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Are Manchester United a Basis for Belief or Cause for Concern? Analysing the season so far



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Déjà vu: Already seen

A loanword from the French language, this term refers to a sensation that we feel when we experience something that we believe we already have experienced previously, despite it being impossible for that experience to have already occurred.

Struggling in the Autumn, key stars not performing, media thunderstorms around the club, Erik ten Hag‘s job reportedly on the line. This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for Manchester United in the last decade, when looking at it from this perspective it’s something we’ve already seen. Yet this season is quite unlike any of those other seasons that Old Trafford has stood through in recent times.

Déjà vu.

United have been an absolute eyesore to watch for large parts of this season. They have endured some embarrassing losses to teams both ahead of them and far behind, and the wins have looked unconvincing and unsustainable. The media are circling on Ten Hag and many of his players like sharks, and the club as a whole looks like one lacking real direction.

Reading this, you wouldn’t think United sit just six points off third place – where they finished last season.

Because on the flip side, the only way is up for United. Key players are returning from injury, an ownership saga that has clouded the club for years now looks to be reaching its climax, and the performances would struggle to get worse.

If United are in what is still a relatively strong position with key players like Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Raphaël Varane, and Casemiro having faced issues with fitness, imagine what United can do once all of those players return to full fitness.

Rasmus Højlund has yet to score in the Premier League but his performances, backed up by him being the joint-top scorer in the Champions League, make it feel as though it is a matter of when he starts firing, rather than if. When he does start, United have every right to feel confident he will seldom stop. Marcus Rashford too has struggled for goals, but as we’ve seen over the years with him, sometimes all it takes is one goal and suddenly that one becomes ten.

United’s season is a total paradox. Many question whether there is either a basis for belief or cause for concern and the reality is both exist and go hand-in-hand with one another despite being polar opposites. In this article, UtdDistrict breaks down United’s season so far.

Identity (/ʌɪˈdɛntɪti/:) The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

Manchester United have had an identity problem under Erik ten Hag this season.

The jaw-dropping football played by his Ajax sides that saw the Dutchman hired by United has not fully translated over the North Sea so far.

Upon coming in, Ten Hag understandably adapted his approach due to not having the right personnel in place. After two difficult early defeats where Ten Hag tried to enforce his game model, United continued to set up with clear possession principles yet an element of pragmatism had to be sprinkled in – utilising long balls and transitions regularly whilst having to drop deeper to defend later in games to secure wins, instead of being able to kill the game with possession if not already winning comfortably.

In the first year of the rebuild, this was understandable. You can’t sacrifice results at United, the opportunity is not there and by all accounts Ten Hag was successful. Third place in the league, the club’s first trophy in six years and being close to others, key players revitalised and key issues addressed, and tactically a lot of progress was made in what was an intense, difficult environment.

But in the summer, United seemed stuck in two minds. The heavy-transition game had seen a successful first season for Ten Hag, and some signings seemed to indicate his United would go down that route. Others, such as André Onana, indicated that Ten Hag wanted to stick to his initial plan. Ten Hag and United’s recruitment teams seemingly being on completely different pages feels like the perfect example of this contrast.

Transitions and possession are not mutually exclusive, the two can and do coexist in the best football teams, but United this season have not truly looked like either. The aforementioned injury situation has not helped, but every game it feels like we see a different team. This can be characterised by United’s buildup.

Situational (/ˌsɪtjʊˈeɪʃən(ə)l/): Relating to or dependent on a set of circumstances or state of affairs.

This season, Manchester United’s buildup has been situational rather than structured, with the side often forgoing the buildup entirely, and it is not helping the team grow.

United frequently change their strategy and shape in the first phase of possession, depending on the opposition and game state. Under Ten Hag we have seen the side build up in a 3-2/2-3, 3-1, forgo the midfield entirely, and more recently utilise a 4-2/2-4 shape.

This level of inconsistency in shape is not good for players’ tactical development. Injuries aside, the players at Ten Hag’s disposal are still more than capable of building out from the back effectively. If United have to rely on Martínez and Shaw to build possession, then there is a big problem.

As many United fans, myself included, have said, a double pivot being formed in the first phase of buildup, something that can be done through positional rotations to keep a level of unpredictability and dynamism in the side’s buildup, is what is best for United right now.

It gives Onana and United’s defence more passing options, improving first-phase spacing and giving the opponents more to think about in their press, whilst also emphasising short passing more and offering United more control through games.

