The title could have easily been tactical tweaks to save the manager’s job. Just as it won’t be an exaggeration to say Man United had a horrific start to their Premier League campaign, and Champions League too, it’s not overstating it to say they have glaring problems to address. Erik ten Hag has his work cut out for him should he achieve the club’s objectives off the back of a promising season, which had his team finishing 3rd in his debut season in the Premier League. Man United are currently on 12 points from 24, 3 points off where he was in the league at this stage the previous season. It’s, factually, the Red Devil’s worst start to a season.
For the Dutch gaffer, it should come as no surprise to start slow. Ajax under Ten Hag are notoriously famous for dropping points early, getting vital wins and never looking back again. It won’t be a distant memory for the fans when Man United lost their first two games last season to Brighton and Brentford consecutively before winning an all-important match at home against their arch-rivals Liverpool. Their season kicked on from there. Erik will be hoping the dying-minutes brace by Scott Mctominay to salvage all three points against Brentford will serve as a turning point for both performances and points accumulated, which have been lacking.
This has to be a turning point.Ten Hag in his Brentford post-match press conference
Let’s dive into tactical tweaks Manchester United and Erik Ten Hag could make to take his team to compete for the pinnacle of British football.
Tactical Tweak 1) Change the Shape
In his tenure with most of the sample size from last season, Erik ten Hag has opted for a build-up shape of either 3-1-6 or 3-2-5. Due to the number of injuries and tactical/personnel struggles, this season has seen a lot of chopping and changing in the build-up phase. One of the prominent changes from last season is the deployment of Onana in the place of De Gea. The Cameroonian is more reputable for his ball-playing action than his Spaniard counterpart. It should, on paper, help United massively in their enterprise to take the ball up the pitch.
However, effectively building up is more than just your personnel, and when looking at some of the best at it, the likes of Man City and Arsenal, there is a system which the players can thrive upon.
Changing the shape to a 3-box-3 or 3-diamond-3 will get the most out of the players at United. Casemiro hasn’t been his usual self this season. Besides defensively letting his runner loose and being dragged away from position multiple times, he has been way sloppier in possession. He has been playing in one of the toughest positions on the pitch with minimal help from his teammates. Opponents find it easy to mark the midfield option to then force Onana or the defenders to go long. Adding another body next to the Brazilian will create more options to receive first or bounce the ball off. Plus, it will help Man United adopt a more sound defensive transitional system.
Amrabat is the man for such type of role. He will be the ‘possession-safe’ and ‘reserved’ partner to the ‘daring’ and diving’ Casemiro in the midfield pivot. The system still has a place for two #8/#10s to rotate into drifting into build-up, finding pockets of space and occupying the half-spaces.
Tactical Tweak 2) Less Direct Pressing and Ball Movement
Manchester United’s, at times, unnecessary directness can be blamed for their struggles. A big team like them should make “control” their mantra and litmus paper for their performances. Control is the art of making dictatorship on the outcome of the match look like your God-given right (birth-given for our atheist readers). Look at Man City for the past few seasons. I am not just referring to possession here. It seems the Citizens’ wishes take precedence over what the ball does on the field.
It is not an easy skill to master, but Man United under Ten Hag should aspire to achieve that. The first step would be having everyone involved buy into the principle. It does look like the manager shares the same opinion, as he was quoted several times speaking on principles.
When we can’t do the principles of our own game then we will concede goals.Ten Hag on Principles
Pressing-wise, it may look like Man United have improved. They have yielded much higher turnovers than last season through their pressing actions. Although that is a positive, most fans can still identify huge gaps (literally) in the system. Pressing unorganized on the odd chance of acquiring the ball once while letting them through on your defence repeatedly is unacceptable: not to mention United are woeful in front of goal, meaning they will likely miss the turnover opportunities.
There must be a sense of control in their press with a mix of triggers for jumping and staying put to be regarded as one of the best at it. They should find a means to stop the out ball (often to a fullback) from reaching. Players should always be on the same wavelength, alert and reactive to developments.
Possession-wise, it has not been better: chaos over control. When the chips are down and confidence is at an all-time low, some of the decisions get even more questionable. Instilling basics and calm into the football should be one of Erik ten Hag’s missions.
Tactical Tweak 3) Less Roaming / More Box Presence
The last one is as simple and plain as you like. To quote from the Micheal Owen book, if you repeatedly get into goal-scoring positions, you score more goals. That’s how the game works. Man United are so often caught up in the technicalities of the game, rotating and changing positions too often, that when it comes to producing that end product, it’s often uninspiring. 9 goals in 8 is an appalling stat with the attacking force the Red Devils is said to have. Attack the box with more players (ideally natural goalscorers), and that stat is subject to change.
Vacating your position (striker or defender) without someone replacing yours has a detrimental impact on the team. If there is a natural urge to play somewhere else, the player may need a new position assigned. Fielding players at their best and preferred position should always be the first solution.
Manchester United have a tough set of tests coming up with less room for error. Having said that, Ten Hag has repeatedly proved he has the mettle to weave through a tough period unhinged and for the better.
Yellowww! Football, eh…