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Tactical Analysis: United’s flaw that everyone is exploiting

The Reds have conceded goals from the same pattern in four of six games so far

FC Bayern München v Manchester United: Group A - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Stefan Brauer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Let’s set the scene here. The second half of the match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur is four minutes old. The game is goalless following a decent first half where United seemed to get the better chances but failed to put any away.

Pedro Porro plays a ball to Dejan Kulusevski in behind Luke Shaw on the right flank. United begin to retreat towards their own box. Spurs midfielder Pape Sarr is moving towards United’s box, not making a run so much as just jogging and following the play. Mason Mount doesn’t seem to know where he is but that’s ok, Sarr’s not a threat right now. United have plenty of men back dealing with more important issues at the moment.

Kulusevski gets the ball and drives towards the byline giving Spurs’ runners time to get into the box. Sarr has now reached the top of the box. He’s now become a threat, and he’s all alone.

Nobody picks up Sarr and when Kulusevski’s cross is deflected away from it’s intended target towards the back post, no one has noticed that Sarr had been following the ball and was in position to tap it home.

You can see following the goal Mason Mount puts his hands up and bends over. He knows that’s his man that he just left free. One mistake and the ball is in the back of the net. The margins are that small.

A half hour later a different but similar situation occurs. Spurs send the ball out wide on the left to Ivan Perisic. Left back Ben Davies - who had tucked into midfield - makes a run towards the box.

Rafael Varane is man-marking Hyung-Min Son, so when Son drops deep it pulls Varane out of the back line, leaving United with just three defenders. Perisic is WIDE open. The closest man to him is Diogo Dalot who has to leave his man and close down Perisic. Lisandro Martinez then slots over to pick up Dalot’s man. No one has picked up oncoming Ben Davies.

Davies runs right by United’s midfielders into the box. With all the space Perisic has it’s an easy pass to him and just like that Spurs are up 2-0.

Presumably, in the days following the match Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag would have a rewatch to find out what went wrong. He’d see two goals conceded after United failed to track late runners to the top of the box. In his next session with the team this would be highlighted with a reminder and a plan as to how United would not let this happen again.

Fast forward to the next week. Nottingham Forest have shocked United with two goals in the first five minutes of the match. With a 2-0 lead they believe their work is done here and just need to sit back and defend for 85 minutes, hardly ever going forward.

Just before halftime though, they do go on and push forward. The ball finds it’s way out to Ryan Yates out wide on the right, with Brennan Johnson offering him support. United have this well defended.

With the ball on the right wing, left sided number 10 Morgan Gibbs White starts moving slowly towards the top of the box. Aaron Wan-Bissaka lets him go as Casemiro is there, but Gibbs White seems to have a lot of space to himself.

Far too easily Brennan Johnson gets between two United defenders and gets to the byline. At this point everyone in the box - all of United’s defenders as well as Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi collapse towards the six yard box. Except for Gibbs White, he just pretty much stays in place, allowing himself to get open by virtue of everyone else running away from him.

Johnson plays a cutback to Gibbs White. Goalkeeper Andre Onana appears to be leaning the wrong way to stop the near post shot, but we’ll never know because the shot is hit right into Awoniyi and is cleared away by United.

United escape here, but a pattern seems to be emerging. If you’re not careful, a good team will exploit that.

A week later United are back in action against top four rivals Arsenal. It’s a cagey affair where United are holding their own, but Arsenal also look like they’re playing within themselves. United draw first blood 25 minutes into the match when Marcus Rashford fires them ahead.

On the ensuing restart Arsenal launch an attack down United’s right hand side. They overload right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka forcing Casemiro and Victor Lindelof to shift over and offer support. Again United seem to have this well covered.

Oleksandr Zinchenko fires a pass inside to Eddie Nketiah effectively bypassing three United defenders. Nketiah plays a one touch pass in to Gabriel Martinelli inside the United box which United are now scrambling to defend. Down the middle is Martin Odegaard who had been ignored. He continues moving towards the top of the box as his midfield counterpart Christian Eriksen moves further away from him.

Martinelli takes one touch then looks up to see a wide open Odegaard at the top of the box.

He plays the cutback through Casemiro’s legs and with one touch Arsenal have equalized. United’s lead hardly lasting a minute.

Following the Arsenal match is the first international break of the season. United go into the break with two wins and two losses, but each game is close enough that there’s a feeling it could have been more - or just as easily less. The international break is a great opportunity to take stock of what’s happened over the first four matches and begin working on fixing any weakness you have.

Apparently none of that happened. It must have slipped through the cracks as United spent the international break dealing with off the field issue after off the field issue, and handling each one worse than the one before.

United returned from the international break with a spate of injuries and holes up and down the squad. Some things are beyond your control but when that happens, it’s best to control the things you can take control of.

19 minutes into the match against Brighton, something familiar happened. Danny Welbeck drops deep to receive a pass in buildup, once again Christian Eriksen and Casemiro don’t seem to know he’s there. When he gets the ball they try to collapse on him, but all he needs is one touch to pass back to Pascal Gross, who can then move it out wide to Joel Veltman.

When Veltman gets the ball and turns up field, Welbeck does the same. Easily moving beyond the reach of Casemiro who doesn’t seem to have any interest in following the former United striker.

