Manchester United are 3 games into pre-season and the fanbase is already excited again. The combination play between Rashford, Martial, Sancho and Fernandes or Van de Beek got fans on the edge of their seats again. ‘TenHagBall’ is trending…
Before we get disillusioned with the rush of emotions, the excitement of everyone around us and the results of ‘pre-season’ games, let’s stand back and form a realistic, wholistic view to fully understand what is going on? And What happened before? and try to predict what will happen after?
Let’s start by what happened last season…
After the purchase of Jadon Sancho, Raphaël Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, the entire fanbase was filled with excitement that this year will be the year United will challenge for the title. However, it was not to be and United went on a downward spiral that left many speechless. Obviously as things go the blame was carried by the manager and he was sacked but that didn’t stop the rot. Why though?
The answer is Squad imbalanced.
The midfield imbalance of Manchester United is a well documented issue due to the number of transfer windows is taking to replace Michael Carrick. Nemanja Matic was supposed to be the replacement and for a while under Mourinho, it worked to a certain extent. The best version of a balance midfield Man United had was in the interim period under Solskjaer where it was Matic, Herrera and Pogba. A DM, a Box-to-Box, and a creative attacking midfielder.
Another imbalance is the attacking department, since Solskjaer himself retired United have not fully addressed their right wing issue. Solskjaer retired in 2007. Since then, a string of RWs came to Old Trafford and either failed to impress, were converted to a different position or weren’t even right wingers but were put there to fill a void. This resulting consequence of this issue is, Man United teams have attacked in a lop sided manner for almost a decade, which would be fine if United’s midfield was a cut above the rest. However, it was not for the majority of that time.
The latter stages of SAF’s era, United’s midfield was one of the best so it was not a big issue.
The third issue, United were light in the creative department. If Bruno is having a bad game and Pogba is injured, United had ZERO creativity. The forward players were not of the profiles that can create for themselves or others to high to degree, so whenever they came up against a strong defensive unit, it looked like they had no idea what to do. And in reality, they really didn’t.
Still the team achieved 2nd and a Europa final? How can they collapse like that?
Well multiple simple reasons:
- The team overachieved and Solskjaer squeezed the maximum out of them. Their underlying statistical numbers had them 4th not 2nd.
- After balancing the forward line by getting Jadon Sancho to play on the right, United unbalanced that forward line again by buying Ronaldo.
- United left the midfield unaddressed.
These three points resulted in the team being unbalanced both in the middle third and final third. In addition, the ability to hold on the ball was lost with the removal of Martial and Pogba- LW Pogba — from the forward line.
The front three of United already had problems before adding Ronaldo. They were very inconsistent in pressing and tracking back. These were habits and traits that they picked up over time during LVG and Mourinho’s times — Martial and Rashford. United’s number 11 was cultivated as a center forward in the academy so he was never taught the duties of a wide player and how to press.
Now, United went to the market and bought someone who is worse than all 3 of them combined in those traits — Cristiano Ronaldo. As a forward, Ronaldo is in the bottom 1% of pressing and tracking. He was never required to do this cause his previous teams always covered for him. They got players to play secondary roles to overcompensate for the lack of work from Ronaldo out of possession. Ask Benzema all about it. However unlike Madrid and Juventus, United had none of those. They were all exactly like Ronaldo — except for Cavani and Lingard.
To make things worse, Rashford, #11, and Ronaldo were supported by Fernandes. Fernandes has a problem in that he always breaks rank and improvises outside of the original plan.
If United are going to press, then they definitely can’t have a front 3 of non pressers that are supported by Fernandes, especially. Solskjaer tried to adjust to this when Untied came back from international break vs Leicester. He realized that he can’t press any more so he set up a passive mid-block and it worked for the first 25mins until Fernandes decided to break ranks and press on his own. The illustration below is basically what happened.
The above images reflect a situation that kept occurring in the United games through out the season. The team lost its identity, they didn’t know whether to press or stay passive and the forward line was more individualistic than ever.
Looking at the images above, we can see that Fernandes is running on his own. The other front three are standing still watching the game unfold and when they do respond to his movement, it is too little too late.
