The first season under the leadership of Erik ten Hag was a successful one for Manchester United – the club won the trophy for the first time in six years, reached the FA Cup final, and qualified for the Champions League. But perhaps the most important achievement of the Red Devils last season was the order that appeared in the club with the arrival of the Dutch specialist. Ten Hag showed everyone that he does not recognize authorities, and the key to success for him is discipline and high demands on himself. The manager gained authority not only among the players, but also among the management, which sided with him in the situation with Cristiano Ronaldo.
This summer, Ten Hag continued to rebuild the team to suit his playing style. Several players who did not meet the requirements of the Dutchman, or did not fit his philosophy, left the club. Instead of them, United signed several players, who were personally selected by the manager. The 200+ million euros deals raised the bar of expectations from United’s performances this season. In this text, we will analyse how the club started in the league, and how newcomers integrated into the squad.
Build-up: Onana, different shapes, weaknesses
The main change in the United squad during this transfer window was the purchase of Andre Onana to replace David de Gea. The Spaniard spent 12 years at the club, and became a true legend, but instead of a testimonial with crowded stands, he received only a post on social networks. Anyway, let’s leave the ethical side of the issue aside, and focus on what a change of goalkeeper will give the team.
After the great season of 17/18, in which De Gea prevented 12.5 goals in the Premier League by PSxG model, and single-handedly dragged United into second place, the Spaniard gained fame as a great shot-stopper. Moments with bright saves were firmly planted in the minds of fans, and the unnecessary goals conceded by the Spaniard were lost in memory. Unfortunately, that season was only a statistical fluke – over the next five years, De Gea missed a little more than expected in four seasons, the final difference between PSxG and conceded goals for the entire period was -2.9. The status of the great shot-stopper was based only on false memories.
United’s style of play also helped De Gea. Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick did not require him to pass at the level of Ederson, the Spaniard’s weaknesses were masked in more straightforward football. With the arrival of Ten Hag, the requirements for goalkeepers changed – now they expected to be great on the ball, and confident under pressure. De Gea worked hard in training, but it was almost impossible to make significant progress at the age of 32. The Spaniard continued to make mistakes in the games and was publicly criticised by the manager.
Onana has already worked with Ten Hag at Ajax, the Cameroonian understands the requirements of the Dutchman, and has the necessary skills to play in such a system, which he demonstrated from the very first minutes in a United shirt. In his debut match in a friendly against Real Madrid, Onana often went outside the box during the start of the attack. The Cameroonian’s brave actions complicated the opponent’s pressure – in the Real Madrid diamond, two forwards were focused on central defenders, but an additional player in the build-up restrained them.
If one of the forwards pulled out at the goalkeeper, the nearest №8 had to press the central defender, which created zones in the centre of the field. Real Madrid rarely took risks, and started to press closer to the centre line, pressing high only during goal kicks.
In the friendly game against Borussia and in the league match against Arsenal, the Cameroonian showed that he performs long passes perfectly. On the right, a nominal central defender played in the opponents’ defence. It was difficult for him to defend against Marcus Rashford at speed, so Onana deliberately passed into his zone, and several times found the Englishman with an accurate in-behind pass.
With David de Gea in goal, Manchester United could not play the ball for a long time under pressure, with minimal pressure or an inconvenient pass, the Spaniard played long. Onana gives the team the opportunity to calmly maintain possession in its third, inviting the opponent into pressing, which creates zones for the attacking players to run into.
The Cameroonian is actively moving and always creates an additional option for the defenders to pass. When the opponent sits in a medium-low block, he steps out of the box. For a goalkeeper, Onana is very technical, he often uses body feints to confuse the pressing player, after which he changes the direction of the pass. The United newcomer is good in short and medium passes, although sometimes they are too powerful. The ball flies up to an inconvenient height, and it becomes more difficult for the partner to take it under control.
At the start of the season, the team has problems with passing under aggressive pressure. In the games with Lens and Tottenham, the Cameroonian played long due to no short pass options. The accuracy of Onana’s long balls in the EPL is only 43.6%, the lowest figure since the 18/19 season. Perhaps with the arrival of Rasmus Hojlund, who is better in the aerial duels than the rest of the strikers, the effectiveness of such passes will rise.
