For most Manchester United fans, the expectation for the team this season was tactical progression. Their third place finish last season was somewhat fortunate, relying on a series of narrow wins and unusually turbulent and underwhelming seasons from Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea.
This campaign, with more time for Erik ten Hag to implement his tactical ideas and a summer that featured several signings with greater technical and physical abilities, there was a sense that United could convincingly earn a Champions League position.
The Red Devils may not have the best squad in the league as of yet, but with better profiles in the team, Ten Hag could rely less on in-game adjustments and pragmatism and start to fully impose his tactical ideology.
That ideology has been clearly articulated by the manager. Ten Hag’s vision for the team was, in his words, to become “the best transitional team in the world.” He seemed to mean this in both an offensive and defensive sense: that his United will ideally be a side capable of both counter-pressing aggressively and generating attacking opportunities on the break.
It could also refer to his attempts to make United capable of baiting opposition presses, retaining the ball until there is enough space in behind the opposition defence to attack directly and at speed. In this way, Ten Hag’s United could generate their own transitions. It is a starkly different vision for the club than the style they espoused under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for instance, one that is decidedly more proactive.
Yet this season, the implementation of this style has been significantly flawed. United are noticeably pressing higher, but their passes allowed per defensive action is less than last season, meaning opposition teams can bypass the press easily. From this higher pressing structure, United’s defensive stance has been incredibly poor, consistently conceding high-quality chances in transition.
In possession, opposition teams have caused problems for United when sitting deeper. When they are unable to draw the opposition out, they are too keen to play directly and give the ball away with careless long balls. Despite Andre Onana being a comfortable distributor with short passes and other summer signings such as Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat meant to assist United’s build-up, these players are seemingly instructed to play more directly and not inject composure and patience into United’s build-up.
Partly, this can be attributed to injuries and absences. While Antony is back in the side, his absence for much of the season meant United lacked a wide forward who could reliably press. Alejandro Garnacho has improved dramatically in this sense, but still lacks the trust of Ten Hag to get regular starts.
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This meant United’s press was easy to play around. The injuries to Mount, Amrabat, and most of the first-choice full-backs and centre-backs also hampered United’s capacity to cover ground defensively. Lisandro Martinez in particular is a major miss. While he started the season somewhat poorly, his ball-carrying and penetrative passing is sorely missed as United struggle to build-out without him. Luke Shaw is another key absence in this respect, and it may be that without such technical quality in the side, Ten Hag has opted for a far more direct approach in response.
Still, it’s impossible to attribute all of the tactical issues United present to injuries and absences. Ten Hag has ultimately been unable to hone the side’s ability to build out methodically with the ball. As a result, United constantly turn the ball over and place strain on their capacity to win the ball back through pressing. Add into this that the press they implement is now higher and trying to be more assertive than last season, and mistakes are bound to be made.
The solutions may be forthcoming. Kobbie Mainoo is returning from injury soon, as is Sergio Reguilon, who will allow Amrabat to play in central midfield. With the likes of Mount, Mainoo, and Amrabat ready to contribute, United will have midfielders with far more composure and athletic ability to perform the tasks they are assigned within Ten Hag’s system.
Ultimately, the Dutchman is the one who must impose a different identity onto the team through selection and instruction. He has shown in previous clubs — and for periods last season at Manchester United — that he can implement a smarter, more cohesive possession and pressing approach.
Against Sheffield United and Copenhagen, the desire to bypass the midfield with long balls, scrap for second balls, and counter-press if the ball is lost ran completely counter to that philosophy.
If he continues to make decisions such as starting Scott McTominay over Mount, instructing Onana to kick long at every opportunity, playing Bruno Fernandes deep or on the right, and not providing the backline with sufficient passing options to play out, it is a matter of if, not when, Ten Hag’s tenure as manager comes to a close. Until he makes a change, it’s hard to argue that the club is truly improving under his tutelage.