Alex Keble analyses Manchester United's difficult start to the season, with problems in both defence and attack, that has left them languishing in mid-table in the Premier League.
Manchester United have officially made their worst-ever start to a Premier League season.
Nine points and a minus-four goal difference from seven matches is a new low in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, a nadir below even the dramatic collapse in Jose Mourinho’s final season. Nobody saw this coming.
Erik ten Hag’s second season in charge was supposed to see the formulation of a coherent tactical identity, building upon the Dutchman’s successful cultural reset in 2022/23.
Instead, Man Utd’s performances have been alarmingly reminiscent of the endgames of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mourinho, and Louis van Gaal: lethargic, passive, and lacking in measurable tactical direction.
That might sound overly pessimistic until you consider that Man Utd’s only two Premier League wins this season were so unconvincing. They beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 on the opening weekend but were outplayed from start to finish, and had to come back from 2-0 down to overcome Nottingham Forest at the end of August.
Nevertheless that does not mean Ten Hag's days are numbered. A mounting injury list has undermined his plans for the campaign, and with players now returning there is plenty of time for a smart tactician like Ten Hag to turn things around.
It’s worth noting that the last time United started a season this badly was 1989/90, a campaign that ended with an FA Cup triumph that saved Ferguson’s job and triggered an unprecedented quarter-century of success.
For Ten Hag to recover, he needs to sort out United’s systemic problems in defence and attack.
Defence: High-pressing issues are only half the problem
Assessing the 11 Premier League goals United have conceded this season, two have been scored on the counter-attack, three from set-pieces, and six because the opposition has found enormous amounts of space down either wing.
In fact, two of the set-piece goals were won from wing-focused attacks, meaning – incredibly - that eight of their concessions, or 73 per cent, follow the same pattern.
It is a pattern that Opta Analyst’s "zones of control" map reveals well.
As the Opta Analyst graphic below shows, United’s opponents have more than 55 per cent of the total touches on both wings (red zones).
Not that we need fancy graphics to detail this.
Watching Man Utd’s concessions this season, it’s obvious to the naked eye that they are failing to close down the wings, either because the forwards aren’t tracking back or the midfielders cannot get across to cover.
Here are two examples, the build-up to Tottenham Hotspur’s second goal in a 2-0 win and the second goal in Brighton & Hove Albion’s 3-1 win. Note that United aren’t applying pressure to the ball or covering the wing, a typical sight this season.
This problem has developed for one reason: Ten Hag doesn’t actually want his teams to be in this kind of defensive shape in the first place.
In an ideal world Ten Hag would want Man Utd to be dominating possession and counter-pressing smartly, winning the ball back as soon as they lose it to prevent opposition breaks. Instead, they are currently averaging 47.6 per cent possession, 14th in the division, and have a Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) of 12.6 - the 10th highest.
That is important context to understanding why Man Utd are seemingly so easy to play through: if they were pressing as aggressively and cohesively as Ten Hag would like, and if they held possession as high up the pitch as they ought to, then United simply wouldn’t find themselves in the position of being hunched, in a mid-block, trying to resist opposition bouts of action.
Nevertheless Man Utd should be better at preventing easy switches into the wings – and should be able to get out to defend the width.
Ten Hag recognises the problem
Ten Hag has spoken twice about the root cause of the issue.
“They run in the wrong moment, too late,” Ten Hag said after the Spurs defeat. “Especially the front didn’t recover. It is not about the midfield, it is about the back and the front. That is why we were open.”
After the Arsenal match, he said: “We got stretched, and we have to improve that. We have to be more compact, otherwise you can never counter-press. I had a problem with how the defence moved and I had a problem with the responding in the defence transition of our offensive players.”
This is a complex problem, but essentially, as Ten Hag suggests, the United forwards are not pressing properly to stop the ball being easily shunted out to free wingers, while the rest of the team are too passive in compressing spaces between them.
In other words, it is an issue with aggression and cohesion, concepts that are linked to confidence, fitness, and communication. It is simply too easy to play through Man Utd.
Inefficient in the high press
That brings us onto the second problem: high pressing. Ten Hag has looked to turn the dial on the tactical side of things in year two by instructing his team to press higher up the pitch, hence why their 81 high turnovers currently top the charts after ranking sixth in 2022/23, with 329.