An important quality of Onana is his self-confidence. He is not afraid to take risks, is looking for bold, unobvious passing options, commands partners, and already shouts at Maguire. His adventurous game can lead to curious missed goals, as in the match with Lens in pre–season. But in the long-term replacing De Gea with Onana is a step forward for Erik ten Hag’s team.
Different build-up shapes
When building attacks, United does not have a clear structure for the placement of players, the formation changes from match to match, and the main task remains to fill the necessary zones. During the pre-season and the opening rounds of the EPL, the team tried several build-up shapes.
The most daring was the 2-2 formation. The left central defender, who has a good pass and vision, went higher to support Casemiro, who has problems with the ball’s progression. Both Lisandro Martinez and Victor Lindelof have experience playing in this position, which made the situation easier for them. The left-back remained on the same line with Raphael Varane, and the right-back went higher up the flank and kept the width, which allowed Antony to shift to the middle, and increase the number of players in the centre of the field.
The 3-2 option was more reliable, where the top two were formed differently. The central defenders remained in their positions, one of the fullbacks was located on the same line with them, and the other went into the middle to Casemiro. The fullbacks interacted well with each other and could switch roles during one possession, depending on where the ball was.
The last option was a 3-1 build-up, it was used against the low block of Nottingham Forest. One of the №8 went down to the central defenders, the second was located above the three, becoming the top of the diamond. When bouncing deep, Casemiro often found himself between the central defenders, and Eriksen preferred to meet the ball closer to the flank. As in the case of the 2-2 option, United received an additional player to create a numerical advantage in the center, or overload one of the flanks.
At the squad of Manchester United, there are two players, who are limiting the team in advancing the ball into danger zones. Casemiro and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are certainly among the best in the world in defensive actions, but when in possession, their presence on the field complicates the progress of Erik Ten Hag’s team.
In summer matches, United’s main enemy when starting the attacks from the defence was the sideline. Under pressure, the team very often dug in on the flank due to a lack of movement and openings in the central zone. The opponent’s players pressed high up the pitch and blocked all the closest recipients for the pass, and the ball owner had two equally bad options for continuing possession. Either a risky dribble in his own third or a long pass, which is a difficult task even for technical fullbacks such as Trent Alexander-Arnold or Joao Cancelo.
When the opponent directed United’s attacks to the right flank, Aaron-Wan Bissaka’s poor play with the ball doubled the problem. Wolves and Tottenham exploited this weakness of Ten Hag’s team by engaging in aggressive pressure after the pass to Wan-Bissaka. In the match against Arsenal, Wan-Bissaka also had several losses under pressure at the beginning of the attack, ironically, after one of them, Rashford scored the opener.
Casemiro is known for his non-optimal playing form at the start of the season, last summer right after the transfer he lost the competition for a place in the starting XI to Scott McTominay. At the start of this season, the first signs the Brazilian’s age appeared – Casemiro began to cover the team much worse in defensive transitions, and his problems with playing with the ball revealed even more.
Due to the arrival of Mason Mount, who rarely goes deep to help with the beginning of the attack, Casemiro began to meet with the ball more often. The Brazilian defensive midfielder is unable to cope with the new functions – he is crumbling under pressure, and shows record bad figures for losses, 2.25 per match.
The Brazilian’s inflated figures are influenced by a small sample, there are two reasons for returning to normal indicators. The first is that after an international break, he will surely get in shape, and he will make mistakes less often, although that wasn’t the case in their defeat to 3-1 Brighton at the weekend. The second is an adaptation by Mason Mount. Over time, the Englishman will better understand the requirements of Ten Hag and will take over some of the functions when starting the attack.
Positional attack: 5 vertical channels, emphasis on the other flank, in-behind runs
In positional attack, the main task of the United players is to fill the five vertical channels in the final third of the field. A winger and a fullback are responsible for receiving the ball in the flank and half-flank zones. The players are not assigned to a specific zone, they are constantly changing positions to confuse the opponent’s defence. There is good cooperation between the flank partners, they rarely duplicate each other at one point.
Bruno Fernandes opens in the central channel. The Portuguese international is constantly on the move, he is always looking for space between the lines, from where he can either make a through ball or shoot. Situationally, Fernandes shifts to the flanks to form triangles and diamonds, creating a numerical superiority in the zone.
