A year ago Manchester United travelled to London for their second game of the Premier League season. New manager Erik Ten Hag’s side got battered 4-0 to a midtable Brentford side. It was their second loss in a row to open the season. This was suddenly a club in crisis.
A year later United again travelled to London for their second match of the season, this time losing 2-0 to Tottenham. It could be easily argued this result was not as poor. Despite finishing eighth last season Spurs are still a “top six” side. This time around they have three more points in the table than they did last year. They’ve scored the same number of goals after two games, but at least this time they scored it themselves, while crucially they’ve conceded far fewer.
And yet, this loss to Spurs has arguably left United in a worse position now than they were in a year ago.
A year ago, the 4-0 loss could (and was) easily be written off due to a team getting used to a new manager and a new style. Big money signings Casemiro and Antony had yet to arrive. The loss showed that some of the players United had couldn’t play this new style. Change was needed.
Change came immediately. Not just in terms of personnel, but tactically as well. A week later against Liverpool, Ten Hag parked the bus to such a level that Jose Mourinho would blush. Ten Hag’s pragmatism has been highlighted on multiple occasions as United not only righted the ship but won four in a row.
However United weren’t going to play this way forever. The death of Queen Elizabeth II gave United a month between Premier League matches. More time on the training pitch meant more time for Ten Hag to implement his principles. Two months later the World Cup break gave him further opportunity.
United slowly started ditching the pragmatic style of those early season games and playing more and more in line with how you would expect an Erik Ten Hag side to look like. Over the summer Ten Hag has recruited three more players that suit his style, with possibly more on the way.
Just two games into the season it’s far too early to be pressing the panic button. There is a lot of time for things to work themselves out, and with the transfer window still open, plenty of things can still change on that front. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious red flags already popping up.
As United started playing more and more of Ten Hag’s style last season one problem or another would keep popping up. But rather than react like he did at the start of the season, over the second half of the season Ten Hag would often choose to persist through the problems rather than play around them. It helped give United a more and more distinct style and it also helped United become more and more predictable.
Over the summer Ten Hag was asked how United were going to play this season. He answered it would be more of the same, they just wanted to be better. One should never expect a manager to actually spell out his tactics for you in a press conference for everyone to hear, but one shouldn’t expect someone to be so honest either.
Yet United look exactly the same. Through (just) two games, there’s been no tweaks, no evolution on what they did last year. It looks exactly like what they did last year.
Last Monday United squeaked out a win over a Wolves team largely expected to be in danger of relegation. Wolves hired a coach four days before the match yet looked like they knew exactly how United were going to play. They knew how United were going to build up, so out of possession they set themselves up to routinely take away multiple United players without actually having a numerical advantage.
They knew how United were going to press and were able to exploit it. After the match new Wolves manager Gary O’Neil made comments that he was able to guess how United were going to play and planned accordingly. That’s a concern.
A week later United faced a Spurs team that just lost their captain and club legend a week ago. Their manager was managing his second Premier League match ever. He too, looked like he knew what United were going to do.
Under Erik Ten Hag, United have been very consistent in their press. They press high, they press narrow, and often leave a fullback on the far side of the pitch open. Dharnish Iqbal has several good threads breaking down how United press and last season The Busby Babe highlighted teams who looked to exploit this press when Leicester City did it.
Within 30 seconds, it was clear Spurs had done their homework.
It starts when the ball gets worked back to Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario. United have the right side of the pitch pretty well covered. Alejandro Garnacho is launching the press from the left wing but he’s very far away and if he doesn’t get there in time, United aren’t in a great position.
Yves Bissouma drops deep to receive the ball, receiving it right between Garnacho and Rashford. From there it’s a very easy ball out wide to Cristian Romero who drops deeper to create a better angle.
Right back Pedro Porro has tucked inside to serve as an extra midfielder, allowing central midfielder Pape Sarr to push out high and wide. Once the ball comes to Romero, it’s a very easy pass up the line to Sarr - the wide man that United intentionally leave open.
Sarr has time to turn and start moving up the pitch because Luke Shaw can’t engage him. No one has picked up Pedro Porro and if Shaw steps it’s an easy pass for Sarr to completely bypass Shaw.
