May 23nd 2022, Erik ten Hag had his first press conference as the Manchester United manager and this was what he said:
“The season before, this squad finished 2nd. It has HUGE potential.”
Obviously, coming off the season United had in 21/22 many were like this manager is in for a big surprise. The interim manager exposed the club and laid all its problem bare naked for the world to see. A section of the fanbase was in complete jubilation. This is what the fanbase wanted, right? The higher-ups getting exposed and dragged out through the media outlets. The catch — and the irony that was lost on that section of the fanbase — was the players got affected the most not the owners. The owners were probably on their yachts in Miami sipping mimosas with not a single f**k to give.
Post the Newcastle game, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine on Twitter were I said: “I think if you set last season as the bar to measure United’s progress then anyone could have improved that by giving the players their confidence back.” then I was asked: “What’s the measuring stick then if not last season?” And this was my reply:
“Definitely not last season’s shit show cause that was a team that gave up and they [the players] admitted it. Progress isn’t black or white we always say that. Just like I’m not judging ETH for title challenging, I’m not judging him on the lowest I’ve seen a Manchester United team go about a match. I’m judging him on restoring us to what we were prior then improving on that. In addition, I don’t expect him to resolve all our tactical problems since we don’t have the players with the abilities required.”
I was in complete agreement with ten Hag when he said that and as Twitter always behaves, I was accused of only saying this to “defend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.” I understand their point of view though. I’m basically asking the man [ETH] to completely erase last season and act as if it didn’t happen. I get how this could seem unfair at first glance. I see their point, truly, but here’s why I said this:
1) Erik ten Hag, himself, agrees with me.
He saw the potential in the team and recognized that this team was too good to have produced what they had last season. It was probably more confidence and mental than anything else. This is what I’ve argued for all of last season. The collapse was far too big for it all of sudden to be: “An open heart surgery and we need 10 new players.” To be fair to Ralf Rangnick, he probably meant that the club in general needs an open heart surgery to fix all its existing facets — to which I would agree. Man United are still stuck in 2005 as a club, facilities, training pitches, and all the new advanced tech and whatnot.
For ETH, he, most likely, looked at United’s metrics from 20/21 season and the expected ones as well then said what he said. United had the underlying metrics of the 4th best team in the country but they overperformed those metrics to achieve 2nd. Overachieving your metrics can be seen in two ways, either you have been lucky or you have a very mentally resilient team that forced the issue when things weren’t going their way — hint on which: “most comebacks by a team in PL history.”
United overachieved on the number of goals scored, which directly affected their expected points. However, they underachieved their expected goals against (xGA), which means they conceded goals that they probably shouldn’t have (i.e. Newcastle Shaw’s deflected own goal and set-pieces). They tended to concede stupid goals like that in 20/21. The overachievement in goals though was very big so it was an overachievement overall in points. This is including the horrid start of the season they had due to lack of preseason (i.e. 6–1 Spurs). One very respectful analyst who I look up to, argued:
“United are only a “ proper start to the season” away from challenging City and Liverpool or, at minimum, being officially the 2nd/3rd best team in the country. It is remarkable how they recovered after that Spurs game.”
2) The downfall of last season wasn’t a result of lack of quality or disharmony in the dressing room as the media and whatnot would like you to believe.
Unlike the conventional route the sackings go through, the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was an emotional one. Not only to the fans that loved him, but to the players and the coaching staff. Normally you get an up turn in performances when a manager is sacked, however, in this instance there was barely any.
The downfall was a result of piling too much pressure and expectation before the team was ready to compete fully. United had a couple of holes in the structure of the team that were not filled. After that, they went and signed Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane. The expectation went from “we can go again this year and be closer to City and Liverpool” to “United must win now, Ronaldo and Varane didn’t come here to hover around the top 4.”
Without getting into the whole situation, the tactical flaws and explanation of last season too much, the United team couldn’t withstand the gaps in the team structure and crumpled. It was like pushing a self destruct button. It was not because they, all of a sudden, became bad or the were “found out” as Twitter would have you believe. Being on the end of heavy defeats after all the promise from the season before and the excitement of “Cristiano Ronaldo’s second coming”, absolutely shattered and destroyed their confidence, positive mentality and made them lose faith in themselves and each other.
Football players are human and non of them like to lose. They get scared. They get emotional. They think of “what ifs” and “what could have been”. They actually do think about the expectations of the fans and how are they going to deliver on those expectations. On top of all that, they have their families watching them crumble match after match. I always remembered this interview (below) from Rashford while watching last season and feeling lost for words at the collapse.
“All I can say is the team will not give up. There’s no chance the team gives up. The manager [Ole] will not give up. He won’t allow us to give up. We will come next season with a bigger desire…etc.” Marcus Rashford to BT Sport.