The ex Sporting man moves quite freely. With his movements, the forward lures the opponent’s defender out of the zone, thereby destroying the defensive structure. For example, when bouncing deeper, a zone appears behind the defender, which wingers could use. And with an in-behind run, the forward creates space for Fernandes, stretching the space between the defensive line and the midfielders.
Change of Direction
In the 22/23 season, Manchester United concentrated on the left flank with during positional attacks, 41% of attacks passed through this zone. The team depended on Lisandro Martinez’s first pass, Luke Shaw’s advances with the ball, and his overlaps in the final third, the sensational form of Marcus Rashford. In the new season, United has changed the main direction of attack, now Ten Hag’s team uses the right flank more often, 38% of attacks pass through the flank of Antony and Wan-Bissaka.
In the match against Wolves, United made an emphasis on runs through the corridor between the left and the left central defender. The United winger lured the fullback to the sideline, the striker pinned the centre back closer to the middle of the field, and a space appeared between the players of the opponent’s defence. The ball came to the flank, after which there was a quick reverse pass to Fernandes or Casemiro, who in 1-2 touches passed the ball to the running player.
In the game against Nottingham Forest, Eric Ten Hag’s team also attacked through the right flank, but a little more primitive. United quickly conceded two goals, and was forced to play against the opponent’s low block. The hosts controlled the ball well, but poorly converted possession into dangerous moments – only one big chance was created from the open play.
The team fell on rather primitive longshots and crosses from the right flank, the average shot length and the number of crosses was one of the largest under Ten Hag. Martial is poorly adapted to such a game, he had practically no chance to win an aerial duel with three physically imposing Nottingham Forest centre backs, so Casemiro began to run to the penalty area during the crosses.
With his movement, the Brazilian put the opponent’s midfielders in front of a difficult choice – either to play with Casemiro to the end, and leave space in zone 14, or give it to the central defender, with the risk that the Brazilian will shoot in that moment. The second option was chosen more often, Casemiro attracted the attention of Willy Boly, Rashford and Diogo Dalot had the opportunity to create a numerical advantage at the far post. The United midfielder never made a shot after the cross, but scored from the set-piece, and played his best match for the club in terms of xG.
One of the most important elements of United’s positional attack is pulling behind the back. With this movement, the player making the run puts the opponent’s defence line low, thereby increasing the gap between defence and midfield. If the pass goes to him, most often he finds himself with the ball near the opponent’s goal, and gets an opportunity to shoot. If the pass goes to the player between the lines, he gets more time to make a decision, since the lines are stretched.
In Erik ten Hag’s team, almost all attack players make such runs. Bruno Fernandes chooses the timing for the breakthrough, Marcus Rashford gets an advantage thanks to the starting speed. Periodically, such accelerations through the half-flank are performed even by fullbacks, whose appearance in the box perplexes the defending team.
Pressure: closed centre, fullback’s problem
Manchester United under Ten Hag is not an aggressive pressing machine, according to the PPDA model, which defines the intensity of pressure, the team is closer to the middle of the table for the second year in a row. However, the players already understand the principles of the Dutchman better and put pressure on the opponent more effectively.
The main task in pressing United is to block the centre. The trigger for the start of the pressure is a backward pass or a bad lateral pass. The top three pressing players are concentrated on the central defenders and the goalkeeper. The players are located narrowly, but situationally the wingers can switch to the opponent’s fullbacks when passing to the flank.
The central midfielders of the Red Devils aggressively cover the opponent’s deep-lying playmaker and №8s from the back. The players of the actively pressing group move in a compact, organised block, and rarely fall behind their direct opponent into the flanking zones in isolation from their partners.
If the opponent tries to pass the pressure using a straight pass to the striker, the central defenders come into play, aggressively stepping out from the line. Periodically, Martinez and Varane stay in the line, fearing to expose their zone, thereby creating a space between the lines. A good example of aggressive play is Victor Lindelof’s performance in the second half against Wolves. The Swede subbed in for injured Martinez, constantly moved forward to be first on the ball, and lost in such a duel only once.
Unfortunately, concentration on the central zone creates problems on the flanks – United is very vulnerable to passes to the fullbacks, located close to the sideline. The fullbacks of the Ten Hag’s team are responsible for their pressure. They risk exposing their zone when advancing, so sometimes they stay in a deep position and let the fullback hold the ball without pressure.
