In the summer of 2019, Manchester United acquired three signings: Harry Maguire; Aaron-Wan Bissaka; and Daniel James. The former two cost the club a total of £127.8m with Maguire, in particular, breaking the world record transfer fee for a defender (£78.3m) previously held by Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk at £76.2m. On the other hand, Wan-Bissaka was signed for a handsome fee of £49.5m despite only having one full season under his belt in his career. Irrespective of this, both players came to Manchester with huge expectations and they have not disappointed so far.
Conversely, Daniel James was signed from Championship team Swansea for a fee of £15.3m. Many fans were averse to this signing as they did not feel he was “up to standard” for a club the size and magnitude of Manchester United. However, after five games Daniel James already has three goals which is the most for the club alongside Marcus Rashford. Though, the latter has been aided via two penalties. Nevertheless, all three signings by Solskjær have been successful as of now.
After a flattering 4-0 win against Chelsea on the opening day of the season, United failed to motor on in their next three games with the two draws and one loss which came against Crystal Palace. Many fans argued that these results were a consequence of a lack of “proper” investment, in-game management errors and more. This article will highlight where Manchester United have deficiencies in their style of play.
This graphic details the simple possession metric. Liverpool (62.2%) and Manchester City (62.1%) lead the Premier League in overall possession. In 2018-19, Manchester City were lone leaders with 67.1% and were followed by Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea who averaged a flat 62.0%. Klopp’s Liverpool were 3rd with 60.9%. Manchester United were 6th with 53.7%. This season, Solskjær’s men have kept more possession with an average of 56.1% despite remaining 6th overall in the league. This will be encouraging for Solskjær who has seen his team dominate possession a few times already this season. However, this can only take a team so far.
In the past, former Manchester United manager, José Mourinho, heavily critiqued managers who sacrificed clear paths to winning for the sake of maintaining possession, branding those who did not adopt the counter-attack as part of their philosophy as “stupid” – a mere example of the intention behind his statement.
Manchester United are the 3rd best team in the Premier League with regard to pressing intensity. This is an aspect of play Solskjær emphasised last season which, unfortunately, resulted in multiple injuries due to being suddenly overworked after being trained under opposing circumstances with Mourinho. In Sports Science, the terms overreaching and overtraining come into play. Overreaching is the concept of extra exertion within a small time frame due to particular activities or circumstances. For example, a boxer may perform a three-day full-body workout with high intensity in order to make a particular weight if they were behind by a certain checkpoint in their training regime. It is quite easy to recover from overreaching as it does not require much physiotherapy other than basic rest, increased protein intake and sleep and a few more beneficial pointers. However, if recovery is not performed appropriately overreaching becomes overtraining. Overtraining occurs when the muscles, joints, tendons, etc., in one’s body do not receive adequate rest from exertion and, thus, receive a plethora of micro tears, pulls, strains, etc., which, at times, occur to their fullest. This is when players ultimately become injured and miss game-time.
In football, there are no large rest periods during the season especially if one plays in England wherein there is no “winter break”. When Solskjær came in as temporary manager of Manchester United he entered with a philosophy of playing a high defensive line, a pressing attack and intricate football. However, the players were not used to any of these three concepts as, under Mourinho, they had trained for a low-block defence, a conservative offence and a lack of philosophy on the ball.
This “reverse” in ideology and training style, subsequently incurring multiple injuries, culminated in ten separate absentees against PSG in that famous 3-1 away win at Le Parc des Princes.
This season, Manchester United have already encountered injuries to Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, Pogba, Lingard and Martial. Despite not all of these being a result of overreaching there is a high chance that it has influenced certain aspects of the players’ bodies which has resulted in overcompensation. This is when certain parts of the body aid other [weaker] parts of the body in performing an action. In isolated movements (e.g. one’s back aiding in lifting an arm that is holding something) this is OK. However, when multiple parts of the body are being utilised at high capacity simultaneously overcompensation can become a negative thing. Whilst such speculation is premature it would do one well to remember concepts such as these for future reference and general learning.
In the following section, I will highlight some of the problems Manchester United have faced so far this season.
This is the first graphic from four which highlights some of the deficiencies Manchester United have had so far this season. On the X axis (horizontal on the bottom) we can see the number of through ball attempts per 90 minutes. On the Y axis (vertical on the left) we can see accuracy of those through ball attempts. Therefore, the teams on the upper right-hand corner of the graphic are the best whilst the teams on the lower left-hand corner are the worst in this particular regard.
Now, Manchester United are situated in the lower parts of the graphic and more to the left-hand side. They are not as bad as Southampton, Crystal Palace, Sheffield and, perhaps, Burnley. However, they are still amongst their ranks as opposed to being on the opposite side. This implies that their volume on through passes is low and, likewise, their accuracy is poor.
I define through balls in particular as passes that beat the final defensive line and this is how I have presented such data. With teams deploying a defensive line against Manchester United – the low block – United have been unable to thread passes past this block which has allowed teams to sit deeper and comfortably defend horizontally without having to think of the vertical dynamic. The best teams force their opponents to defend both horizontally and vertically as the more dynamics involved in a phase the greater the potential for error.
What is the cause for this? Last season, Manchester United were not much better off. However, they did have Paul Pogba playing in a much higher position. Last season, Pogba’s average position placed him at 32.77 metres from the opposition’s goal. This season, his average position has placed him at 52.39 metres from the opposition’s goal. This depth found in his position has ultimately delegated more creative responsibility to the likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Anthony Martial, none of whom are capable of assuming that responsibility with sufficient competence. Therefore, United have struggled immensely against teams that have utilised this tactic to sit deeper.
