The famous gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about an English doctor who fights the urges trying to repress the evil not fitting for a Doctor of his stature.
The doctor enjoys the ‘evil’ Hyde of his personality but doesn’t want to transform into the criminal mastermind forever, eventually, it’s impossible to resist the urges any longer as the bad side takes over.
Something similar has happened to Manchester United this winter.
After scraping 1-0 win after 1-0 win, United keep leaning into the ‘Mr Hyde’ version of themselves which in the month just gone by was a struggle to beat teams when they are forced to dictate the game and have more of the ball.
Something they relied on heavily to over-achieve the way they did in the 22-23 season.
Worryingly, ten Hag and United are incapable of doing the things that worked last season.
This team breezed past Forest away nine months ago, with the same fullbacks and pretty much the same attack. Injuries and fatigue were occurring then too, but United knew how to adjust and win these games.
The narrow wins in November bought ten Hag time and papered over the cracks as he worked out how best to set up his team.
You can only defend your box heroically and beat teams by a nose hair for so long though, especially when you find it hard to create chances let alone score.
With the promise of the football improving once key players return. In losses to Forest, Bournemouth, and West Ham though, how much will change once Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro, and company are back?
What we saw on the pitch in these games isn’t solved by certain players returning. Unless of course they’ve been told to scrap the playing style, which is what it felt like had happened in the ‘pragmatic’ wins.
In these recent losses the onus wasn’t to go pragmatic or ‘long’ it felt as though United simply didn’t know how to create chances against teams that sit deep.
If key players are missing, what you should see on the pitch is the same rehearsed routines. Unless it’s abundantly clear the manager is adapting to the qualities or deficiencies of the hand he’s been dealt (it’s normally easy to recognize.
The effectiveness is lessened when you don’t have your first-choice starters, but the essence of what you a team are trying to do should still be clear.
For example, William Saliba for Arsenal got injured during the crucial home stretch of Arsenal’s title charge last season, so you kept seeing Rob Holding try to bring the ball out from the back or pass from deep.
Holding was still doing the things Saliba was, Saliba was just better and Arsenal were a worse-off team because of it.
Forgive me for thinking the football will magically improve once players have returned but it’s so hard to even figure out what United is trying to do in games.
There were moments United built up in a back three (as they normally do) vs Forest and with Mainoo-Eriksen marked by Forest players, that was that. Attack over.
This is what the majority of the game was and United didn’t have another plan.
If the midfielders of Fernandes, Mainoo and Eriksen didn't drop off to receive the ball, when they did Forest would follow them— Dharnish (@dharnishiqbal) January 1, 2024
The solution to your midfielders being marked off is to go wide, sometimes United did this but the same progression issues are there pic.twitter.com/QL2YM2vrUP
They look completely bereft of ideas of how to break down a team that wants to sit in and defend for the majority of the game.
Of course, teams are going to do this, it’s the easy option for them. Wait for United to try to pick the lock, when that crumbles, counter and exploit the transition issues.
United has gone LWLD (Liverpool) LWL in the league providing ostensible optimism for fans in the hopes they can turn a corner, before swiftly reminding them of just how bad this football team has become this season.
The positive performances during this period fool you into thinking Ten Hag can still set United up to trouble teams with aggressive pressing and build on turning the season around.
Instead United only seem to press with the full-backs in tandem at home with the crowd behind them. If Bournemouth, Forest, and West Ham have the ball, United should be pressing with the onus of doing the same as what they did vs Villa and Chelsea.
It’s quite possibly the only way for the season to turn around and the only thing giving United any success on the pitch.
Ten Hag thrived on making his team adaptive last season. He’s trying the same formula, but United are performing much worse as a team.
They sometimes press but not with every player. They sometimes go long when they can’t get the ball to the central midfielders. They sometimes sit off in a mid-block where the defenders are pulled apart easily. They often can’t break a team down who sit deep as they’re unsure because there’s no foolproof method of constructing attacks.
It’s a mishmash of different ways to set up a team and United aren’t very good at any of them.
In difficult times a team should stick to what’s working, and there is more than enough evidence in the 27 games played to suggest Ten Hag should persist with pressing aggressively. It isn’t a coincidence the few good performances have been when the purpose is to regain the ball high up the pitch and strike quickly.
There are only seven teams who have lost more league games than Manchester United. Four of those losses came in a busy December.
The rate of losses will only increase if United keeps shooting themselves in the foot.
The serum to grab the season by the horns is available, and it’s baffling that United isn’t using it.