United’s high pressure in the new season is good – the team is in the lead in the number of transitions started in the final third, and is one of the best in the number of shots after such transitions. Nevertheless, there is still a zone for progress, for example, working out the timing of pressing actions from centre backs and fullbacks.
Transitions: excellent counterattacks, poor Casemiro’s form, Mount’s influence
At one of the press conferences of the summer tour, Erik Ten Hag said that he wants Manchester United to become “the best team in the world in transitions”. So far, it has turned out with varying success – United’s offensive transitions are great, but after losing the ball, Ten Hag’s team is very vulnerable.
The most dangerous United players when in offensive transitions are Bruno Fernandes and the left winger. The Portuguese constantly scans the field, analyses the location of his partners, and looks for vulnerabilities in the opponent’s defence. Receiving the ball in a transitional episode, Fernandes does not waste extra time assessing the situation, he immediately knows where he will pass. The Portuguese is able to execute any pass, in transitional episodes through balls and switches the opposite flank, which create 1v1 situations, are especially dangerous.
The advantages of Marcus Rashford in offensive transitions are obvious – incredible speed, and an excellent movement. The Englishman perfectly feels the moment to accelerate into the vacated zone, for example, between the FB and CB. Rashford really likes to run in behind, unlike Garnacho, who prefers to get the ball in his legs and run with it to the opponent. The figures of the young Argentine are overestimated by the “bencher effect”, but over the past year he has been one of the most successful wingers of the five major European leagues in promoting the ball by carries – he is in the top 4% in terms of the number of carries to the final third and penalty area, and in the top 7% in terms of the total distance travelled with the ball.
The counter-attacks were especially dangerous in the game against Spurs. Postecoglou’s team played with a high defensive line, Rashford and Garnacho had a lot of space. In the first half, United had three dangerous shots in transitions, Anthony’s shot at the post in the second half also came from the transition.
The strength of Ten Hag’s team in quick attacks is statistically proven – in the new season, United is in third place in terms of the number of vertical attacks, and in terms of the average speed of ball movement – 2.07 metres per second of possession.
Transitions to defence
In Erik Ten Hag’s first season at Old Trafford, Casemiro played a key role in defensive transitions. The Brazilian was, perhaps the best defensive midfielder in the world in terms of covering huge areas without the ball, and stopping opponents’ attacks with tackles and interceptions.
In the first rounds of the Premier League, Casemiro’s poor form greatly affected the team – United allowed a lot of moments in defensive transitions, and the Brazilian became the most dribbled player in the league. The problem manifested itself most vividly in the match with Wolves, where Mateus Cunha, Pedro Neto and Mateus Nunes ran with the ball through the center several times without any pressure.
Casemiro’s bad performance has several factors. The first is physical readiness. The Brazilian habitually returned from vacation with a couple of extra kilos, after an international pause he will surely return in good condition. The second is age, a factor that Casemiro cannot influence, the fans will have to accept. The third is the appearance of Mason Mount in the lineup.
The purchase of an Englishman to replace Christian Eriksen was a personal initiative of Ten Hag, who admires Mount since the midfielder played for Vitesse in Eredivisie. However, Mount and Eriksen are players of different profiles, and the Englishman’s lack of adaptation to United football is hurting the team so far.
The appearance of a Chelsea pupil in the starting line-up changes the formation of the team. Eriksen played in a pair with Casemiro in 4-2-3-1, and much more often went deep for the ball. Mount is located on the same line with Bruno, turning the triangle in the centre of the field, and forming a 4-3-3 scheme. After losses, the Englishman is in a high position, without support, it becomes more difficult for Casemiro to stop the opponent’s counterattacks.
Mount definitely cannot be accused of laziness without the ball – under Tuchel, he was one of the best attacking midfielders of the top 5 leagues for a year and a half in terms of the number of tackles in the final third, the Englishman is definitely more active in defence than Eriksen. But in the transitional episodes, the Mount acts chaotically. He does not stop, moreover, he is one of the first to start counter-pressing, but he moves in isolation from the team. The Englishman throws himself at the opponent when the partners have already pulled back, and exposes his zone.
It is important to note that the situation can be viewed from a different angle. To praise the newcomer of the team for his readiness to press instantly after the loss, and to criticise his partners for passivity. In any case, finding a balance in defensive transitions is one of Ten Hag’s main tasks after Mount’s comeback from injury.
