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One Manchester United moment shows where Erik ten Hag needs to improve next



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Credit: ITV

Manchester United triumphed 3-1 over Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-final on Sunday, booking yet another Wembley trip, although not all was bright in the game with plenty to learn from it.

Before Fulham had two players and their head coach all sent off in a few minutes of true VAR madness, United were an eyesore to watch… and that’s putting it nicely. The team was wasteful in possession and pressed quite poorly out of it.

This is not totally the players’ fault. United have had to play a ridiculous amount of football this season, having played every possible game outside of the Premier League games, and fatigue is naturally beginning to set in.

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It is also sometimes easy to forget that United are still in the first year of their rebuild under Erik ten Hag, and it is a testament to the job he has done that United are able to compete in all of these cup competitions whilst also sitting third in the league.

But United’s processes and decision-making must improve, both in and out of possession. Ten Hag knows this more than anybody else, and he will push his players hard to make these improvements despite their progress so far.

One moment in the first half highlighted an area in which United desperately need to improve in the final third, in terms of the decisions they make when in possession. It starts with Marcus Rashford playing an excellent switch to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who receives the ball in a lot of space on the right-hand side.

Rashford switches play to Wan-Bissaka, take a look at Jadon Sancho who is making a run into the channel as the ball comes to the right back. (Credit: ITV)

As can be seen, Wan-Bissaka is receiving with plenty of time and space, and as soon as Jadon Sancho recognises this he turns and begins running into the channel before the ball even reaches Wan-Bissaka. He himself is in a lot of space, and Fulham are stretched.

This run is good. These are exactly the kind of runs Erik ten Hag wants his attackers to make, ones that create space and opportunities for cutback scenarios – a key creative mechanism in an Erik ten Hag team. The best, and to many the obvious, decision that Wan-Bissaka should be making is to pass to him.

Wan-Bissaka takes the ball under control, and the pass is still very much on. Sancho has his arms out, signalling for the pass. (Credit: ITV)

Here we see Sancho visibly asking for the pass, with his arms out signalling to Wan-Bissaka. The space is clear outside Robinson, and Sancho has a good few yards on Willian. Weghorst is continuing his run on the other side of Tim Ream, who is playing both players onside and they will have a 2 vs 1 against him if Sancho receives the ball. Wan-Bissaka’s next touch and body movement are key.

Wan-Bissaka gets his control wrong and so takes a touch inside next, moving his body inside. (Credit: ITV)

Wan-Bissaka has a slight miss-control, so next moves inside. He looks to Fernandes, who is arriving into the half-space from deep. This draws Willian’s attention who changes the direction of his movement, defocusing himself from Sancho.

Sancho has slowed slightly, but the momentum shift from Willian essentially frees him further. The space is still there outside Robinson, and if Wan-Bissaka can adjust himself well enough then once again the pass to Sancho is on, and the best option.

Wan-Bissaka passes to Fernandes, who shapes to cross. (Credit: ITV). (Credit: ITV)
Fernandes’ cross is easily headed out by Diop, before even going near a United player. (Credit: ITV)

Here, Wan-Bissaka had a very large window of opportunity to play a pass to Jadon Sancho which would have led to an incredibly high-value opportunity, and one much more probable to end with a goal than the pass he made to Bruno Fernandes, which was always going to lead to far more of a creative gamble.

When reviewing the game, this will almost certainly be something that is flagged by Erik ten Hag and his staff. Sancho here makes a creative run that is a key feature of Erik ten Hag’s previous Ajax sides.

Wan-Bissaka absolutely has to play him in here, and not doing so potentially cost United an early goal. It may seem like something small, but United do not often enough pick these runs out, or make them, and it shows where the players’ decision-making must improve in the final third if they want to go to the next level under Ten Hag.

It also highlights the over-reliance that United have on Fernandes, looking to him at every opportunity. This is understandable as he has been United’s main creative hub since joining and remains an essential part of the team.

But if they are to level up as a team, and get the best out of players like Jadon Sancho, United’s players must develop greater empathy with them on the pitch and learn to trust them more.