Man Utd 0 – Crystal Palace 1
I can’t even begin to describe how disgusted the above scoreline makes me feel, almost to the point of absolute frustration. It has taken more than 36 hours for the anger and disappointment to subside, to actually be able to try and look at this performance with any semblance of objectivity.
So let’s try and quickly recap what happened, Man Utd started the game positively but couldn’t capitalize on the bright start. The opposition grew into the game and scored with their first proper chance on goal, from thereon Man Utd huffed & puffed hardly creating a clear cut scoring opportunity and eventually fell short. Cast your mind back to all the games that Man Utd have lost this season and this could be a recap of any of those games. Simply put Man Utd are finding it very hard to score goals, when the opposition gets the lead and we have to chase the game it becomes an even more difficult endeavour. So what is the problem ? Why can’t Man Utd score goals ?
Every good football team has some set routines called patterns of play, which gives the team the best chance of scoring a goal. These patterns of play rely heavily on the strengths and weaknesses of the squad in question, the combination of these two aspects generally defines the system. So what is Man Utd’s system and pattern of play ? A lazy narrative doing the rounds on the internet would make you believe that Man Utd have neither a system nor any defined patterns of play. In reality this can’t be any further from the truth.
During pre-season Ten Hag was asked about his vision for this season, to which he replied that he wanted Man Utd to become the best transition (not to be confused with Counter-attacking) team in England and Europe. This style places a lot of demands on the players, not only do they need to be proactive in terms of pressing and pressuring the opponent, they need to be very aware of the right moment to speed up play and execute decisive passes especially in the final third of the opposition. This last part is where Man Utd are struggling massively.
Let’s use Arsenal as an example to understand this further. In terms of system and playing style the current Arsenal team very closely resembles what Ten Hag is trying to implement at Man Utd. A team which controls the game through sustained possession, is very good at pressing the opposition when they lose the ball and most importantly has an understanding of picking the decisive pass at the right moment. So why are Man Utd finding it so hard to execute this playing style and what is preventing Ten Hag from implementing this philosophy within the squad ?
Starting from defence including the goalkeeper, this style demands that the players are very comfortable with the ball at their feet and should have the quality to play line breaking passes into midfield. Apart from Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw none of the current defenders at Man Utd fit the bill, unfortunately both of them are currently injured. Rafael Varane is a very good defender with the ability to carry the ball forward but his injury record is dodgy to say the least. Lindelof and Maguire are secondary choices and possess backup-like qualities, it’s not entirely their fault that they are called into action much more than the manager would ideally like.
As far as Dalot and Wan Bissaka are concerned, both leave a lot to be desired in terms of passes in the final third and neither would feature in an ideal Ten Hag squad. Onana has just landed at the club with very high expectations but so far has found life difficult at Old Trafford. Having the right players in defence to fully utilize his passing skills would go a long way to settle him and the playing style. I still expect him to come good at United with the knowledge that his full range will most likely be visible in the second half of the season. So through a combination of injury and bad squad management Man Utd find themselves short in defence to carry out the playing style we want to see from this team.
The midfield, especially the centre midfield area is an even bigger dilemma, with none of the current midfielders at Man Utd actually equipped to carry out the role to perfection. An ideal Ten Hag central midfielder should be press resistant and be able to dribble & carry the ball forward. Casemiro is a wonderful CDM who knows how to protect space and is decent at marking the opposition number 10, but has never been press resistant and his propensity for misplacing simple passes this season is hurting the team massively. Erikson for all his qualities on the ball is almost a liability without it. The way he phases out of games in the second half means he can’t be relied upon to start games this season. Sofyan Amrabat has just arrived and injuries in other areas of the team has meant that he has hardly been able to play in central midfield alongside Casemiro. He is press resistant but does not carry the ball forward as much as one would ideally like. However among all the choices available he would be most suited to the requirement so here’s hoping we are able to play him in this role sooner rather than later.
