It feels good to win a game and enjoy watching it in the process.
Say what you want about Chelsea’s problems, but Manchester United put in one of their best performances of the season against them on Wednesday night, and it was facilitated by key tactical changes from Erik ten Hag.
Off the field, a better-optimised training plan helped United’s players go into the game feeling more refreshed whilst on it, improved pressing tactics and the use of Scott McTominay – who scored a brace – helped to dismantle Chelsea.
The performance was far from perfect, there are still things that Ten Hag’s men must improve, but you’d have struggled to ask for a better response after the weekend. Below UtdDistrict covers two notable tactical elements from the game.
United pressed high, and properly this time
This has been spoken about so many times now, but Erik ten Hag finally committed United’s full-backs to their high press, and it worked.
Before the game, Ten Hag spoke about Chelsea ‘not liking defending’ and stated that you have to ‘take advantage’ of it, which could be the rationale for his more offensive-minded pressing tactics.
The idea was to aggressively press Chelsea’s build-up – which has some structural issues – and force turnovers in dangerous areas and quickly transition. The full-backs covering the wide-out ball helped to pin Mauricio Pochettino’s men in whilst decreasing the distances for United’s midfielders and wingers to cover.
One of the major problems in the Newcastle game was the wingers not tracking enough, but they had far too much distance to reasonably cover for the entire game. This problem was rectified by instructing Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw, and Sergio Reguilón to press high.
Now that Ten Hag has seen the benefits of this in his high press, it would be silly to stop it. Yes, he has concerns about his centre-backs in the channels in certain games, but what he needs to realise is that allowing that spare man on the touchline inadvertently puts more pressure on his defence. It might be seen as a risk, but it is less of a risk for the full-backs to step up and press than it is for them to sit off and give teams a free get-out-of-jail card, which has cost United games this season.
Another thing that needs some work still is the central transition defence because whilst United did turn the ball over a lot, they were too easily played through centrally at times and allowed many dangerous Chelsea transitions. Against a side better structured in the first two phases of possession, United will be punished.
In part this is down to the change in midfield pressing tactics, they have different instructions to last season – the press is more aggressively-minded, and players’ man-to-man instructions have differed slightly, as @dharnishiqbal pointed out – and they have not quite adjusted.
Injuries have not helped with creating empathy, and Casemiro’s drop in form made a big difference as he was United’s midfield man-mountain last season. A return to fitness and form following his injury will be more than welcomed by Erik ten Hag. These injuries have forced Ten Hag to change his approach slightly, something that has also not helped – players need familiarity. to be continued.
Scott McTominay’s role
Having looked set to leave in the summer, the Scotland international has been the unlikely hero of United’s season and against Chelsea, he once again stepped up in an important game for United.
Since his early breakout at Old Trafford, McTominay has been a relied-upon player in games against bigger opposition. His physical power and industry make him a valuable asset in what often end up being frantic, fast-paced games.
In previous years this saw him used in a deeper role, but this season he has unlocked his best-ever form playing higher up the field, and it makes sense. It is easy to look at a hardworking 6’4 powerhouse and think ‘defensive midfielder’ immediately, as fans we often imagine the more advanced midfield players to be diminutive 5’8 playmakers with some kind of fashion statement in their pitch outfit and usually some highlights in their hair.
But it has been evident for a few years now that McTominay’s best strengths when his team have the ball are his ability to attack the box and be a goal threat, his physical profile, natural instincts, and ball-striking quality, making him a huge threat in this regard. This player profiling is why he always seems to score on international duty. Now, Ten Hag has realised this strength in McTominay and is using it to get results whilst his side have struggled.
Against Chelsea specifically, McTominay’s physical and mental qualities helped United out a lot in the pressing phase, and his two goals came from being in the right place at the right time in Chelsea’s box.
McTominay is a player who is willing to follow manager instructions, and in high-intensity games, that is valuable. Ten Hag’s man-to-man pressing system is demanding, but McTominay did a reliable job tracking Chelsea’s midfield players and using his physical prowess to cause them problems when they had possession of the ball.
His power off the ball, coupled with his intensity, adds a lot of momentum to United’s pressing phase – something I feel isn’t mentioned enough when discussing how teams play off the ball – and Ten Hag used this momentum from McTominay, with Sofyan Amrabat and Bruno Fernandes in midfield with him, to overwhelm Chelsea in the centre of the park.
With every sloppy pass, you could see how United grew and how Chelsea began to make more and more mistakes, and McTominay was a large part of this. As well as physically and tactically causing them problems in this phase of play, United mentally overwhelmed their opponents at Old Trafford.
With what the future holds for Ten Hag’s side, tactically, McTominay probably shouldn’t start every game – he can be uninvolved in possession, and it can hurt United against sides where they expect to have more of the ball or where more reliable central outlets to escape pressure are needed. But in games like this, he brings incredibly valuable strengths to Erik ten Hag, and it is clear why he is so valued by the Dutchman.
These were two key aspects of the Chelsea game and why United won. Ten Hag would be wise to continue with the tweaks he made to United’s pressing tactics whilst working on tightening up their transition defence – the return of Raphaël Varane could be key to this.
In terms of changes for the Bournemouth game, the only change you may expect outside of a defensive change – Victor Lindelöf has been ruled out – could be Kobbie Mainoo in for Sofyan Amrabat with United expected to dominate the ball, however the Moroccan had an impressive game against Chelsea and could well retain his place.
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