Upon getting the ball just outside the United box, Welbeck plays it wide again to Simon Adingra. At this point United’s midfielders realize they need to get back into the box, but once again no one bothers to pick up Welbeck or attacking midfielder Adam Lallana.

Adingra plays a cutback towards Lallana, he dummies over the ball leaving it for a wide open Welbeck to fire Brighton into the lead.

Seven minutes into the second half Brighton would make it 2-0 courtesy of another unmarked runner, but since it wasn’t as much of a cutback we’ll skip over it here in the interest of time and respect for Lisandro Martinez. Certainly Brighton weren’t going to exploit this a third time?

Roberto De Zerbi had done his homework and knew what to look for. With United playing super narrow all it took was a pass out wide to bypass United’s front six. From there Tariq Lamptey took off down the left side with United scrambling to back. Striker Joao Pedro is running completely free.

Lamptey has time and space down the right side thanks to Diogo Dalot being occupied by Kaoru Mitoma. He doesn’t have help because similar to Varane against Spurs, Victor Lindelof has been dragged out of the back line when following Ansu Fati deep.

Lamptey cuts into the box and still no one has gotten close to Pedro, now at the top of the box.

One simple cut back, one touch, Brighton are up three nil.

It was after the Brighton match that United would finally break a pattern. That is the pattern that we only saw such calamitous defending on weekends. Wednesday night United decided to play all the hits.

It starts with Leroy Sane getting the ball on the right flank and United once again looking like they have it well defended.

But once again, United let the attacker get through them far too easily. Sane cuts onto his left and comes in-field, Eriksen comes over to cut him down, but does it far too slowly. Sane is able to get off a very simple and very easy pass to Harry Kane.

With one pass Sane achieves what all the other midfielders have achieved this season. He finds himself WIDE open, smack in the middle of an octagon of United defenders that are nowhere near him.

Kane takes one touch and gives it back to Sane. Sane fires a shot with his first touch and Andre Onana muffs it to give Bayern a 1-0 lead.

Onana should have kept it out, but just to make sure everyone was clear that Bayern did their homework, the Bavarians decided to hammer that point home four minutes later.

Jamal Musiala gets the ball on the left side and with one turn decides to go right through Casemiro and Eriksen and run at Diogo Dalot.

Musiala gets to the byline and everyone is collapsing into the box as per usual. That is everyone except Serge Gnarby who just hangs out at the top of the box, with nary a United defender near him.

Musiala gets through Dalot, looks up, spots a wide open Gnarby, and it’s 2-0 to Bayern.

Bayern must have been feeling in a giving mood because in the second half they provided an educational moment. Even when it’s not in transition, United are vulnerable to this pass.

Final 10 minutes of the match Bayern have the ball on the left side but slow things down. Even their runners Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting has stopped running and is just walking at the top of the box. From the broadcast angle, it looks like Marcus Rashford is close enough that Bayern wouldn’t be able to get him the ball.

But nope. Sane fires a pass right to Choupo-Motings feet. Realizing he’s out of position Casemiro charges at him but with one touch to his left Choupo-Moting is able to get Casemiro sliding harmlessly out of the way. His shot with his weak forces a good but expected save from Onana.

Following the Spurs match, the title of The Busby Babe’s Tactical Analysis was “Manchester United are becoming too predictable.” A month later you don’t even have to have watched any other matches to prepare to play against United. You could just watch the Spurs match and say “these patterns worked against them, let’s try them ourselves” and you’d have success!

On the opening day of the season Wolves were crying about Andre Onana not giving away a penalty late in the match when all they had to do was try a cutback to the top of the box one time and they likely would have scored!

At some point the coaches need to look at this and figure out how to stop it. That point should have been three weeks ago but since it wasn’t, today isn’t a bad time to do it either.

Something is amiss here. Even if this was the fault of Christian Eriksen, Erik Ten Hag is the one that signed the 30 year old attacking midfielder with the idea of playing him in this role. Not to mention on that first goal it was Eriksen’s replacement Mason Mount who blew the coverage.

If the players you have aren’t capable of playing the system, then the problem is the system. Asking your players to do things they’re not capable of doing is not putting them in a position to be successful and is bound to end with a run just like the one United are currently on.

Ten Hag keeps talking about standards and expectations but week after week we’re watching United players fail to do very basic things. Simple things like tracking your runner and doing more than jogging back on defense aren’t being done with no repercussions to anyone. Are these the standards Ten Hag is talking about? No wonder players may feel that some players get away with more than others.

It’s not the injuries that are causing this. We saw United concede a very similar goal against City last year as well as against Arsenal at the Emirates. We’ve seen it happen with and without United’s top defenders and midfielders in the team. This is a tactical issue that the coaching staff needs to be addressed.

Right now United’s coaches aren’t even making it difficult for someone else to out-coach them. Andre Onana may steal the headlines after the Bayern Munich loss, or there may be a refereeing decision to distract you, but make no mistake if United don’t address this issue then the bad results are going to keep coming.

Erik Ten Hag needs to make adjustments before going to Burnley because running this system back over and over again and expecting different results is quite literally the definition of insanity.