Maguire and Lindelof.
It didn’t get off to the best of starts. Two minutes into the match Maguire was booked for basically rugby tackling Taiwo Awoniyi when Forest tried to break. But what could have been a dicy situation settled down quickly. At the end of the day the tactic worked. United’s line height of 49.5 was the second highest they’ve had in a match this season (two of their three highest line heights have been the two matches started by Maguire and Lindelof), and the five successful box entries was the second fewest an opponents has had in a match this season.
United’s high line helped keep the ball far away from their own goal. They recorded their highest field tilt of the season, playing more of the match in Forest’s third of the pitch. Take a look at the difference between the home match against Forest when United played with nearly a full strength team and Sunday, along with the season’s average thrown in for reference. Sure this is only Nottingham Forest, but putting up numbers like this away from home is downright impressive. And that’s before taking into account the difference in players.
Now Ten Hag had to figure out what to do in possession.
With no left footed players in midfield or defense, United lacked someone who could create those passing angles Ten Hag always speaks about, making an already difficult job more difficult. To get around this, Diogo Dalot who was filling in at left back, was inverting into central midfield, giving David de Gea a very central option when playing out the back.
Further up the pitch, right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka was doing the same. With double inverting fullbacks, Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen had the freedom to move... well everywhere.
Wan-Bissaka tucking inside allowed Bruno to play wide on the right.
Or Eriksen could be the wide man in buildup.
Eriksen and Bruno were just about everywhere and they were doing just about everything. The two combined for 28 progressive passes (Eriksen 17, Bruno 11), nine passes into the box, and eight shots. Bruno had 10 shot-creating actions to Eriksen’s five. The only thing they weren’t doing was scoring.
That was the big question coming into the match. Who was going to do the scoring?
Anthony Martial is finally back in the starting XI but relying on him for goal scoring is never fun. United are better when Martial plays because he creates things for his teammates, but the player who benefits most from that is Marcus Rashford. On Sunday Martial was going to be flanked by Jadon Sancho and Antony - two very high priced attacking players who while still doing all the other things they’re known for, their creative and goal scoring outputs so far can really only be described as disappointing.
If United were going to win this match, one of these guys was going to need to step up.
One of the reasons it can be tough for an attacking player when he comes to a new team is he may be going from a situation where he’s the guy to one where he’s one of the guys. No matter how fluid your attack is, every team is going to have someone who is the main guy. He takes the most shots even if it’s not by a large margin.
United’s attack this season isn’t quite built around Marcus Rashford, but he’s the focal point. He’s the guy that every game you’re trying to make sure you get him on the ball in dangerous situations. He’s your talisman, the rest are secondary scorers.
When you bring in a guy like Antony, it can take some time to figure out how he fits into the equation. How do you create opportunities for Rashford while also getting Antony involved. How do you figure out how to take what Rashford does best and what Antony does best and use those things together? Sometimes it happens faster than others.
Remember the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bruce Wayne climbs out of the hole in the ground prison? After several attempts at trying to climb out with a safety rope tied around his waste, Bruce realizes the rope is what’s holding him back. If he’s ever going to succeed in climbing out of there, he’s going to have to do with no safety net.
For most of this season Antony has had a safety net in Marcus Rashford. He’s trying to contribute to the attack but if he doesn’t, that’s ok. We’ve got Rashford here, he’ll get us the goal we need. This can help keep the pressure of you as well. Your value to us goes beyond goals and assists, keep doing the other things and those things will come. All that works as long as someone else is still banging in the goals and the club is winning.
With Rashford out, there’s no more safety net. It’s essentially sink or swim.
Ten Hag’s tactics can keep the opponent away from your goal and move the ball into the final third but now someone needs to take charge and see things through.
On Sunday, Antony played like a man no longer in the shadows. He took control of the match and gave United the attacking threat they needed. Antony scored his first league goal since October, and it was telling that it didn’t come from one of his ‘cut it on to your left foot and have a go’ shots, but from a player having a nose for the goal and willing himself to be first to the ball to capitalize on a rebound.
This is something we haven’t seen enough of from Antony but it was his play in the second half that really stood out.
Antony gets the ball on the right side. You can see where this is going, he’s going to cut inside on his left foot. It’s wide open.
He predictably cuts inside and starts driving forward. He’s got a clear path to the net on his left foot. He’s going to shoot this ball. We all know it because we’ve all seen him do it a hundred times this year. Defenses know this too.
Forest know it and they close him down. He has to cut back on his left foot even further and they prepare for him to uncork one anyway, because he always does. He’d already done it several times this afternoon.
The one difference is, this time Antony isn’t on the right side of the field anymore. His run has taken him to the middle of the pitch. He can’t curl one in from here and instead of trying, he does what no one expects him to do, he spots the run of a teammate and eyes a perfect pass.
Dalot runs on to a perfectly weighted ball and doubles United’s lead.
It was Antony’s first Premier League assist of the season and it’s the cherry on top of a phenomenal day. He finished with seven shots - the most he’s had in a match this season - and 1.1 xG - his highest single game total this season. The seven shot-creating actions and eight successful box entries were also season highs and his 0.7 xA was nearly as much as his season total coming into the match (1.0).
Too often this season we’ve seen Antony restrict himself to just standing on the touchline cutting inside and shooting. On Sunday United needed someone to spearhead their attack, there was no safety net, if Antony didn’t do it who would?
We saw a different Antony on Sunday. We saw someone moving around the pitch, showing different elements of his game, as well as the creativity that’s been missing.
These are the types of performances that give a player confidence to do this again. If they continue they’re the types of performances that causes a team to say, when Rashford comes back, we need to incorporate him with this Antony. A confident Antony can give United the two headed attack they’ve desperately needed.
It’s interesting. Managers are often hesitant to make changes to a team because they want their players to learn the system and get used to playing with each other. In ways that can set a team back because it could inhibit the development of some players. Often times you need situations where key players aren’t available and someone has to step up in order to really make forward strides.
Injuries create opportunities and on Sunday Antony took his.