Manchester United: The missing element.
While Manchester United’s game vs Omonia Nicosia was live on Oct 6th, the commentator said: “Which Manchester United is going to show up today?” Usually, it is taken with a grain of salt and a laugh because it is true United somehow manages to serve up very different yet astonishingly similar performances every week. However, this time one’s mind wondered why is that? Why is United so moody and inconsistent?
Manchester United’s squad seems to be like a river that wants to flow but there’s a cog/huge stones blocking it. The water is sipping through the little openings it is given, but that makes it slow, predictable and unable to reproduce the sort of impact it naturally can when the current gushes through in every but no particular direction. Rivers are moody by nature. Some days the current is strong, another it is raging, another is slow and another it is smooth, while others completely still. You can’t control the current’s behaviour or change its direction and it would be unwise to deny it the freedom it craves. Humans built ships and dug canals to unite with the river’s current and direct it while still giving it the freedom to flow. Humans understood that fighting with the current is fruitless and calamitous, but harnessing the power of the current and understanding its moods will build a relationship with rivers and oceans. A relationship built on compatibility is like a treaty that serves purposes for both Man and Nature. Fail to build those relationships and fight it, then you may never coexist.
The same principles apply in football. Anytime you try to force players to play against their flow, you are negating their qualities and will only be met with disastrous outcomes (i.e. a disjoined press, uncertainty, slow reactions, etc.). In football, relationships and compatibilities need to be built in order for the river to flow smoothly…From the experience of watching, analyzing, speaking with several coaches, the appreciation of player relationships and compatibilities have transformed into the realization that it is one of the most — if not the most — important aspects in the game. What makes sport so compelling to watch and follow is the human aspect in it. The psychological fluctuations during games — in different game states — and from game to game.
This is the element Manchester United are missing — Relationships.
Manchester United have been left side oriented for as long as the memory allows. This is thanks to the unprecedented efforts of the recruitment department that has kept buying players who are left sided (Shaw, Pogba, Depay, Martial, Rashford, Blind, Rojo, etc.). As time went by, United kept chopping and changing players and combinations. They never allowed the team to flow.
Out of necessity and lack of options, the ex-manager OGS have relied on the combination of Martial, Rashford and Shaw on the left hand side of United’s attack and build up. If you add to that trio the fact that Paul Pogba and Fred are good with their left foot, it made the water flow smoothly from that side and — for a long time — that side was unstoppable. Naturally, this trio built a strong relationship. The strengths of these players complement each other and hid their weaknesses — specially in attack.
This became so apparent now that whenever this trio isn’t on the left side of United’s attack, United’s attack seem to be stale more than it already is.
In the early 2019/20 season, United weren’t creating a high enough amount of chances from midfield and were too one dimensional. The current was flowing from a single direction (left) that was easy to block by oppositions.
Enter Bruno Fernandes.
Despite the results, United — pre Fernandes — were creating a fairly decent amount of chances in games overall, they just weren’t clinical enough for the amount being created. They needed a greater flow. They needed to open new valves, new relationships. This is why Fernandes was an immediate success. Fernandes is an attacking midfielder that behaves like a second striker, a better yet different version of Jesse Lingard. This is compatible with Martial’s behaviour of dropping deep and combining with others. When Martial vacates to combine with Rashford, Fernandes stretches the lines and occupies the striker position. Martial and Fernandes built a relationship instantly.
Believe it or not, United finished 19/20 — “disastrous” — season with the most open play chances created and the least open play chances created against — yes more than Liverpool & Man City.
The reason being Manchester United managed to build relationships in several areas. They built relationships on the left — Marital, Rashford, Shaw. They built relationships in the backline — Shaw, Maguire, Lindelöf, Wan-Bissaka. They built a relationship between the attacking midfielder and the striker. However, the chemistry between the entire midfield and the right side of United’s attack was still dysfunctional.