Another minor problem of United in defensive transitions is the positioning of the fullbacks. In Ten Hag’s team, fullbacks are actively involved in attacking movements, periodically they get stuck in the final third, leaving their zone free. It is becoming very difficult for United’s defensive unit, most often consisting of 2-3 players, to cover these zones and defend across the entire width of the field. Central defenders find themselves in a vulnerable situation when defending on a large space against the opponent’s speedy wingers.
Positional defence: the space between FB and CB, zone 14, vulnerability
In matches against London teams, United defended quite a lot in their own half. The segments after the half-time break against Tottenham and Arsenal reveal several problems of Ten Hag’s team in positional defence. When passing to the opponent’s winger, the United fullback presses the player with the ball. It creates space between himself and the defensive partner. The nearest central midfielder is responsible for covering the formed pocket in the half-flank. The attacking players of the opponent can use this defensive principle with their movement, as Kai Havertz did at Emirates, to manipulate the opponent.
The German was very often located in the zone between the FB and CB, and put Casemiro in a line with defenders, exposing zone 14. Also, at the moment with Martin Odegaard’s goal, on the contrary, pulled the Brazilian closer to the centre of the field. United were forced to restructure, and first missed Gabriel Martinelli in the half-flank, and then the Norwegian in the zone in front of the penalty area. In the new season, United became generally worse at controlling zone 14 due to Casemiro’s frequent falls into the penalty area – the moment with two hits of the woodwork from Tottenham players came after the loss of Destiny Udogie in the half-flank, and Pedro Porro’s strike from an empty zone 14.
In addition to the manipulations from Havertz, the danger for United was the bounces in depth from Eddie Nketiah. The Englishman lured the central defenders, who did not pass him to his partners in the centre of the field, and advanced with him high up the field. At the moment with the Havertz’s penalty, Lindelof did not have time to play tight on Nketiah, the Englishman turned around and gave a pass to Havertz.
With the opponent’s flank attacks, the main threat for United’s goal is created after switches. The wingers of the Ten Hag’s team quite often get stuck in a narrow position, leaving the fullbacks in a 1v1 or 1v2 situation. If United has moved to the other side of the pitch in time, the fullback has coverage, and the opponent is preparing a pitch, the defence players form a block of three players in the box – two central defenders and a far-side fullback.
In the opening rounds of the Premier League, the opponents practically did not play against United with in-behind passes, but in friendly matches against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, the defence of Ten Hag’s team was tested several times with vertical passes. After in-behind runs, the backline immediately suffered and did not act very organised. Jude Bellingham’s goal came just after such a run.
United prefers to immediately serve the ball into the penalty area from corners. Corners from the left flank are performed by Shaw, from the right by Bruno Fernandes, so the cross is out-swing. Ten Hag’s team is the sixth in EPL for xG created after the set-pieces, the most dangerous player of the “red devils” is Raphael Varane. The Frenchman starts from the eleven-metre mark, takes a few steps into the zone of the far post, jumps out with two legs, and shoots. Varane already has four shots – half of all his attempts from last season, and scored a goal against Wolves in a second-tempo attack after a corner.
On the corners in defence, United are fourth from the end in terms of the number of allowed shots, but one of the best in terms of the average danger of a shot – the opponent is not allowed to shoot without resistance, shots are blocked. The failure happened only in the match against Arsenal – Ten Hag’s team allowed 7 shots after the set-pieces, and regularly left Declan Rice alone at the far post, for which they paid with a conceded goal in added time.
After just a handful of matches, there is not enough data to judge freekicks, but it is impossible not to note the goal against Nottingham Forest. Fernandes and Rashford played a wonderful combination, and Casemiro scored a well-deserved goal.
Manchester United started the 23/24 campaign badly. The main areas for progress arebuild-up play, positional attack, and defensive transitions. The speed of progress will definitely depend on Casemiro’s form, and Mason Mount’s adaptation to the Ten Hag’s system. Also, the question of Rasmus Hojlund’s role is still open – it is not yet clear how the Dane, who likes to attack the space, will adapt to playing in a team against which opponents prefer to defend deeper.
By: Nick Bobrov / @normalnik131
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Livesey / Getty Images