Firstly, tempo-changing passes is a metric which enumerates the amount of a passes a player or team makes that suddenly quickens the pace of a game. This can be via a surprise through pass, a lobbed pass over the defensive line or other than that. A simple way to imagine this is any pass which “occurs from nothing” and, as a result, makes the crowd stand up in anticipation. This is a weak manner to explain it, however, I hope it resonates with you. Nevertheless, its proper definition is what I have written before that.
In this graphic, Manchester United are, again, situated in the bottom left-hand side region which is where the weaker or worst teams are. They do not attempt many tempo-changing passes per 90 minutes nor do they have a good-enough accuracy when they do. Similar to the previous graphic, the same teams feature on the upper right-hand side, namely Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham.
In the explanation for the previous graphic I mentioned horizontal and vertical defending as two dynamics for the low-block defensive line to negotiate every game. Tempo-changing passes not only influence the latter dynamic – like through balls – but they influence the former dynamic, too. This is because through balls is a metric which only includes vertical passes simply due to the nature of the metric. However, tempo-changing passes can be both vertical and horizontal. There is a direct correlation between teams that excel in tempo-changing passes and success in leagues and cup competitions. One can most certainly argue that a cause and effect relationship exists between the two as we know that teams that possess dynamic passers in the final third (e.g. Messi, Neymar, de Bruyne, etc) tend to succeed more.
This is another area Manchester United have been poor in this season. Here, one can see a pattern emerging: United are able to keep possession high up the pitch but they are deficient in passing dynamism which would allow them to capitalise on such possession and terrority. Thus, they maintain possession but “do not do much with it”. This problem can be corrected via signings as well as formational changes. So far, Solskjær has focussed on lining up with a 4-2-3-1 set-up. This has forced Pogba to play in a deeper role. As mentioned earlier, this prevents United from breaking down deeper blocks as none of the front four have the necessary quality to do so. However, United, likewise, do not have the necessary quality to build from the middle of midfield. It becomes a catch-22 situation; Solskjær can opt to play Pogba in a deeper position which will limit offensive creativity or he can play Pogba higher up which will limit United’s proficiency in their initial build up. Alternatively, he can opt to revert back to a 4-3-3 which would allow Pogba to play between the lines from midfield. However, this would mean that he would have more responsibility to both attack and defend due to the lack of competence in midfield.
Clear Goalscoring Sequences
This graphic looks at clear goalscoring sequences. This metric enumerates the amount of passes that once played create a sequence of play wherein the team is relatively expected to score. It is similar to big chances created but differs in one regard: big chances created stipulates that a shot was taken at the end whereas clear goalscoring sequences stipulates that a team should have scored whether a shot was taken or not. Therefore, a player could create a chance but a defender ends up tackling the receiver. In this situation, the receiver of the pass did not shoot. So, in the big chances created metric there will be a 0 next to the statistic whereas in clear goalscoring sequences there will be a 1.
In this particular metric, we can see that Liverpool and Manchester City, once more, dominant the rest of the league. Watford, surprisingly, are quite high though a large portion of their bar is attributed to their 2-2 draw against Arsenal wherein they dominated Unai Emery’s men.
On the other hand, Manchester United are on the lower-end of the spectrum. This adds to the already-seen pattern of United being able to maintain possession quite high up the pitch but not being able to producing meaningful passes with it. This merely solidifies our established thought: United need to sign more creative players as well as develop their own.
Pressing Rate Against
The final graphic in this article details pressing rates against. It is nice to see which teams press and how they press. However, it is also useful to see which teams are pressing against more so or less so. This metric provides that data.
In this particular graphic we can see, unsurprisingly, Liverpool and Manchester City are the two teams in a league of their own. These two teams are often not pressed against. Rather, teams opt to drop back and defend in blocks. We can combine between graphics and assert the view that this is because teams become fearful due to the offensive firepower possessed by both clubs. Thus, they become apprehensive when losing the ball, resulting in a more defensive – safe – mindset as opposed to an offensive – risky – one.
Historically, this has been a reason why Manchester City have failed in the UEFA Champions League (UCL). In the Premier League, City have been used to progressing the ball 40-50 metres up the pitch before being pressured. However, in the UCL, opposition pressure often begins much before that. Returning to the Premier League and the club in question, Manchester United are somewhat high on this list but no where near the level wherein one would call them “dangerous”. The reason their pressing rate against is lower than their historical rivals’ is because they possess less quality in attack. Therefore, teams are not scared to press them knowing that if United beat their press there still remains a lack of direct threat to their goal. The best teams in the world are often not pressed against because teams fear being easily opened up. This is not the case for United due to their lack of quality.
The purpose of showing this graphic is to solidify the viewpoint that United are proficient in maintaining possession and some territorial advantage. However, they are somewhat deficient in utilising that possession in any meaningful way. This graphic depicts how teams press against them; the fact that they are willing to press Manchester United to this degree, despite United being able to hold onto the ball in dangerous positions well, simply highlights how teams do not fear United as much as Solskjær would like.
The solution revolves around two:
(1): Improve the current players at the club
(2): Sign “pieces” to complete the puzzle
Once these two are achieved United will find success. Until then, there will always be a mixture of good and bad throughout their season.
To conclude, Manchester United are in their baby-steps phase. They purchased three players in the summer that fit the profile Solskjær wanted and are making slow, gradual improvements to their style-of-play. However, there are multiple roadblocks at the moment. They can be solved by continuous training as well as purchasing the right players to fit the puzzle Manchester United are trying to build. It will be a couple of years yet until United challenge for the Premier League title unless they spend a hefty sum of money in one season (e.g. this winter and next summer).
This article has highlighted the various offensive problems they have and has provided superficial solutions to solve them.
Patience is required as the road is long.