Right now, United’s current go-long-and-hope-for-the-best strategy is not something that can be reasonably sustained. United have seen through a number of games, but have done so mostly unconvincingly against weaker opposition.

Empathy (/ˈɛmpəθi/): The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

The issues in United’s possession can partly be put down to what feels like a major lack of understanding between players right now.

As stated above, United’s constant changing of shapes does not help them. But on an individual level, the players make many errors in their finer details and often misunderstand each other and their needs. The below tweets expand on this further.

United make far too many schoolboy errors in possession. Poor passing, incorrect runs, ineffective positioning, it sometimes feels like 11 individuals wearing the same colour rather than a team. This lack of empathy extends to the boardroom too.

The qualities of most of United’s players are heavily wasted with the aforementioned setup, most of all Onana – who was signed as one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in world football. United do not have anybody up top who can consistently make the ball stick, which is forcing a lot of turnovers and end-to-end football. United have been forcing square pegs into round holes for years, and it has failed multiple elite-level talents.

United’s pressing problems are also contributing heavily to their inability to sustain possession.

Compact (/kəmˈpakt,ˈkɒmpakt/): Closely and neatly packed together; dense.

Manchester United have the second most high turnovers in the Premier League this season with 125 (Opta), based on this one could be forgiven for thinking that they press well.

United turning the ball over so much in the first place is not entirely good, they are having to turn it over so much because they are losing it too much. Of the top five teams for high turnovers in the league, they allow the most passes per defensive action (PPDA) with 12.6, showing that whilst they are turning the ball over more, their efficiency needs some work.

But when they do not turn the ball over high, it gets ugly.

United operate a hybrid press, a mix of man-to-man and zonal pressing, but do not commit their full-backs to that press, instead, Ten Hag instructs them to sit back. The rationale behind this is to protect the centre-backs in the channels, however, it is something that consistently leaves a man spare on the flank and teams are consistently exploiting this, which inadvertently puts more pressure on the defence.

Manchester City made fun of Manchester United at Old Trafford, creating different ways to find Joško Gvardiol every time and it felt as though it was more for their own amusement than anything, given how easy it was to find him each time.

City are not the only team who are finding that spare man wide every time, it has been a feature in United’s games under Ten Hag, and it opens up spaces which make United vulnerable to transitions.

This was also on show at the Allianz Arena, where Jamal Musiala and co-waltzed through United’s midfield so frequently it was as though Oktoberfest had come early.

Another pressing issue that goes hand-in-hand with this actually comes from United going long so often in the buildup. The team’s rest defensive structure is not set or compact in those moments where they try to go to direct from goalkeeper to goal, meaning players have to cover large spaces regularly when United lose the ball higher up, only for the open spaces to be exploited and the players then having to track back immediately.

Physically, a ridiculous ask of players. It is far too demanding, especially for a group of players who right now don’t look conditioned for such a level of intense running. Mentally, this fatigue affects the players too – hampering their decision-making processes and forcing mistakes that they would otherwise not make.

The press is not compact enough, and this is causing United a lot of problems. Right now, their game is too centered around creating chaos and hoping it works in their favour, rather than controlling it.

Chaos (/ˈkeɪɒs/): Complete disorder and confusion.

One normal day of Manchester United.

Chaos has been a key theme of United’s season, going all the way back to the summer. Off the pitch, the Mason Greenwood saga left a sour taste in the mouths of many United fans and tensions towards the Glazer family continued to grow higher and higher as the ownership saga remained unsolved.

Many United fans didn’t feel that the summer business really addressed all of the side’s needs and were left confused about the team’s direction under Erik ten Hag. A disappointing display in the opening game against Wolves did not help to alleviate this feeling, United needing a late Varane winner to sneak a win.

Since that game, where United’s best players were their goalkeeper and two defenders were their best players, it hasn’t looked much better. Injuries have weakened the side, but just one of United’s already-measly 13 league goals has come from an attacker – Marcus Rashford scoring in a 3-1 defeat against Arsenal at the beginning of September.

Rasmus Højlund is the Champions League’s joint-top scorer and United fans have reason to believe he will soon translate this to the Premier League. This has not quite been enough for United in Europe however, as they sit bottom of their group with two games left to play – Galatasaray away and Bayern Munich at home. There is still a fair chance United go through, but it is conditional on the other two games going their way if they pick up the needed results.

