Feature

Man Utd offer glimpse of what Ten Hag wants to build

7 Dec 2023
McTominay, Man Utd

Alex Keble discusses whether Red Devils' 2-1 success over Chelsea can be a blueprint for success

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As Manchester United pressed furiously, attacked at speed and crashed to a 2-1 victory over Chelsea to go three points behind Manchester City, we were left wondering, once again, what exactly is going on at this club.

Were Man Utd simply pulled into Chelsea’s orbit - into the wildness that entails - or was this a glimpse of what Erik ten Hag’s project could yet be?

Mauricio Pochettino’s haphazard start with the Blues is spinning out of control, his own demands for sharp vertical football played in the transition creating end-to-end matches that his team rarely seem to win.

Chelsea have won only one of their last seven Premier League matches and are yet to move higher than 10th this season. They are almost as many points off the bottom three as the top four, sitting 12 and 11 points away respectively.

Man Utd are no easier to figure out, their form – six wins from eight in the league – belying performances that haven’t always convinced.

But this one was a little different.

Race for the top four

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
5 Spurs TOT 25 +14 47
6 Man Utd MUN 26 0 44
7 Brighton BHA 26 +8 39
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Man Utd’s pressing reveals Ten Hag’s grand plans

United's 28 shots were more than they have mustered in any other Premier League match so far this season, thanks largely to a pressing game that worked far better than usual.

Throughout the first two months of the season Ten Hag’s side had moved to a high press, only for the Dutchman to appear to abandon it in light of the counter-attacking threat it gave the opposition.

It came back this evening. Perhaps energised by the end-to-end football that quickly broke out, as it so often does with Chelsea, the Man Utd players harassed high up the pitch, winning the ball in dangerous positions many times.

This meant there was space for their quicker runners Alejandro Garnacho and Antony to dribble into, as well as room for Rasmus Hojlund to make dangerous runs in behind.

It is, in essence, what Ten Hag wants to build. Was it a one-off or the start of something better?

Chelsea miss Gallagher’s purpose

On the other side of the equation, Chelsea were particularly vulnerable to such an open and transition-heavy contest because they missed the suspended Conor Gallagher from midfield.

His tireless energy getting up and down, not to mention his love for a strong tackle, is vital when Chelsea need to take advantage of basketball-style Premier League matches.

Gallagher tops the Chelsea charts for tackles attempted with 39, tackles completed with 22, interceptions with 19, recoveries with 90, and fouls with 34.

He was always going to be a big miss, but the absence was compounded by Pochettino’s decision to field the more playmaking Cole Palmer in his position.

Chelsea, unable to press from the front in the same way, allowed United to bypass their midfield and arrive at speed in the final third.

It was certainly a big factor in Man Utd amassing an Expected Goals (xG) tally of 4.07, not only their best of the season but the second-best of any side in a Premier League match in 2023/24.

The challenge now is to build upon it; is to show the same tactical principles against an opponent who aren't as wild as Chelsea.

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