“That is, we want to be the best transition team in the world. We want to surprise.”
That’s what Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag said last summer when asked about how he wanted his team to play this year. United has certainly surprised this season - albeit that surprise has been at how bad they are in regards to both attacking in transition and stopping transitions.
There was no surprise last season when United led the league in direct attacks and scored 10 times from counterattacks. This is a team with players suited to playing that style.
This season has been a much different story. United are just fourth in the league in direct attacks. That fall has less to do with other teams eclipsing the 2.68 direct attacks United had per game this season than the fact that number has fallen to 2.25. United’s sequence time has risen while their direct speed has gone from 1.35 seconds last season to 1.89 this season.
There could be several reasons behind these changes. Most likely it’s a tactical choice. United are trying to build out from the back more. It’s also not necessarily your fault. Sometimes you play teams who set out to not let you counterattack.
The same can’t be said for United’s vulnerability against transitions. All season long United have been conceding counterattacks and cutback goals. Over the weekend a video that has since been taken down went viral on Twitter showing all the cutbacks United have conceded this season and both of the goals in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Nottingham Forest were scored in this matter. That this is still an issue after four months of signals that this is not a matter of players being out with injuries, or inconsistencies in the back four, but simply a structural failure that has not been addressed by the coaches.
United’s vulnerability to counterattacks comes directly from Erik Ten Hag’s tactical setup. It starts with the way Ten Hag has his team attack.
54 minutes and 43 seconds into Saturday’s match against Nottingham Forest Manchester United attempted their second shot of the match. The shot came from left-back Diogo Dalot at the top of the Forest box.
Now take a look at United’s first shot of the match, taken in the 33rd minute. Notice anything similar?
That’s right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka blasting away from the top of the box. Through 67 minutes on Saturday United had just two shots, and both came from fullbacks. Those two shots are a perfect way to sum up how Erik Ten Hag’s tactics are contributing to United’s attacking and defensive struggles.
The second shot has been the quintessential attacking setup United have had this year. The winger is pinned to the touchline while the fullback comes narrow to attack the dangerous areas. The sequence starts with a narrow Wan-Bissaka (the RB) playing the ball out wide to Amad Diallo (the right winger). After passing AWB begins running straight up the pitch.
With Amad receiving out wide, and the Forest defender tracking Wan-Bissaka’s run there isn’t anywhere for him to go other than straight up the line. That requires United’s attacking midfielder, Bruno Fernandes to make the wide run to the touchline and give Amad a passing option.
Amad makes the simple pass up the line but the result is, United’s right winger and best attacking midfielder out of the play in the wide spaces, while their known-for-his-defensive qualities right back is the one pushing up to attack the dangerous spaces.
In this case, Wan-Bissaka does a good job firing a first-touch cutback to the top of the box where it’s met by Dalot whose shot hits off the post.
This is Ten Hag’s system. He picks wingers who prefer to cut inside and shoot whenever they can and has them hold wide positions away from the goal. He picks a midfield comprised of three players who all operate best just outside or inside the box and has them hold defensive positions so his fullbacks - neither of whom are known for being particularly great going forward - can be the attackers.
Take a look at the Dalot shot again. That ball falls right to a position that would want either Christian Eriksen or Scott McTominay to be in, but instead, they’re hanging back to cover for the attacking runs of the fullbacks.
Is it any surprise all your attackers are struggling when you’re not letting them get into the positions they operate best in because you want your fullbacks to be there? Is it any surprise the attack is struggling when you’re running everything through fullbacks who aren’t all that creative? Is it any surprise that you might be vulnerable going the other way when you leave two midfielders to protect your back four, neither of whom is particularly good at doing that?
Let’s rewind to the first shot. United work the ball down in the left corner before moving it back to Wan-Bissaka at the top of the box.