The forward line including the two attacking 8’s is where the bulk of the issues lie. Bruno and Mount provide a lot of energy in the opposition half and force turnovers by winning the ball high up the pitch, however the subsequent pass is rarely decisive and delivered at the right moment. Bruno is an absolute monster when it comes to high octane end to end football but struggles when the opposition sits back leaving no space in behind the defence for someone to run onto Bruno’s through ball. Breaking low blocks is one aspect of his game that he definitely needs to improve in order to become the true creative force for this team. Mason Mount has just arrived and still needs to settle in terms of playing on the same wavelength to the United players. His injury early in the season hampered his growth and settlement in this new setup but he has looked good since coming back.
The front three is where it all breaks down for Man Utd. Martial is unreliable in terms of fitness and ideally should’ve been moved on in the summer but we all know how rubbish Man Utd are when it comes to selling players. Hojlund is young and has already shown promising signs but we all know that being a Centre Forward in a Man Utd side is worse than the Graveyard shift. We hardly ever create clear cut scoring opportunities for our striker and that shows in their goal contributions over the season. This brings me to the wingers, which is the most important position in the system. All good teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and City have wingers which are very good in one on one situations and once they have the beating of the defence are able to either take a high value shot or are able to provide a decisive pass for a teammate in a better goal scoring position. However when it comes to Man Utd Rashford and Antony do neither of these things very well. If you closely observe our attacking play we quite often get Antony and Rashford into one v one situations against the fullback but their decision making and use of the ball in the final third is where it all goes wrong.
Antony is very one dimensional and even an 8 year old with basic knowledge of football will know how to defend against him. It’s not a bad thing to be a one trick pony as long as you can execute that trick to devastating effect. Arjern Robben made a career out of cutting on to the left foot to shoot the ball in the far corner but he had enough skill and deception up his sleeve to force the defender to do what he wanted. Antony more often than not slows down counter attacks and when he does play the ball forward it is often intercepted because the opposition knows exactly what he wants to do. Sancho has basically taken himself out of reckoning to play for Man Utd again so no point discussing him any further. Pellistri is young and looks lightweight on the ball. He has shown some good flashes but needs to add the end product to his game.
Garnacho is probably the most exciting talent Man Utd have had since Mason Greenwood and he is improving with every given opportunity. However as with all young players the exuberance of youth is somewhat compensated with displays of inexperience and inconsistency. He will need to improve his performance and try to provide more fierce competition for the left wing spot. That brings us to Marcus Rashford, the main man of last season. 41 goal contributions in 62 games, he basically carried Man Utd through most of last season. It was his goals that fired Man Utd to their first trophy in six years and a top 3 finish. The expectation for this season was for Rashford to kick on, be the main man once again, and become a talisman for this team. His contract extension in the summer made him one of the best paid players in this Man Utd squad and confirmed the stature the club holds him to. This season though Rashford has barely looked himself at all. All the evidence from the opening 8 games suggests that last season was just another flash in the pan. However if you look at Rashford’s entire career, he has always been a moment’s player. Even last season Rashford hardly dominated any game from start to finish but he somehow was able to make decisive contributions in key moments of matches. This style of play is hardly ever sustainable and that is what Rashford and Man Utd fans are finding out this season.
The biggest disappointment this season has been his decision making. In all the games so far Rashford has found himself in very promising positions in the final third but almost always made the wrong choice in the final pass. He has been acting very selfish as well often ignoring teammates in better scoring positions to continue on his trail down those blind alleys. He needs to massively improve his decision making and awareness in the final third if he really wants to contribute towards the success of this team, because based on his current skillset he is hardly suitable to play in a team that wants to control possession and create chances through defined patterns of play.
Amidst this chaos Ten Hag is under an immense amount of pressure to revive the fortunes of this team. The next couple of games before the international break are almost must win. Man Utd heading into the international break still struggling could very well be the beginning of the end for Ten Hag. I really hope that it doesn’t come down to this because I fully believe that Ten Hag is the right guy and needs to be given more time to sort things out. Moreover constant hiring and firing of managers has what has brought us here in the first place so it would merely be another iteration of the vicious cycle Man Utd find themselves in under this horrible Glazer ownership.
Here’s hoping that things start to click in the next couple of games and that we come out of this rut, for I cannot stand another good manager become the latest victim of the poisoned chalice that is the Man United job.
Written by Akash Khare
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