Shaw has to hold his ground, allowing Sarr and Porro to easily move the ball up the field. Look at how easy it was for Spurs when we put it all together.
Another instance came in the second half.
The ball comes back to the goalkeeper and again United look extremely lopsided. Spurs have a man high and wide on the left side that United just leave open.
It’s not particularly difficult for Spurs to get the ball to the open man and march up the pitch.
Less than 30 seconds later, Tottenham doubled their lead. The second goal highlighted a prevalent issue so far in this young season. United’s failing aren’t always tactical, but sometimes just down to players not performing.
After Spurs break United’s press and advance up the field, they eventually work it into the middle to James Maddison, who gets it in loads of space.
Raphael Varane had followed Son into midfield after the Korean dropped deep to receive a pass, but somehow everyone else was open, including left back Ben Davies, who had inverted into midfield.
Maddison launched a long looping pass out wide to Ivan Perisic, the type of pass that takes forever to get to it’s destination and allows a defense to get back into position while it’s in the air. Only in United’s case, they don’t.
When the ball lands at Perisic’s feet three and a half seconds later, he’s still in acres of space, and still no one has picked up Ben Davies.
Perisic has plenty of space to pull the ball onto his right foot and create an easy pass to Davies, who is still unmarked because Christian Eriksen and Raphael Varane have not caught back up to him.
Lisandro Martinez has to scamper over to Davies, and because he’s trying to recover he doesn’t get there in time, mishits the ball and it ends up in his own net.
Whereas United had excuses after losing 4-0 to Brentford last season those excuses don’t exist this year. Ten Hag has had a whole year with this team. He’s brought in “his” players. He had a whole preseason to further implement his methods and get the players’ fitness levels up.
When does it become fair to ask why Ten Hag needs so much time to adapt to his system when Ange Postecoglou already has Spurs playing completely different to how they played last season, or Roberto De Zerbi getting Brighton up to speed in no time?
The problem may not be Erik Ten Hag the man, nor Erik Ten Hag the coach. But that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t the tactics that he chooses to use. A coach’s job is to put his players in the best position for them to succeed and given what we’re seeing it’s fair to wonder if that’s what’s happening.
Through two matches, United continue looking at the same problems they had last season. Last season United would jump out of the gates with an aggressive press, but would tire over the course of 90 minutes. That was chalked up to not being used to the style.
In the first two games of the season we’re still seeing the team tire drastically in the second half. In both matches they’ve been significantly outworked, outshot, and outplayed.
TOT 2-0 MUN— UtdArena (@UtdArena) August 20, 2023
— Sprints Split by Half
93 — TOT
70 — MUN
98 — TOT (+5)
57 — MUN (-13)
Tottenham made 41 more sprints than us in a single half of football. pic.twitter.com/TIWuugtBm2
Two games into the season, it’s fair to ask why this team is so tired? United had eight preseason matches this year - though the first team only started three of them. That leaves one of two options: either the starters didn’t get enough minutes in the preseason to properly get themselves ready for the season, or the style of play you’re asking is too demanding on the players to do it for 90 minutes.
Last season the changes seemed to be obvious. This season is less so because you would think these things would have been addressed over the summer.
Instead we’re seeing all the same themes of a year ago, poor finishing, inability to win away from home, getting tired in the second half, players trying to play as individuals when things aren’t going well, players not known for their defensive ability being put into far too defensive roles, creating high turnovers but getting undone by poor decision making, and a defense where if the press doesn’t work leaves far too many gaps relying on players individual ability to mitigate the damage.
United lead the league in high turnovers created so far. A nice sign in terms of where this press is going and how good they could potentially be. But once again it’s been a disaster when the press doesn’t work.
Tottenham successfully entered United’s penalty area 25 times on Saturday. Wolves did it 23 times on Monday. That makes it 10 times now that United have allowed more than 22 box entries in a match under Erik Ten Hag. They had allowed that many just eight times in the previous three seasons combined.
Teams are not afraid of Manchester United right now.
United are still a work in progress. Their new striker has yet to step on the field. There is more this team could add to their game but they need to evolve quickly. Right now, they’re entirely too predictable.