Antony spent an extended period out of the Manchester United side, not that it particularly weakened them, alongside Jadon Sancho’s highly-publicised issues with Erik ten Hag have left United wondering on the right wing. Amad Diallo’s injury in pre-season is perhaps the most costly of the absentees on this wing after the youngster was one of the best players in the Championship last season.

In midfield Casemiro has looked a far cry from the titanic figure of last season, physically suffering more than any other player from United’s pressing flaws. Despite popular opinion being a fitter number six who could keep the ball more would simply fix United, deadline-day loanee Sofyan Amrabat has looked arguably even worse in the role.

Bruno Fernandes scored stunning winners for United at Turf Moor and Craven Cottage, but his efficiency in general play has been off. When that happens, his emotional nature does not always endear to United fans as much. Christian Eriksen has brought a sense of security to United’s possession, but it could not be clearer that he physically just can’t handle being a starter.

Then we have Mason Mount. United’s most scrutinised signing looked an awkward fit initially, but after an early injury has come back and shone. United’s play feels a lot more positive with him, and his off-ball work is purposeful and efficient. He has however not had the chance to feature as much of late, with Scott Mctominay’s goal threat helping United out of a few tight spots.

Mctominay is an interesting one. It is clear why Ten Hag likes him, an exemplary professional who brings some very valuable qualities. It looked almost set that he would depart the club in the summer, and he featured little in the early parts of the season. But since that game against Brentford, he has been a mainstay in the side and perhaps represents the side’s current state perfectly – not the most eye-catching but getting the job done.

Whether or not the side is best with him in it going forward, his lack of involvement in possession can be problematic, he has come in and been a big part of seeing United through a rough patch, and he is owed his dues for this.

It is key that United have gotten through this patch because whilst questions do remain regarding their future, there is reason for optimism.

Hope (/həʊp/): A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.

After reading all of the problems United have encountered this season you may wonder, where is the hope? Yet to me, the fact that despite all of this United still have so much going for them is exactly why as fans there is such a strong basis for belief.

This season has been likened to the seasons that saw United’s last two permanent managers sacked, but there is much more United can do now than they could have in those seasons and much more going for the side in years to come.

United have one of Europe’s best young strikers leading their line. Say what you want about his league record so far, Rasmus Højlund is a gem. Barring any injuries or other barriers, he will be amongst football’s elite attackers for years to come.

Supplementing him is another future superstar in Alejandro Garnacho. He too has suffered from inconsistency this season, but given his exploits last season it is easy to forget just how young he is. He always offers a bright spark on the field. Marcus Rashford too, is just that one goal away from sparking a patch of unstoppable form and it would not be surprising if that happened over the Christmas period.

United are sixth and within a respectable distance of the top four after an availability crisis and a plethora of tactical & strategic issues, whilst off-field drama has done nothing but distract. The man leading this mission has evidence of turning around sleeping European giants in the past, in the right conditions.

Enter: Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

It feels like Erik ten Hag almost did too good a job for his own good last season, setting standards that would always be difficult to match, especially considering his disconnect with those above him. But as Sir Jim Ratcliffe looks to be nearing a partial takeover that would see him granted sporting control, Ten Hag may finally get the support he needs. Whilst he perhaps did too good a job for his own good, he certainly has too much power for his own good.

The Sporting Director in 2023 is arguably the most important position in a football club, and Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s first order of business looks to be to bring in one, or even multiple, world-class Sporting Director(s) to head up footballing operations at Manchester United. Someone who can implement a vision, and show fans a real sense of direction. Someone who gives Manchester United hope for a better tomorrow.

Perhaps for inspiration, United need only look internally to Harry Maguire. Earlier this week he received an apology from a member of the Ghanaian Parliament after a video went viral of him ridiculing the player in 2022. That is how far gone things seemed to be for Maguire, who like Mctominay looked almost certain to leave over the summer. But he has fought back seemingly from the dead. If he can do it, then his club can too.

If results go Ten Hag’s way this weekend, they will be just five points off league leaders Manchester City. That is the closest United came to the top of the league in all of last season, for context. They are far from a title race, but it just goes to show how much there is left to fight for.

There is a real cause for concern at Manchester United right now, lots of things have gone wrong and need to be urgently attended to and fixed, or they will continue to go wrong. But beneath the bad is a basis for belief, driving United through these turbulent times.

Not all hope is lost.