So far, it has made them more vulnerable to quick opposition attacks.
Only Nottingham Forest, Wolves, Sheffield United, and West Ham United have allowed more opposition progressive carries this season than Man Utd's 161, while they have faced more attempted take-ons than anyone else (174).
Those are pretty damning statistics, capturing their decompression between the lines and the problem of pressing high up the pitch with a midfield – Casemiro and Christian Eriksen – that doesn’t have the legs for it.
In a classic example from the Wolves encounter, United overcommitting bodies haphazardly leads to a three-on-two only seconds later.
Attack: Fernandes over-reliance and Rashford’s form
Man Utd’s attacking numbers make for poor reading. They have averaged an Expected Goals (xG) of 1.05 across their last four Premier League matches and have a total xG of 11.2, which is the 11th highest in the Premier League.
“We are often in the right position in the final part,” Ten Hag said after the 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace. “We get into the right spot and then you have to make the right decisions to create more. I think we created many occasions in front of the goal but we had to net and we didn’t. We can only blame ourselves.”
Clearly things aren’t clicking yet, but there is reason for optimism here.
Rasmus Hojlund has looked sharp since making his debut, scoring three times in the UEFA Champions League, and with time he will begin to form relationships with those around him.
Ten Hag has an unusual preference for pairing possession-centric principles with a fast and direct forward line, but at the moment there isn’t enough control (on or off the ball) to get the best out of Hojlund or Marcus Rashford (and for a variety of reasons the United manager has had to rotate on the right wing).
Rashford’s form is well documented. He remains United’s most important attacking outlet, receiving more progressive passes than any other player in the team, with 64, but he has scored only one goal in eight matches in all competitions.
Going back further, Rashford has scored only seven times in his last 29 Man Utd matches.
But Man Utd’s issues clearly aren’t just about putting away chances. They need to create more, which they will do by becoming less predictable – and less reliant on Bruno Fernandes.
Far too much goes through him. Fernandes has received 35 passes, which is more than any other United player and, somewhat ridiculously for a No 10, his 528 ball touches is more than anyone else too.
The table below shows by just how big a margin Fernandes is the club’s most creative player.
Fernandes' stats compared to next-best Man Utd player
|Statistic||Fernandes||Man Utd's next-best player|
|Passes into penalty area||23||11|
Solution could be closer than it looks
That all reads rather badly, but whether it’s getting the forwards to click, providing support for Fernandes in creative areas, or making the press organised enough to shut off those simple counter-attacks or routes down the wings, Ten Hag might not be far off fixing things.
It should not be underestimated how quickly the defensive issues as detailed above can shift on psychology, momentum, and a change in territorial dominance. If Mount finds his feet and Amrabat is deployed in central midfield, Ten Hag may have a shortcut to getting United higher up the pitch, which means creating more chances and potentially making a more effective counter-press.
Mount and Amrabat in midfield would also open up the possibility of deploying Fernandes on the right of a 4-2-3-1, where the Portuguese’s work-rate can help shut down the wings.
It is notable that both Spurs and Brighton found joy against Man Utd by splitting their centre-backs wide in order to build their attacks on the outside of United’s forward line, as the width of their "average position" graphics show:
With Rashford and Fernandes (or Mount for that matter) as the hard-working pair on each flank, that will be harder for others to achieve.
Old Trafford consistency is vital
Integrating Ten Hag’s new signings and ensuring the belief doesn't drop – ensuring they keep fighting to compress space and counter-press aggressively – is the route out, particularly at Old Trafford.
Man Utd only lost once at home in the Premier League last season, but after the defeat to Palace, they have already lost twice in 2023/24.
This cannot be allowed to get any worse, and yet injuries might keep derailing things, because for all the defensive analysis, there is a simpler explanation that we have overlooked so far: Man Utd have used four different centre-back pairings in the first seven Premier League matches of the season.
Nevertheless, there is time. The last team to win nine points from the first seven matches (albeit with a better goal difference) and recover to finish in the top four was Man Utd in 2019/20. They went on to win only four points from the next four – and still qualified for the UEFA Champions League by the end of the season.
Thankfully for Man Utd fans, if Amrabat and Mount are restored to midfield, Ten Hag stands a chance of recovering before it’s too late.