What’s happening at Manchester United? Why are they in a mess?

Buendia header blocked by David De Gea.

Control. Something that has been missing from Manchester United’s games since the start of the season. This is the team that was on a trajectory to fight City and compete with Liverpool for the title. That team lost track of its vision and completely fell of the railroad.

The current interim manager Ralf Rangnick has stressed that Man United lack control in their games and ultimately this is the reason for their failures. What does that mean though? Where are Man United falling short? Is it simply lack of interest and effort from the players? Is it tactical? or Is it something beyond that?

The answer to this question gets complicated the further Man United get into this season. Every performance is different than the other. Every performance has things that improve (ex. defense) and things that get worse (ex. attack). The next game it flips, what was improving gets worse and what was worse improves. No matter who plays they can’t seem to find their mojo or rhythm.

Last season Man United may have had some tactical issues but compared to what’s happening this season, they now seem minuscule. The tactical issues last season were:

  1. Cohesive buildup week in week out. It was inconsistent.
  2. Effectively stretching low blocks on a consistent basis with FBs.
  3. A default plan in the final third for when the players hit a bump.

The first two could have been largely solved with recruiting the correct profiles. Man United, going into Summer 21, needed a progressive attacking RB and a progressive deep midfielder in the Carrick mold. It was largely accepted that these two profiles will eventually give Man United the balance needed, on top of a RW who can create from wide areas, to challenge City for the title.

The third issue, while it makes a team more consistent (i.e. City), it was not the be all and end all. Man United will always have the quality and balance to figure out a way to break a stubborn defense. Obviously, there would have been instances where United will fall short but the frequencies of those instances would have fallen significantly.

This was the plan that was supposed to happen in summer 20… not summer 21. Man United ignored that issue for 2 years, catastrophically. But why?

Man United can’t offload players properly and in time. They still have players in the squad that were here in 2011. Almost…11 years ago…

The problem with not being able to offload players in time is that they become like a bag of potatoes that over stayed its welcome in the fridge. I believe this is one of the major things that is happening to United this season. It’s different to what happened with Mourinho in 2018/2019. That time, it was a feud with the manager, however this time, it is a bunch of players on their last year of contract and others who think they deserve more time.

The players on their last year aside; the ones that think they deserve more time is a problem that stemmed from bad recruitment. A midfielder that doesn’t suit the style United plays hardly sees the green pitch that he got the nickname Van de Bench. A player that got pushed so far down the packing order due to 2 aging strikers that where bought when Man United’s new mantra is “Youth. Courage. Success.”

Whether you like him or not, Martial offered something more important than the goals, which helped United achieve 2nd and 3rd. He was the glue to an attack that functioned on simple instructions and instincts. Man United were not complex in the positional attacks like City, that’s what I am saying. I am not saying they had no tactics — just a disclaimer.

Lastly, a goalkeeper who just had the misfortune of illness, injury and of United collapsing and requiring the services of a keeper that thrives on United being under pressure. A volume shot-stopper. (Don’t take this that I don’t like DDG, but football moved forward since 2015)

Whether these disgruntled players are right or wrong is not the point here. The point is Man United are not allowing themselves to walk into the future by hanging on to the relics of their past (ex. Ronaldo, De Gea, Jones).

Man United were on a serious upward trajectory until this last May. The figure below reflects it. Man United’s squad Elo rating (Growth) from Mourinho to Ralf Rangnick:

Man United’s Elo Rating last 4 years.

Club Elo rating estimates the strength of a club based on the results against opponents and their strength.

Man United in the last 2 years hit the highest spike of growth since season 2011/2012 under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Other than bad recruitment and inability to offload properly which caused a bunch of disgruntled players, what else caused the downward spiral?

Bad recruitment led to a bunch of miss-matched profiles. For example, when a team plays a certain style of fullback and depend on the qualities of said fullback in possession and attack, when they go out to get a backup for him they get the closest 2nd best or better. United went out and got a completely different profile (i.e. Alex Telles). United did this multiple times.

Think of the contrast between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot. The stark difference between Bruno Fernandes and Donny Van De Beek. All these players serve different systems and styles, you simply can’t mesh these players together and expect a cocktail of great talents — It’s an abomination.

The forward line was as big a catastrophe as neglecting the midfield. Earlier in 2020, United were linked to Jadon Sancho heavily and Jack Grealish — Solskjær’s original plan. They are both wide creators. Something that United lacks in abundance. Why?

United have Rashford on the left, who is a shooter first not a creator. Mason Greenwood, who is a no9 and while he’s good coming from the right, he is also a shooter first. Martial was a good link up player to them both with Fernandes in the mix. This quartet allowed United to hold the ball in the final third despite their progression problems in midfield.

In 2020/2021, United took Martial out and added Cavani but they did something clever, they added Pogba on the left to compensate for Martial’s hold up and to ease the pressure on Fernandes. The quartet were Pogba-Fernandes-Greenwood-Cavani. 2 shooters-2 creators. They also rotated Daniel James and Greenwood to maintain the balance and the wotkrate from the forward line.

Enter Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is also a shooter first. In fact Ronaldo relies heavily on the quantity of shooting to raise his tally of goals. He shoots from anywhere and he shoots often. Ronaldo’s presence meant Cavani and Marital can’t play in the middle. Greenwood’s in good form so he plays on the right. Rashford came back and given he statistics from last season and that Sancho is still easing into the league meant Rashford starts on the left. This all meant that, United now have 3 shooters in their front line. No one that can hold the ball and inter-play. Add on that the midfield issues that weren’t addressed. United literally lost their ability to hold possession both in midfield — wasn’t there to begin with — and in attack.

Lack of control in the middle and in the forward line meant more turnovers than ever before. This meant more counter attacks conceded. This meant the midfield gambled cause it’s a trait they have. Finally, this led to the defense being exposed and run at unchallenged.

The same defense that was 3rd best in the league in 19/20 and 5th best last season — due to a really bad start — is currently on course to concede 61 goals which highest amount of goals conceded in the last 8 years or more. Take into consideration that this is after adding a 4 time Champions league winner, Raphael Varane, to the lineup. Varane looks like an average defender in this unbalanced squad.

Selling Daniel James — who was a 23 years old — and buying a 36-year old said all that needed to be said. United lost balance and work-rate in the front line and the ability to hold the ball. This signaled, loudly, the change of the recruitment strategy. United lost their vision and it was the beginning of the end for the project of the last 2.5 years.

Summary

If I were to simplify United’s issue and go straight to the root cause of everything, it is the recruitment. It’s United’s ability — sorry lack of ability — to recruit sensibly and offload on time. It is United’s inability to identify the profiles they have and get back-ups to those specific profiles not the positions. It’s United’s inability to have a squad that complements each other.

From that root, the other problems spread and fester. It becomes player problems, lack of compatibility, too much egos, managers facing a hard time solidify a style with a squad that has a bit of every style but not enough from one and etc. Rangnick will need a lot of time to sort this mess out. However, he’ll need to have the power to completely revamp the recruitment strategy again and make them stick with one style and profiles that fit each other.

United could have saved themselves so much trouble if they offloaded the players they needed to offload and filled the gaps they needed to fill in Summer 2021. A certain Ole Gunnar Solskjær might have still been here and challenging for a title, or at least United would have been competitive. Now, United can barely compete with Norwich — with all due respect to Norwich.

Thank you!

Abdel Rahman.

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