Manager of Manchester United - Erik Ten Haag looking distressed post game
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Unmasking The Flaws at Manchester United – A Tactical Point of View

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Manchester United considered one of the best clubs in football not only in England but across the footballing world has been struggling since the great Sir Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013 but the appointment of Erik Ten Haag, the Dutch protégé of one of the greatest footballing brains Pep Guardiola increased hope in the millions of fans of the Red Devils that things would start going their way, after all the turmoil throughout the years.

The Red Devils managed to win the Carabao Cup (League Cup) ending their trophy drought for over 5 years and the Champions League finish set up a decent foundation for the ten Haag era. The board also sanctioned another £165.2 million to the already large amounts of money spent on recruitment since the arrival of the Dutchman.

But it has not been a smooth sail for Manchester United in the current season, recently heading out of all forms of European football and sitting 6th in the Premier League, eyebrows are being raised at the Ten Haag project and pressure is rising on him to make things right or meet the fate of the numerous managers before him have faced.

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In this article, the flaws and reason as to why Manchester United are performing in the way they are performing will be discussed.

1. Injuries to Key Players and Dressing Room Issues at Manchester United

The first problem that the Red Devils are facing is keeping their players fit to play games, the list of injuries is extremely long at Old Trafford and that coupled with suspensions and the falling out of Sancho with Ten Haag has also kept out a fair few number of players off the pitch. Recent signing Mason Mount is also out and hasn’t got consistent minutes in a Manchester United jersey. Although this is something that is beyond control and can also be considered bad luck, these issues have restricted the Dutch gaffer from playing a different brand of football than he might desire.

For instance, the injuries to Licha, and Shaw have affected Onana a lot, as Onana is a goalkeeper known for his ability with the ball, and defenders comfortable with the ball in front of him enhance and bring the best out of him, regarding playing out from the back. Mason Mount was recruited – a player reportedly appreciated by ETH for a long time. He is an extremely talented player thought to be helping out in the second phase of buildup and play, with his injury Manchester United only has Kobbie Mainoo fit as a technically sound second-phase midfielder.

Rashford the leading goalscorer last season was also suspended for the crucial game against Bayern and the club captain Bruno Fernandes also misses the trip to Anfield due to suspension, with Sancho shunned the depth of the squad is further weakened and ETH does not have plenty of options from the bench to impact games.

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2. Off-the-Ball Flaws.

Manchester United set up as a 4-1-4-1 off the ball when settled, with Amrabat as the deep midfielder in front of the back line and Højlund as the furthest player. It was expected that, like most top teams, Manchester United would also be able to become a side that could be able to dominate ball possession over the game, but unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case this season.

Therefore, lack of control of games alone makes them prone to transitions and also damages the structure of the press as they are incapable of being high and rigid. The off-the-ball structure when the ball is dominant is rigid and compact because it allows full-backs to venture forward and the distance between players decreases due to most of the players positioned in one half of the pitch, but unfortunately United aren’t able to dictate games hence their lack of compactness in their off the ball structure which leaves them prone to counter attacks.

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Apart from the structural flaws around pressing, the intensity of the players is also seemingly not up to the mark, for example in the Newcastle game, Marcus Rashford was not tracking Livramento the opposing left-back which alone created a numerical advantage for the Geordies in attacks, not only that like in the picture above Bruno Fernandes who is not known for his defending abilities is seen to be dealing with the Newcastle winger in stopping the delivery into the box, if you have watched Manchester United this feature is seen usually, as players are caught out of their positions.

The 4-1-4-1 setup was easily exploited by Bayern with their 2-4 buildup routine, where Kane dropped deep and was allowed to turn on occasions to feed the pacy and fiery wingers/fullbacks of Bayern Munich. My main concern is the isolation of Amrabat as a 6 both off the ball and on the ball, as he gets dragged into positions, that are not best suited to him, leaving the centre-backs compromised.