That interview is a living proof regarding the situation of the club and the dressing room at that point. You can tell Rashford wasn’t lying or hiding anything. He spoke straight from the heart and it was an emotional interview. He was venting and letting out what he is truly feeling. This all made the collapse of the following season almost inexplicable.
3) In 19/20, United were starting from scratch. In 22/23, they are not.
United were down to the bare bones in 19/20. Their midfield lacked quality. The forward line was paper thin and lacked quality and even their defense didn’t have proper back-ups incase the regular starters were injured. As you recall, Williams was thrown into the deep end when Shaw got injured. Greenwood started getting more and more game time. Chong featured a bit. Angel Gomes featured a bit as well as James Garner. Paul Pogba was out for most of the season. That team massively pushed above their weight.
Fast forward to this season…
Out of all the outgoings from this season, the one big worry was that United have let go of Nemanja Matic. Regarding the others: Mata stopped featuring. Cavani was injured for most of his last season and he was already replaced by CR7 — some think he was taking the mickey out of United. Nonetheless, in 20/21, he was an important contributing factor to reaching second. So roughly, United only lost Matic and Cavani. Lingard was not featuring and went to West Ham that season. Bailly played a small role in couple of games but largely absent. Paul Pogba misses more than half of the season — every season — although had a good run that helped United win games on the LW.
Nonetheless, United lost quality in midfield they were bare bones again but not to the same level as in 19/20. Why? United replaced all that quality with better quality — and most importantly game AVAILABLE personnel. Martinez for Bailly. Eriksen for Pogba. Casemiro for Matic. Antony for Cavani. Malacia for Telles — who was not useful in 20/21 anyway. All have better availability than the ones they replaced and all have taken starter positions to ones who were actually starters and achieved second.
United achieved second with Fred and McTominay as the main starters. Now they have Eriksen and Casemiro — while I think Eriksen is in a bad predicament because that is not his natural position. He is basically in the same situation as Pogba — with a similar quality and even better AVAILABILITY. If Pogba filled a gap there for a while and was helpful so can Eriksen without the injury record.
The forward line isn’t as paper thin as it was in 19/20. Back then, United had the following:
· Marcus Rashford
· Anthony Martial
· Mason Greenwood
· Daniel James
· Jesse Lingard
· Juan Mata
· Tahith Chong
· Cristiano Ronaldo
· Marcus Rashford
· Anthony Martial
· Jadon Sancho
· Antony Matheus
· Alejandro Garnacho
· Anthony Elanga
· Facundo Pellisitri
Now, before your mind run off to a place where it shouldn’t. I am not saying Erik ten Hag must get second or else. I previously mentioned that I am not judging him this season at all. It’s his first with the club. However, I am not accepting the thinking that says: “ United are starting from scratch and the manager before Erik ten Hag left us in ruins.”
There are still tactical holes in the squad that Erik ten Hag will need to fill them. And, no, it won’t be filled or get better by “coaching”. United still needs a progressive (DLP) midfielder beside Casemiro and push Eriksen back to his natural position. They need to fix their CF position as they can’t rely on injury prone Anthony Martial and really old Cristiano Ronaldo. Furthermore, depending on how much Dalot will develop his game in the attacking phase, United needs to get a RB that will challenge him or even be better than him. Lastly, the GK situation need to be solved — no need to explain this one.
The same issues United had when they finished season 20/21, they still have now to a similar degree but improved a level or two.
United control games better as McFred were replaced by “Erica” — Eriksen x Casemiro — they progress the play much better than McFred and better defensive screening — obviously — The catch is Eriksen needs to be where his natural game is and we need a better tempo control — same issue we had previously. Martinez replaced Maguire and gave United more aggression and agility while also built a good relation with Varane. Antony and Dalot are helping United get the right side started but that side still have a long way to go. The last match vs. a very organized West Ham team in a low block showed how much United still find it hard to break those teams down.
United are still left side dependent just like 2 seasons ago. Their right side is still weak, which makes it difficult vs well organized teams in low blocks. The truth is, though, breaking down low blocks will never be easy unless you have a balanced team and highly intelligent players. The reason small teams use low blocks is because it has a track record of being very effective against superior teams, I digress. This is a long topic anyway…
So yeah, Erik ten Hag was right. This team finished second and there’s huge potential in it. We are not starting from scratch. We are starting from 2 years of progression and moving it forward. United really could be competing/challenging starting from next season — all depends on how they conduct themselves in the transfer window and whether or not they solve their gaps. If they left ETH hanging just like they did with others before him then United will be stuck in time again and there’s no time machine to save it.
Thank you for reading my non tactical rant.