We can, also, tell that there’s a contrast between Ronaldo and Fernandes when it comes to pressing. The former can’t press or if he did he doesn’t do it correctly whilst the latter presses far too irresponsibly like a headless chicken. If a manager is trying to organize a press with those two at the front, just based on their tendencies alone, it is near impossible. This is because the manager would have to change well established fundamentals in each player’s core attributes.
United is simply full of players that are too direct and eager on the ball 24/7. Fernandes, Rashford, #11 are all like that, which makes United unable to sustain pressure in opposition third for too long.
Martial, while lacks interest at times, had the ‘on the ball’ fundamentals to keep it and make it stick. He also is a smart presser even though he does it in bursts. Not only that, he brings out the best in others by linking up with them. This is why we saw the best Rashford and Fernandes when Martial was playing with them.
Cavani, on the other hand, didn’t have the link up but he had the pressing and with Fernandes, he made the organization of the press easier to coach and apply.
Ronaldo, unfortunately, is neither a presser nor a link up player. Thus adding him to a front line with Rashford and #11 meant a complete collapse of United’s pressing fundamentals that wasn’t at elite levels yet. They were still learning. In addition, United’s ball retention in the final third is weak due to their weak and unbalanced midfield.
These were Manchester United’s problems last season and with the losses compiling, they lost complete confidence in themselves and to add salt to the wounds, interim manager Ralf Rangnick came in and started attacking them, which added fuel to the fire with fans. Thus the season only got worse and worse for United.
How can Erik ten Hag fix this? or how is he already fixing this? What can he bring to this United team?
If we analyze ten Hag’s Ajax teams, we’ll notice that they have not all played the same way. As well, if we go back further into his career when he was manager of Utrecht, we’ll notice that they were nowhere near the same football that he plays now, which means ten Hag is very much a flexible manager and he adapts to the demands of his squad until he reaches his end goal, slowly but surely. He also adapts to his opponents very well.
The three fundamental aspects in ten Hag’s style is Counter-press, Ball retention and crossing. He relied on transitions quite a bit in his 18/19 team but that dissipated in his 21/22. The reason is simple the profiles in the team changed drastically and specifically the center forward. He went from Dušan Tadić to Sébastien Haller.
Tadić can function in a transition-based team because he’s creative, and he has great ball control unlike Haller, who as we saw at West Ham United, looks terrible in a transition based team. ten Hag adjusted to his center forward, and increased the deep circulation and wing play to provide for Haller who was tasked to stay in the box for large amounts of the game. Obviously, this was achieved by having 10 players with high technical ball abilities with the exception of Haller.
How does that translate to Manchester United?
Well, the three fundamentals that ten Hag requires, to play his style, are the 3 which United are weakest at. Counter-press is almost non existent. Ball retention and Crossing are there but very weak fundamentally.
The reason United are weak in those areas, which should make sense to us now that we have explained what happened last season, is United don’t have too many players that can control the ball in high pressure situation. The possession statistics for a top team is very low. The profile of the players don’t suit the style that ten Hag will eventually want to reach with United.
United, currently, are more suited to a transition based football, that is quick and direct than patient buildup, state control (state of the game) and creation of space. The midfield players McTominay and Fred are not deep lying play makers like Frenkie De Jong from ten Hag’s 18/19 team nor are they defensive midfielders.
The United front line Rashford, Ronaldo, Martial are not creative. Martial is in a relative sense to the rest but he is not an elite creative player. Sancho is the only one that is creative in that front line. In addition to what we explained about them above when it comes to pressing. It makes “counter pressing” a completely foreign idea to them, very difficult to develop.
Counter-pressing: “It is the team’s ability to, immediately after losing the ball, press against the ball to prevent an oppositional counter and — instead of transition into the ordinary defensive organization, whatever it may be — being able to immediately get into possession again.”
When it comes to buildup, ten Hag needs his GK and deep midfielders to be involved to form diamonds around the press.
We have already seen this in his first two games with United that both CBs are tight to DDG as they don’t trust his passing ability. Thus requiring both FBs to be withdrawn instead of a little advanced. Fred is shaky at receiving but he’s the only available somewhat of a deep midfielder.