3. Problems with Buildup.

The reason that can be considered as to why Onana was signed to oust the golden glove-winning De Gea was to have an extra man at the start of buildup, allowing Ten Haag to direct his fullbacks to invert more often creating overloads in the midfield to the benefit of Manchester United, but what is happening can be seen in the picture below (picture credits to @EBL2017)

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Neither the fullbacks can be seen inverting into the midfield, nor does Onana take charge and start the buildup, which means United buildup with a 4-1 with Onana completely out of the buildup, this leaves the true ability of Onana and players sound with the ball like Dalot and Shaw being unused, which leaves tons of space unoccupied in the midfield, creating a disjointedness in midfield leaving no link in between. Such a setup is extremely prone to transitions with the amount of space on either side of Amrabat and also encourages United players to go long, which in itself leaves a lesser chance for Manchester United to dictate the flow of the game.

United used to get away with this the previous season because of the lethal form Marcus Rashford was in, he was brilliant in exploiting teams in transitions, although he has been extremely quiet and things are not working well for him as the previous season. This structural issue was also called out by Thomas Tuchel in his pre-match press conference before the Man Utd v. Bayern fixture.

Although Ten Haag fixed the disjointedness in buildup to some extent by using Bruno as a player to help out in the buildup by dropping deep and being the second phase midfielder, my only issue with that is this change meant Ten Haag knew his structure was wrong and used his most threatening midfielder to come deep into the second phase, and allowing McTominay stay ahead, I agree his goals have been of use but overall his advanced role may be of the reason why Manchester United are not fluid and potent in the buildup.

It would rather make more sense to trust Mainoo while Mount is injured to play as the second-phase midfielder and leverage Bruno’s threat deep into opposing territory, feeding the physical presence of Højlund and the flair of Garnacho/Antony/Rashford. McTominay’s aerial ability can always be used from the bench, plus Højlund also provides the same aerial threat.

Or if ETH wants his runs into the box from deep, it makes more sense to play him deep in a double pivot with Amrabat and give him the license to stroll into the box late, similar to his role under OGS. McTominay also has a great shooting ability which can be leveraged from his deeper roles when playing alongside Fred in a double pivot.

4. Subpar Finishing

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Manchester United have a player (Bruno Fernandes) on their squad who actively features at around the top in chance creation metrics in the league and as a team they have also accumulated an xG of 25.5, although with such high attacking metrics they have underperformed (most in the PL 23-24) their xG by a total of 7.5, scoring only 18 goals this season. The reason they might not meet their expected goals could be because of excellent goalkeeping or some bad luck, but their consistent struggle could be traced back to their difficulty in scoring when they get chances in front of the goal.

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In a team that is struggling on all fronts with injuries and also being under tremendous scrutiny, it is important to make the most out of the chances presented and in football, there is a common notion that goals can help erase all sins, by this I mean it takes one goal to win a game, one goal to get a player kicking and gaining confidence, hence utilization of chances is also an avenue where the gaffer might want to see some improvements.

Conclusion

While Manchester United under Erik ten Hag is facing significant challenges, it’s crucial to recognize that the Dutch manager should be given time and trust from the board as his previous season did show some potential of what he can do to this club. The issues with injuries, affecting key players like Mason Mount and Licha, have disrupted the team’s rhythm, particularly in their buildup play where Onana’s potential remains untapped.

As these players return from injuries, the team’s structure and buildup will improve. Utilizing Onana’s abilities can be a game-changer in fortifying their style of play. However, the emphasis should also be on the need for astute recruitment to complement the squad further and elevate United back to its former heights by the new management taking over the club.

With ten Hag’s experience and tactical acumen, coupled with the potential return of sidelined players, there’s a positive outlook for Manchester United’s resurgence. Nonetheless, the club’s recruitment strategy must be precise and effective going forward to reinforce the team and restore them to the elite levels they aspire to achieve. The road ahead demands strategic decisions both on and off the field to revitalize Manchester United’s status among football’s elite.

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