So far this season, Manchester United fans have left games disappointed more often than happy in the Premier League and Champions League.
Even in the two wins so far, at home against Wolves and Nottingham Forest, questions have been asked about the performance against the former and how Manchester United went two down inside four minutes against the latter.
It has not all been doom and gloom. United did well to fight through against Wolves, and the performance after going 2-0 down against Forest was promising. United should have been ahead at half-time at Tottenham, and then the losses against Arsenal and Brighton were defined by a centimetre.
At the Allianz Arena, United posed more challenges to Bayern Munich than many expected them to, with many fans left feeling they should have won the game after missing some simple chances and conceding what was a dubious penalty.
But across the games, United have looked physically underwhelming, transitionally exposed, often too rushed in possession, and sometimes fans cannot truly decipher what United are supposed to be doing. All of these issues are linked.
The players have not been good enough, but when all of them are struggling with similar issues, you have to look above them.
The issues around ownership have more than been covered. As long as the current regime remains in place, United’s ceiling is capped. Everything comes back to them. The recruitment staff and board are also problematic. From the top, the club has been run far beyond incompetently.
With all this considered, similarly to the players, the coaching staff can only take so much blame. They are inherently limited by those above them – but, this does not make them free of criticism.
Before we get into the criticism, I just want the record to state: Erik ten Hag is one of the best things to happen to Manchester United in years. Unlike certain journalists who have capitalised on the current instability, this is not just a hit piece in a time of crisis for the sake of negativity.
Few could have envisioned him making quite the impact he has, in just one season he made himself inarguably the best manager this club has had since Sir Alex’s retirement (not that the competition is particularly strong).
This does not mean that he is without his problems though, and right now his biggest problem is to do with his strategy.
You may have heard this labelled as a game model, framework, philosophy, etc. But think about these terms as the overarching idea. What is your idea, what do you want to do on a football pitch?
Your tactics are then the means used to achieve this idea. Generally, you want your strategy to be consistent whilst your tactics can be tweaked depending on your opposition. Strategy can be changed for one-off games if needed.
But when you start changing the strategy frequently, then there is a problem. Players can adapt to tactical tweaks that impact their role, but when you start to change the entire idea it becomes much more confusing for them to know what to do. This was a large part of what saw José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær fail at United. Right now, Ten Hag’s strategy is changing slightly too much.
Last season it was understandable. It was the first year of the rebuild, a very incomplete squad, and availability issues with key players all meant Ten Hag had to adapt frequently. He was unable to fully implement his idea. Even until around March time, you could see what it was Ten Hag wanted to do. He looked to be going for a possession-focused model.
Once the players started to physically fade, it became less clear. Ten Hag demands a lot of his players physically, and United lack in this regard. At the back end of last season, and so far this season, it has looked far less clear what United want to do, and this is a big problem.
United looked to be moving towards a more possession-dominant model, and some of the signings made in Ten Hag’s time indicated this. It is definitely still a possibility. But last season, being unable to fully implement his ideas, Ten Hag often had to rely on the transitional qualities of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes in games, and United made some signings that point towards this being the idea. As of now, it feels like United are somewhere between the two and not quite sure where to go.
One consistency in the strategy though, is the use of intense high pressing. But United’s physical issues, and Ten Hag’s tactical instruction to the full-backs to stay deeper instead of backing the press, allowing spare men out wide, are seeing United often get exposed when pressing high.
They are also too rushed in possession as a result of trying to generate transitions too often, meaning games become end-to-end and United constantly have to press, and then recover when the press is broken. The central midfield players pushing higher but full-backs remaining deeper often leaves Casemiro exposed as the number six, and with him individually struggling physically at the start of the season this only adds fuel to the fire.
This was on full display the other night in Munich, with Jamal Musiala waltzing through the middle of the pitch as though he were at the Oktoberfest celebration instead. United could not get anyone near him.
Say what you want about the players’ issues right now, but that is simply far too much physical demand being placed on a group of players who are already physically undertrained, in a squad which is currently facing an injury crisis as a result of this.
It is not a coincidence that United’s best performances so far, against Forest and Arsenal, were games where United were more lateral with the ball. By keeping the ball more, and not feeling the need to force it forwards to generate transitions so much, United will not need to waste their already limited energy with constant high-intensity sprints. Players can instead shuffle over or even remain more fixed in their positions, exerting their energy in more beneficial moments. This should be what the side sticks with going forward.
In Bavaria, United were either too slow or too fast. Sometimes they were not accelerating play when the moments to speed it up were right, and others they were looking to go long and generate those transitions when it would have been better to exercise some patience. The fact United had nobody to consistently make the ball stick up top against a highly athletic Bayern backline did not help in allowing United’s other players to get up the field and transition.
This highlights another issue in the back and forth between the possessional and transitional models, they have completely different physical demands and Ten Hag demands full intensity in the press regardless. This makes it difficult for players to both prepare and adapt, as covered in the thread linked above by Guillaume.
When Erik ten Hag came to the club, he wanted to bring Alessandro Schoenmaker, the physical performance coach he worked with at Utrecht and Ajax over. United blocked this request to remain with the current coach Charlie Owen, present at the club since 2018. This links back to the earlier example of the handicaps placed on him by the incompetency of those above him.
There were also clear signings Ten Hag wanted in the summer which the club made difficult. It took until the very last minute for Sofyan Amrabat to be procured on loan after Ten Hag had wanted him for the entire summer. Amadou Onana was also linked and would have been a very welcome addition. A backup right-sided centre-back was also a clear target, but United’s inability to offload Harry Maguire blocked this move from happening.
These decisions would have seen United’s physical capacity improve, and United would not be struggling quite as much right now. However, the issues with the strategy would still exist. Erik ten Hag needs to work out exactly what his plan is for Manchester United and implement a more consistent strategy in order to get the best out of his players.
If you give players inconsistency, you will get inconsistency in return and United changing their strategy so much makes it difficult for the players to remain consistent, and for the team to function at its best consistently.
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