This sequence is quintessential Ten Hag. If last summer you had asked someone who had followed Ten Hag’s Ajax teams what you could expect from a Ten Hag side they would have said something along the lines of man-marking in midfield, counter-pressing when losing possession, and in possession overloads on one flank before quick switches to the other.
We’ve seen those overloads plenty of times over the last season and a half and we’ve seen some nice goals be created from them. There are just two issues with how Ten Hag does them.
As you can see here, United uses A LOT of players on these overloads.
At the start of this sequence, there are six players down on the left side of the pitch. The overload eventually leaves a player wide open at the top of the box.
But once again that player is right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There’s a whole bunch of players you would want at the top of the box before Wan-Bissaka but Ten Hag’s system requires them to help out on the overloads, while the fullback takes up the Paul Scholes central midfield position at the top of the box. That’s why time and time again we’ve been seeing these chances fall to Wan-Bissaka.
This season despite being 16th in open play xG per shot, United are third in “big chances created.” They create these big chances off of these overloads. Their issue is Ten Hag’s system requires so many players to get forward and be involved in creating these big chances, if they don’t create one or don’t finish the chance, they’ve immediately left themselves vulnerable going the other way. It doesn’t matter if you’re a top-of-the-table team or a bottom-of-the-table team, when you play Manchester United you’re going to get chances because of this, and most teams have made United pay.
That’s precisely what happened to Nottingham Forest’s winner. The sequence starts with United launching a counterattack following a set piece in their own end. It’s a counterattack, there aren’t supposed to be many players forward.
Alejandro Garnacho is not Marcus Rashford when it comes to getting behind defenses and running counterattacks but he manages to settle this ball down and lay it off for a strong shot from Christian Eriksen.
Even though this was a counterattack, Ten Hag’s system lets everyone constantly bomb forward to the point that when Amad’s cutback is intercepted, United already has six players in the box.
Off just one deflection, five of those United players are now behind the play, giving Forest a free run at United’s defense. The four players United have back were center backs Raphael Varane and Jonny Evans, left back Diogo Dalot, who is a right back and not known for his defense, and Scott McTominay, who is also not great at protecting the back four. Aaron Wan-Bissaka hustles to get back, but he’s got two men to deal with and chooses the one at the back post. Amid a whole stream of mistakes, no one picks up Morgan Gibbs-White or puts any pressure on the ball to prevent it from getting to him.
For good measure, the first goal also came from tactics The Busby Babe has highlighted before. Even when things are settled down, United tends not to mark the wide man in dangerous areas.
In the buildup to the first goal we see several players being man-marked but no one is marking Anthony Elanga on the touchline. This is either by design or because Alejandro Garnacho doesn’t realize where Elanga is.
We’ve seen this plenty of times before, particularly against Galatasaray where it cost United.
The first time it only lead to Galatasaray’s best chance of the night in terms of xG.
But 20 minutes later leaving the wide man open allowed a simple outlet and pass to set up the Turkish side’s equalizer.
On Saturday, once the ball is played out to Elanga, Diogo Dalot needs to leave his man to step up on the ball.
That causes a chain reaction where Jonny Evans now has to leave his man to pick up the man Dalot vacated, especially after Elanga plays him in.
In the middle Raphael Varane can’t leave his man, while there’s no one else around to pick up Nicolas Dominguez because all the midfielders are further up the pitch man-marking their men. That’s despite Erik Ten Hag’s public insistence that United totally doesn’t man-mark.
After 20 games in the Premier League, only Sheffield United and Burnley have scored fewer goals than Manchester United. That’s not a fluke. That’s a direct result of a coach not utilizing the talent he has or putting them in a position to succeed. United are seventh in the table despite Erik Ten Hag. His tactics continue to put the wrong players in the most dangerous places while leaving the team exposed to direct attacks against them.
Erik Ten Hag has spoken about several key players returning to the team in January, but United’s most pressing need isn’t getting players back. It’s fixing the system. If Ten Hag doesn’t do that, United’s problems will continue.
What will Ten Hag’s excuse be then?