Light years away…?

Abdel Rahman El Beheri
6 min readMar 4, 2024
Man City 3–1 Man United

The last few months have been hard and not just for Manchester United but for myself personally. I’ve decided to get back to writing to get my mind off of what’s going on in the world. To be honest, it doesn’t help much but it is better than nothing. I am not going to make this about my personal struggles with what is happening in Gaza but I do humbly ask you to remember them and pray for them.

Let’s get back to United.

Whenever United loses a derby badly, whether scoreline wise or performance wise, the verdict is:

“City/Liverpool is light years ahead of United.”

In 19/20 when United lost to Burnley at home 2–0, the difference between them and league leaders Liverpool was 33 points. The same phrase was used:

“United are light years away from Liverpool.”

Sensationalism and exaggeration is the way to go in sports. Reality is points and gaps in football are actually easy to overcome with a few good decisions. I am definitely not saying United can be at City’s level next season or surpass them but I am saying United can close the gap very quickly if they get their act right.

From a 33pts gap between them and Liverpool in 19/20, United finished above Liverpool in 20/21. Obviously certain circumstances have helped that, but the gap was reduced so quickly with just a sustained plan from the manager and 2–3 player additions in 2 windows.

Liverpool did the same with City in Klopp’s third season. They went from 4th with 74pts to 2nd with 98pts. The pts don’t reflect the gap between the teams as much as we would like to think.

If gaps can be closed fast, why don’t other teams do it?

Well simple. They are either making the wrong decisions or not taking any decisions to close the gaps.

United were closing the gaps in 2019 and 2020 through consistency and a little bit of squad improvement and it paid off — obviously in addition to Liverpool falling off their peak.

Other teams lower in the league don’t close these gaps because their strategy is to maintain their level rather than improve their level — unless you are in the relegation zone – if improvement comes along then that’s a bonus. As for teams at the top, they have a duty to win trophies and stay at the top for as long as possible. This requires constant improvement.

Of course, for teams at the top, this requirement comes — as much as we would like to say the fans but no — mainly from the owners who set the vision and the mission of the club. The way they want to see the return on their investment is through being the best football club in the industry or one of the best. Since 2005, this has never been the mission and vision of United. It was how can they [the owners] make the most money.

Now, United's current team is not a bad team, they are technically better than the one in 19/20 and 20/21, however, they way the players are currently being utilized is subpar. The way United plays football fails to exploit the strengths of the players and greatly broadcasts their weaknesses to opposition teams. which in turn, makes the fans get on the players back and their confidence levels drop further, the fans think they are not trying and the vicious cycle continues and gets worse.

Let’s take the midfield yesterday vs in 2021 and 2019:

United vs City Away.

What do you mean the team is better? You’re deluded. United is playing the worst football ever.

Well it has more to do with the setup than the players’ abilities at the moment.

The midfield now is better than it was then. There’s no question about it. Mainoo is a generational talent. Casemiro is/was one of the best DMs in the business despite his age. Varane and Dalot — by consensus — are better than Lindelöf and AWB.

The issue here is United still have mismatches and place players in uncomfortable positions through bad setup (i.e. wrong natural position, or exposed position, etc.) and play them out of position— no doubt injuries play a part in this — nonetheless, ETH has been setting up the team in a very disadvantageous way. He seems to be lacking a firm plan in how he wants to approach games or actually let me re-phrase that, he seems to be employing a highly risky and faulty plan. His motto is “high risk high reward.” However, there has to be a balance.

Is this new though?

The answer is no.

I’ve analyzed ETH during his Ajax days (Erik ten Hag. What is he bringing to Manchester United?)but I guess my mistake was I did most of the analysis from a statistical perspective and watched a few matches from the Eredivisie and the champions League.

Ajax hit on the counter.

The one thing I didn’t realize is how susceptible his Ajax teams were to counter attacks. It shocked me how it was a common theme, however, Ajax weren’t punished as much due to how good some of their players were in 1v1 situations. The point that posed an issue to how ETH setup was how both FBs used push too high including the pivot, changing their position dynamically makes it unstable when they lose the ball. Basically, all of them reacted quickly and tried to regain the ball as soon as possible but if it failed, the 2 CBs were exposed. It seems that ETH never implemented a set structure out of possession to stop those transitions that his teams faced.

Now bringing that to the PL and expecting the same results is ludicrous. The PL is much tougher, faster, physical and the players’ technical floor is higher. ETH carried that issue with him and never learned from it and I believe because he never saw it as in issue.

Ajax and PSV in the Eredivisie might be able to compete in Europe because they have good academies and every once in a while a bunch of graduates can storm Europe but in general the rest of the league isn’t on a high enough level in comparison to the top 3–4 leagues.

ETH needs to adopt a better setup and quickly. He needs to adjust the plan to the tools at his disposal. He needs to learn this lesson quick before he’s given the boot. If Martinez isn’t available either replace him with someone who is a close replacement or reserve the approach so it doesn’t rely on Martinez as much, etc., etc.…

The point here is it is not all doom and gloom. United are not “light years” away from Man City and Liverpool, they just have a really bad setup and they are scraping the bottom of the barrel for confidence. But with proper changes in the personnel and a good setup those light years can transform into 1–2 seasons. It wasn’t that long ago that United did the double over City despite not being on the same technical floor as them…


Abdel Rahman