The 2021/22 season is just five days away and Manchester United have completed their pre-season after a 4-0 victory against Everton yesterday. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will be hoping to improve on last season and win silverware for the club.
To do that, and to attempt to challenge for the title, United will need to build on their performances last season and raise the level in multiple different departments. However, there is one area that needs to be improved on ahead of next season.
Improve. At. Defending. Set. Pieces.
The Red Devils might’ve conceded just 44 goals (the fifth least) in the league last season, but they also conceded 14 goals from set-pieces (not including penalties). This was the second-most of any team in the league (Leeds – 15) and it was also 31% of United’s total goals conceded in the competition.
If you cast your minds back to the Carabao Cup semi-final in January, you’ll remember that while United matched Manchester City for the most part on the pitch, they lost 2-0… two goals from set-pieces for The Citizens.Embed from Getty Images
So basically, The Reds conceded a set-piece goal one in every three goals throughout the league campaign last season, and it’s something that has and will continue to cause them trouble in knockout tournament if they don’t improve. They can also kiss any kind of title challenge goodbye if there is not positive change.
While there was initial blame on David de Gea for not being commanding enough in these situations, the situation did not improve when Dean Henderson was between the sticks either. United mainly look to implement a zonal marking system – with an element of man-marking too – when defending free-kicks and corners, however there are many problems with how they defend in these situations.
While they have some troubles directly from set-pieces, and the goalkeeper (and thus, six-yard box) is often targeted by opposition, the real problem for United comes when after the first ball. If they win the first-ball, they are usually okay (but there have still been situations where a poor clearance has led to a goal/shot for the opposition; e.g. Nemanja Matic vs Brentford last week), however, when they lose the first-ball, there is often trouble.
Carl Anka of The Athletic went into more detail about this problem here, but the main premise is that a lack of intensity and communication has been present in United’s troubles to defend from free-kicks or corners.
Can United improve at this?
Yes. United are going to be able to improve in this aspect and it’s clear that they are looking to do so with the appointment of Eric Ramsay in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s coaching staff. The former Chelsea U23s coach is tasked with individual training at Carrington, but he has also taken ownership over the first-team’s set-piece strategies.
With the full force of last season’s schedule, it would’ve been unlikely that the coaching staff had the time to practice and improve upon their defending of set-pieces. It was a game-to-game preparation for Solskjær’s men.Embed from Getty Images
This time around, there has been a full pre-season to implement improvements, even if the entire squad hasn’t been present. There should also be time to better their set-piece preparations throughout the campaign. Another addition to the team could also make a big difference.
With his official announcement imminent, Raphaël Varane will be with United’s first-team in time for the new season and he will be looking to help complete the defence and improve them too. The French World-Cup winner has already studied his new side when defending and asked to look at clips of their defensive set-piece organisation.
Yet, the fact that he was informed it would be a waste of time, as United were so hopeless at defending dead-ball situations last term, tells the story of how United dealt with set-pieces last season pretty well.
Ultimately though, the former Real Madrid defender is both strong in the air and also has the defensive intensity which is lacking in United’s set-piece defence. Varane, with his strengths, should help improve the defensive situation from set-pieces at Old Trafford.
With improved personnel and a longer period to prepare and enhance their chances of stronger set-piece defending, United should be able to deal with this problem better in the new season, and if they are able to do so, it’ll be one more step made towards where United want to be. At the top.