“If I had a mate on the other team they’d come up to me in the tunnel and say ‘go easy on us, don’t beat us too bad today.’”
- Wes Brown, July 2023
Talk to any former Manchester United player who played under Sir Alex Ferguson and they’ll tell you one of the biggest advantages their teams had was Old Trafford. Opponents came to Old Trafford knowing United were going to win, and when you already know you’re going to get beat, it tends to be a self fulfilling prophecy. Even if you managed to get a lead, everyone in the stadium felt United would get an equalizer. Once the equalizer came, it was a mere formality that United would go on to grab the winner.
In Sir Alex Ferguson’s final seven seasons United won 348 of a possible 399 points at home (87.22%). If you got a win at Old Trafford you remembered the day and possibly even sold a DVD, it was a big deal.
Once Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Old Trafford became less of an intimidation factor. Winning there started losing it’s luster as more and more teams started to do it. In the nine seasons following Fergie’s retirement United won 12 fewer points at home (335), out of a possible 513 (65.3%).
Erik Ten Hag arrived last season with a charge of turning United around and getting them back into the Champions League. The easiest way to do that is get back to being dominant at home.
United dropped their opening match of the season at Old Trafford but that would be the last time they were beaten there in the league. They won 15 of the remaining 18 fixtures as well as all eight domestic cup matches en route to appearing in both finals.
By the second half of the season, the fortress was back - as was the self fulfilling process. This time it was a bit more bizarre as week after week away from home United’s vulnerabilities were on display for all to see. Despite those weaknesses, teams continued to come to Old Trafford with no plan to attack them. The biggest example was Brentford - who knew exactly how to expose United when they beat them 4-0 early in the season - parking the bus in their own box at Old Trafford, making almost no effort to get forward, and allowing United to stroll to an easy 1-0 win.
Nottingham Forest were afraid of Old Trafford.
We can’t speak to how Nottingham Forest chose to approach the game because before you could blink two goals fell into their lap. Five minutes in and holding a two goal lead, Forest decided that was enough.
From that point on, they no longer had an interest in playing football. They parked themselves just outside of their own box. Their back line got tight and narrow - with one player sticking tighter to Marcus Rashford on the left. Their whole shape was compact, they had no interest in having the ball, or putting any pressure on United. They could have the ball wherever they wanted, so long as it wasn’t coming into the Forest box.
It was easy for United’s defenders and deep midfielders to pick out passes through the lines. Only when United advanced the ball to the edge of the final third did they start closing down on players.
But when Bruno dropped deeper to get the ball, they backed off. Allowing him all the time and space he wanted.
Once United established control in the final third they’d drop back to regain their compactness. Their tactics were clear. Defend the box, don’t United in, stay compact. Even if that means conceding tons of space to Bruno in a dangerous area.
United have struggled to break down low blocks for years, but these days they’re just good enough to consistently break though. Even with a 2-0 lead, trying to do this for 85 minutes was asking for trouble. Especially because the caveat is, United throw a lot of men forward to break down low blocks and thus leave themselves open to counter attacks going the other way.
united are the top it's so over we're so back team because they keep creating good chances but the way they do it leaves them wide open to counters— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) August 27, 2023
long may it continue https://t.co/wGGXGB5aF5
Wolves were ready for this two weeks ago and had no problem generating chance after chance. There was no fear of Old Trafford, they knew United’s weakness and set out to exploit it. They were undone by poor finishing, which was predictable. They struggle to score goals. They don’t have great attackers, and United got away with it.
Just 13 minutes after Forest’s second goal, United got one back. The sequence started with Bruno Fernandes given tons of space and having a shot from distance.
With the ball now in the box, Anthony Martial is able to jump on the rebound to keep the play alive, and United generate a good chance to score.
The relatively quick response from United should have been a warning sign for Forest. This lead wasn’t going to last. It wasn’t, they continued to do exactly what they’d been doing, which created a whole bunch of wonky numbers for the match.
Field tilt measures territorial dominance in a match by measuring the share of possession a team has in a game considering only touches and passes in the attacking third. Last season United’s average field tilt was 54.04. On Sunday United’s field tilt of 76.7 was the second highest of the Erik Ten Hag era (behind only Nottingham Forest away last season).
There’s a difference between a game predominantly taking place in one part of the pitch because a team is so dominant that they keep the ball there vs a game being played in one part of the pitch because one team is just letting it happen.
Sunday’s match was an example of the latter.
If United wanted to progress the ball from deep, Forest were happy to let them do that.
Even if that player was United’s top playmaker in Bruno Fernandes.
It was just insanely easy to bring the ball up the field.
The first half of this match was a game of attack and kicking it away. Here’s a sequence where United are able to win the ball back without even trying. United try an attacking move that fails. Upon its failure, Christian Eriksen tries to win the ball back himself. No one is in sync with him, no one is cutting off passing angles, Eriksen is on his own here.