The problem United faced was when teams decided to cut their flow of attack from the left side, which was their major source of play. The onus fell on Fernandes to facilitate other avenues for the flow to continue. United became too reliant on Fernandes and he was happy to fill the role. Eventually, the burden became too heavy to carry — until Pogba was used on the LW. The river started flowing…The creation burden was shared and Fernandes didn’t have to fill gaps as Cavani was not dropping into similar areas as Martial. This in turn made Fernandes’ job much simpler. If Fernandes needed to combine, he could do that with Pogba. New relationships, but similar compatibilities…
Fast forward to the last few games…
1. “United is still too left sided but for now they need it..”
The City and Omonia games proved why United needed those relationships back. The attack is better with Martial, Rashford and Shaw in it. Fernandes plays better with Martial as they are compatible.
Again, this isn’t because they are the best players in the world or the best United could get on the left but it is because their attributes complement each other in attack. This is fundamental to understand. Is Rashford or Martial better than Cristiano Ronaldo on an individual level? No, not in a million years. However, the dynamics between Rashford and Ronaldo are non-existent. They are too similar as players and they expose each other.
The left hand side of United have always been where the water was flowing strongly. Maguire to Rashford to Shaw to Fernandes. In addition, look where Fernandes takes position when Marital vacates his CF position. He has CF tendencies and Martial vacates lets him play into that strengths and helps Fernandes gets more goals. Maguire playing those line breaking passes into Rashford as he cuts in and Shaw overlaps.
The translation under Erik ten Hag is shown above…the less dangerous and probable chance out of the two presented resulted in a goal. Football, eh?…
The match vs. City and Omonia made three things abundantly clear — if they weren’t before. The right side of United’s attack has yet to be developed. The relationships in that area doesn’t have the same kind of flow as the left. The positives of having Eriksen in deeper positions doesn’t outweigh the problems it doesn’t solve/creates — despite his valiant efforts to fill the role.
The same combinations Rashford and Shaw were creating in the previous clips, Sancho and Shaw are creating in the two above here. In addition, you’ll notice that Rashford (ST) is also leaning towards them because he wants to combine with them. As it was explained in the article about Rashford, he likes the ball to feet, running at defenders and dribbling not making striker runs.
The data backs up what we are saying here. The pass maps above also give us the average locations of the players. Observe where most of the United players are concentrated/leaning towards — the left side.
The addition of Antony and the inclusion of Diogo Dalot has helped United utilize the right hand side a bit more but still not enough. The relationships on the right hand side has not developed and they are not as strong as the left, majorly because United’s players are left side oriented.
In the match vs Everton, Fernandes moved to the right side a few times to help Antony and Dalot. The chemistry/relationship was not fully there. The combinations were weak and they were always forced back — even though, Fernandes is good at making those 3rd man runs. However, when Fernandes wasn’t moving there, Antony and Dalot were isolated. I wrote at the time that ETH and Fernandes are doing what I was writing about in this article but it was obvious it was not a solidified plan. It was more Fernandes moving there on his own to combine and creates due to his free role.
Despite moving another midfielder up and inverting the fullback asymmetrically, ETH has not really restricted Bruno Fernandes’ movement and changed his role as the Chief Creating Officer of the Manchester United team. Fernandes does still pop up on the right hand side to help Antony out but again very little cause the play and most of United’s attacks goes to the left. Also, Martinez and Varane’s combination play a big part in this. The latter isn’t nearly as strong as the former on the ball, when Lindelöf plays the games flow more down the right than usual — for obvious reasons.
Note: Antony is also a bit signal minded. He sometimes ignores overlaps and cuts in to whip a curler with his left foot from outside of the box. He does sometimes tend to waste opportunities like that.
There’s a positive to that isolation of course. If United managed to switch the ball quickly from left to right, there’s always space for Antony and Dalot to aim at and exploit. However, the combinations could be more effective and deadly if a) a midfielder sides with them more — Fernandes role with Portugal or b) the striker isn’t left side heavy — both Rashford and Ronaldo lean towards the left and don’t remain central.
Creating relationships between Antony, Dalot and another player on the right-hand side will elevate United’s attack to new heights. It is already pretty good but still too reliant on transitional moments. and creation from pressing or counter pressing during opposition progression phase. The flow will be from both sides. Take for example how United’s buildup slightly improved when they added Dalot on the right instead of AWB. Crazy what happens when you add the right tools in the right places — Magic.