As we can see from the video above, instead of spreading out, Lindelöf and Maguire are collecting from DDG from a very close distance. Now, this is working now in pre-season. It will be interesting to see how this work when the real business comes as it is very risky and a more aggressive press wins the ball here. Fred was on his toes and he did well to receive and release quick. However, Fred is a hit and miss always.
ten Hag probably realized that this United team resembles more his 18/19 team than his 21/22 in the forward department. As such, if we noticed, 2 out of the 3 goals were transitional goals just like when United were at their best under the previous manager. The strength of the front three is on the transition and running directly at their opponents. And as we have mentioned before and the graph proved, ten Hag’s 18/19 team was more transitional then they had led on.
United have scored this same exact goal about three times before. One vs Derby County in the FA Cup 2020 and One vs. Sheffield United in 2020 and one vs. Southampton 2021. These quick interchanges are what they are good at. ten Hag realized that and is playing to their strengths again.
If the forward department is similar which will make ten Hag’s work a bit easier, then midfield is definitely not going to do that. The midfield three of Ajax in 18/19 were highly technical. They could play transitional football or slow possession and control the rhythm of the game. Let’s look at ten Hag’s midfield targets in comparison to United’s midfield
What we’ll notice here is the complete contrast in the ‘in possession’ abilities between the two midfielders United currently have and the two they are targeting. Thus, it should come as no surprise why United remained a transitional based team and never fully evolved into a possession based team under Ole Gunner Solskjaer.
There’s a caveat though, if we remove both Fred and Scott and add the targets then United will be opened defensively out of possession. If we take another look at the charts, both Frenkie de Jong and Christian Eriksen are very weak defensively in comparison to the other two.
In essence, it will be about the right balance in midfield. ten Hag will still need his Lasse Schone type to help de Jong out of possession — if the intention is to play de Jong as the deepest midfielder.
Lastly, the fullbacks. Assuming ten Hag will try to mold this United team under the same principles as his 18/19 team due to the similarities in existing profiles. He will face a problem at right back. In addition, Luke Shaw had a poor season in 2021/2022. Let’s look at right back.
ten Hag will need both fullbacks to be able to play progressive passes into the final third, occasionally enter the midfield and/or hug the touchline to stretch the play and create space for their wide forwards by overlapping. This is where Wan-Bissaka is at a disadvantage. He is not a bad right back but his progressive passing and crossing ability leaves little to be desired but as a carrier of the ball he is excellent. Moreover, he also doesn’t have an edge over Dalot in the defensive department, the graphs above tell us that Dalot has made more tackles then Wan-Bissaka, more recoveries and has better aerials duels. Regardless — for ten Hag — what matters most is their ability on the ball.
As for Left Back, Luke Shaw has all the abilities ten Hag needs while his back up Alex Telles couldn’t be more opposite to what a possession team needs. This is highly likely why Tyrell Malacia was bought. The young fullback is great on the ball, defensively sound, aggressive and quick.
We’ll notice in the charts above the drop in Luke Shaw’s form in 2021/2022 vs 2019/2020. In 19/20, Shaw looked like one of the most will rounded fullbacks in Europe. If he finds that form again, which is only related to confidence nothing more. He’ll be ten Hag’s main left back. Malacia will be the back up and an under study.
We have covered every department of the team and what ten Hag will need from it and what he can take from the current profiles at Man United and what he still needs to add.
To recap, the profiles at Man United resemble more ten Hag’s Ajax team of 18/19. Players like Shaw, Sancho, Maguire, Martial, Van de Beek, Dalot, Varane, and Lindelöf will be assets to ten Hag and with better players around them, they’ll be better themselves. Rashford is not a profile that ten Hag had before but ten Hag will definitely incorporate a talent like Rashford in his team. However, there are certain bad habits that Rashford needs to iron out if he want to continue to play as a wide forward in a possession based team. Amad and Pellistri still need further development.
As for the elephant in the room — Cristiano Ronaldo — it is a very tough one. The forward line United currently have doesn’t foil with his profile well, and the proof was demonstrated last season. All of United’s good metrics dropped significantly after the Newcastle game — Ronaldo’s first game back. The closest solution to adding him to the line up is flanking him with Sancho and Amad with Van de Beek behind them not Fernandes. Plus, ten Hag will have to forget about counter-pressing until his midfield is what he needs it to be — especially if Ronaldo is the center forward.
For now, it looks promising and fans are excited again. The players seem to have some confidence restored and look like they are gelling well. The results will build that further but again it is still pre-season.
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