Once Wily Boly evades Eriksen, he has the time to pick out a pass and launch a counter attack. Only Forest had no interest in doing that. Ryan Yates doesn’t start breaking forward. He’s standing still calling for the ball, and when the pass is played just beyond him, Forest had no interest in chasing after it.
The game state allowed Forest to drop deep and make it look like United were having one of their best performances in ages, sustaining attack after attack and not allowing Forest out of their own end. As distorted as the numbers are, they paint a pretty clear picture as to what actually happened.
Last season United averaged 41.97 progressive passes per game and 15.53 progressive carries per game (in their first two games this season 49 and 16). On Sunday they more than doubled their progressive carries with 36 and had a whopping 76 progressive passes - the most ever in a match under Ten Hag. They averaged 50.08 final third entries (47 in their first two matches this year) only to do it 85 times on Sunday.
A closer look at the numbers tells us even more about Forest’s tactics. It wasn’t just that they were letting this happen, but where they were letting this happen.
Last season Antony had 4.75 progressive carries per 90, and 3.7 progressive passes. Raphael Varane - who isn’t the most comfortable on the ball and rarely progresses it - had 0.8 progressive carries and 2.97 progressive passes.
On Sunday, Antony had six progressive passes. While he only had three progressive carries he received 20 progressive passes. That number makes a lot of sense when you see the next two numbers. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had nine progressive passes. Meanwhile Varane - who almost always plays it safe on the ball - had eight progressive passes in the first half alone!
As I mentioned before, Forest’s defense stayed narrow and compact, with one player staying tight on Rashford. They didn’t want the ball going down the left. If United wanted to go down the right with the less dangerous Varane and Antony, they were happy to let them.
This was a game of United attacking, Forest kicking it away, and United attacking again. This is who Forest are. This season and last they were in the bottom four in terms of launched passes, launched goal kicks, length of pass, and hoofed clearances. They were last in the league in attacking sequence time, passes per sequence, and sequences with 10+ passes. It’s not that United kept them pinned deep, it’s that Forest weren’t even trying to get forward.
That in itself is bizarre. Because in the few times Forest did try to get forward, they did so rather easily. Take a look at the pass map from the first half of the match.
This is a ridiculous pass map. All 10 United players are in the Forest half of the pitch. You just don’t see too many teams play this high up the pitch.
With a pass map like this, you would assume United played a very high line in this match. But line height is calculated by taking the average location of all defensive actions a team makes on the pitch. United’s line height for this match was 41.4 - by far their lowest of the season and far lower than what this map suggests it would be.
There’s two different reasons for that. The first is when Forest got the ball deep in their own territory they didn’t hold onto it long enough for United to make a defensive action against them. The second is when they did hold onto it long enough, they got it into United’s half pretty efficiently.
That’s where Old Trafford came into play. After getting a 2-0 lead Forest played as if they were intimidated by Old Trafford. As if the script said they were supposed to lose and they were just making it a little more exciting.
The game state should have benefitted them tremendously. A team that is vulnerable to counter attacks falls behind 2-0 quickly and now has to throw men forward to get back into the game. In the few moments Forest did decide to play, they had success.
After going 2-0 up they ventured forward just two more times before halftime. In the first, they forced Raphael Varane to make a tremendous block after United fell victim to an issue that’s been plaguing them all season - midfielders just not tracking back on their men.
Then just before halftime they took advantage of some shoddy defending to create a great scoring chance - only to shoot into their own man.
At halftime, it felt inevitable that United were not just going to find an equalizer but go on to win the match. But United never really made it easy. They struggled to efficiently get the ball into the box - their 20 box entries is right on average with where they were last year, an indication that Forest were holding their line as they intended to. They struggled to create chances from open play.
Most concerning was as soon as United went ahead, Forest clicked back on and looked like the better team. Only by then they were down to 10 men. What looked inevitable at halftime now looked like anything but a foregone conclusion.
This wasn’t by choice either. Under Erik Ten Hag United don’t kill off matches. For better or worse they always push their counter attack and try to score that extra goal. Even in the 101st minute United were looking to score on a counter attack rather than go to the corner and kill the game.
Over the last 15 minutes plus stoppage time (so, 25 minutes) United were just outplayed.
This was a match that Old Trafford won. We’ve seen so many teams have the blueprint for how to beat United, but just look completely disinterested in trying when they come to Old Trafford. Forest might have fared better in this match if they actually tried, they didn’t, and United aren’t going to apologize for taking three points.
Being able to win games where you don’t play your best is a mark of a good team. Consistently putting away inferior clubs at home and not slipping up is the mark of a good team.
United constantly making a meal out of matches that should be straightforward is certainly a concern. Eventually things aren’t going to break right. But having the fortress of Old Trafford back while you try and figure those things out is a huge advantage. Teams are going to continue to come here and be afraid to attack United weaknesses. As long as they keep doing that, United will keep taking those points.