2. “Eriksen and Fernandes can’t play together.” — The media.
The issue isn’t with the players themselves but with the roles. Eriksen is only responsible for progression when United is building up, which he is very capable of doing. And as mentioned before, Fernandes is still burdened with the role of the sole creator of the team and he is free to roam where he wants in order to create— be that on the transition or in settled position.
Eriksen does join the attack in settled position in the opposition third but he mainly circulates or switches or progress the from the middle third, as you can see from his actions below.
Fernandes’ role isn’t blocking Eriksen’s creativity nor the opposite. They both just have different roles that is all. Is United not benefitting from all of Eriksen’s qualities by making him a deep progressor? Yes, absolutely. However, this is not a Fernandes problem, this is a ‘United not having good deep midfielders for several years’ problem.
It’s the difference in style as well that makes certain people think they are blocking each other. Eriksen is calmer on the ball and wants release pressure — part of his role — when the team is pressed in its own half. Fernandes’ mindset is forward and exploit the space in behind from deep or not.
3. “Fernandes’ is a problem with his low pass accuracy”
The style and the state of team affects how Fernandes creates. Last season, United were constantly pushed back and relied heavily on transitions and counter attacks to create. Even this season vs. the big teams United resorted to low blocks to get their wins over Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester and even in the loss vs City. This forces Fernandes to take more risks as he knows he will be counter-pressed by teams and it is the optimal time to attack them when their shape is broken. Fernandes explains his thinking below in an interview with the Athletic — just listen from min 1:32 to 4:00.
It isn’t that Fernandes is incapable of playing the a calm game on the ball but it is the nature of the role of being the sole creator of the team, which he assumes on himself as well. It also explain how Fernandes always ends a game with several chances created even when he had a terrible game in the eyes of everyone. The high risk high reward nature of his style helps him shatter those chance creation numbers but again the lack of technical quality or — to be more accurate — “assurance on the ball” of the Manchester United team plays a big role in Fernandes’ style.
The numbers even back that up. On average Fernandes’ passing accuracy is 78% — KDB is 75% btw. Against opposition where United dominate the ball his pass accuracy goes up to ~85% and against teams where United have an almost even possession or very low possession Fernandes’ pass accuracy is significantly lower between ~68% — 75%. However, the chance creation numbers don’t get reduced that much, he still creates. Nevertheless, this tells us that Fernandes is able to change his style and be calmer on the ball when United’s control of the game raises.
As long as United’s style is frantic and their games are chaotic so will Fernandes’ style because he wants to create chances for the team at any cost. This is his way of driving the team forward and you can tell from the way he talked about it.
Whilst Fernandes has a free role in this United setup, he’ll always seem frantic. On one hand, he is everywhere and fans appreciate the effort — not all fans — and on the other hand the state of the game decides his style. ETH must restrict him to build further relationships on the pitch. If Fernandes is moved to the RCM position and encouraged to build a relationship with Antony and Dalot he could make that right hand side a very lethal combination. The loss of Fernandes’ impact on the left hand side can be mitigated by pushing Eriksen further up and having Casemiro anchoring the midfield.
This slight change will help United’s river to flow from both directions — left and right. It will be very difficult for any team to stop United’s flow from multiple direction at the same time.
Note: ETH has already started doing that as we have seen in the Chelsea game.
The relationships have not formed yet and United are still missing a central figure to aim at. Most of United’s attacking players are not good with their back to goal or at heading. The good ones at heading are at the back. Casemiro — equalizer — McTominay, Varane, etc.
If there’s one thing you should come out of this article with is that Relationships on a football pitch are everything. If you cultivate the right relationships, the flow of your football will be seamless. It’s like magic. Relationships trump tactics on a football pitch. If you don’t have the right compatibilities not matter how innovative you tactics are, the players will be out of sync. The proof is in the pudding. United added Dalot he fixed a lot of progression problems. United added Martial back to the CF position the flow of attack became much better — especially on the left. United added a competent passer in deep areas in Eriksen and progression improved further. United Antony a wide left footed winger, the crossing and the goal threat increased from the right hand side. The of Magic of the right players in the right position to fulfill the right jobs. The magic of building the correct relationships.