Feature

Can Man Utd learn from Liverpool's improvement in transition?

By Alex Keble 16 Dec 2023
Erik ten Hag and Sofyan Amrabat

Alex Keble explains why Ten Hag is wrestling with the same problems Klopp faced last season

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The problems engulfing Manchester United are many and complex.

They stretch across a decade of wilderness at Old Trafford, ranging from transfer policy to boardroom structure and the culture of the dressing room.

It is surely this, and not the performance of a manager, that defines the United perma-crisis, the latest episode being Wednesday night’s elimination not only from the UEFA Champions League but European competition altogether.

Nevertheless the tactical issues require focus, and for Man Utd this amounts to a strange weariness both in and out of possession; a sense of drifting football without an obvious underlying structure.

United appear to play without direction because tactics are not an isolated part of the sport. They are interwoven into the fabric of a club, reflecting its values and its culture. A model succeeds only with the right players and with the right mentality. A model fails when enacted on a club unsure of itself.

There is no tactical aspect more obviously afflicted by the mood at Old Trafford than Man Utd’s difficulties with defensive transitions and the resultant counter-attacks.

It just happens to be an issue that this weekend’s opponents Liverpool struggled with last season, only to come roaring back to the top of the Premier League table this campaign.

Here is what’s wrong with Man Utd’s defensive transitions and what they could learn from Liverpool's improvement in this area.

Transitions explained

Many coaches in the modern game break down their team’s tactical strategy into four sections: in possession (how they build an attack), out of possession (how they defend in open play), defensive transitions, and attacking transitions.

A transition, defined as the few seconds after possession changes hands, is vital because of the inherent disruption and potential for disorder in this moment.

When a team are attacking they tend to fan out, but when defending they need to compress the space. In transition, then, they are looking to move from one to the other - a flurry of activity that often creates room for counter-attacks.

A "defensive transition" describes how a team transitions from having the ball to not having it, while an "attacking transition" is how they move from being out of possession to in possession.

Different teams have different approaches. Attacking transition tactics can range from calmly recycling the ball for a period of steady possession building towards goal (think Manchester City) to sudden and rapid forward movement.

In the "defensive transition" there is more uniformity. Most look to counter-press, which means they apply an instant burst of pressure to the ball in the hope of instantly regaining possession or, by fouling or forcing a bad pass or clearance, at least preventing a counter-attack from breaking out.

This is where United’s problems arise.

Statistics reveal Man Utd’s midfield woes

The locus of Man Utd’s tactical concerns lie largely in central midfield, where a billowing trio are too loosely connected, leaving huge gaps between each player that opponents can simply breeze straight through.

From the first match of the season, a fortunate 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, we saw the problem of Man Utd’s haphazard pressing and how its unfocused nature creates big spaces for the visitors to counter-attack into.

There are too many examples to name, but this month alone AFC Bournemouth won the ball high up the pitch and easily moved past a flat-footed Sofyan Amrabat for Dominic Solanke to score the opener last weekend, while Newcastle United’s only goal in a 1-0 win at the start of the month was almost identical.

Bournemouth's opening goal v Man Utd

The 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth was a new nadir - and an alarming sign ahead of United's trip to Anfield.

Amrabat, Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay pressed erratically and regularly swapped positions, leaving an empty midfield space between them for Andoni Iraola’s team to break into.

Bournemouth goal

This lacklustre pressing and disconnection between the lines is captured neatly in the statistics.

Man Utd have conceded 336 "progressive carries" this season, the third-most in the Premier League behind West Ham United and Sheffield United, and they have faced 345 attempted take-ons, the second-most in the division.

Teams are finding it too easy to run straight at them, resulting in a non-penalty Expected Goals (xG) tally of 25.0 against Man Utd - the sixth-highest figure in the league behind Luton Town, Sheff Utd, West Ham, Bournemouth and Burnley. They also rank fifth-highest for shots faced, with 235.

These figures are considerably worse than last season. United’s "progressive carries" against them have jumped from 18.3 to 21.0 per match, while their attempted take-ons faced have risen from 18.9 to 21.6 per match, hence their xG Against (xGA) rising from 1.33 to 1.66 per match.

Ten Hag’s new direction has made transitions worse

The cause of that downturn is Erik ten Hag’s movement towards a high-pressing and direct attacking style of football this season.

“We are playing different football than I showed at Ajax because I have to, because I can't play the same way,” he said in October. “The players decide how you play. We play much more direct football here because I have the players for that.”

This is certainly true. United's frontline is packed almost exclusively with direct runners, and Ten Hag has attempted to make use of this with a Liverpool-esque desire to win the ball high and attack in straight lines.

They have been caught offside 40 times this season, the joint-most in the Premier League. United have also completed more high turnovers (165) than anyone else, and they sit fourth in the league for "direct attacks", with their total of 37 being behind only Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.

Indeed, Opta’s graph of "team style" below shows Man Utd are faster and more direct than any of the other "Big Six" teams.

Team style comparison

Their movement to higher and more frequent pressing has not worked, either because it has been coached ineffectively or because the players are simply unable to enact it.

Consequently, playing a direct game stretches Man Utd, elongating their shape and – with the press disorganised – making them particularly vulnerable in the defensive transition.

Unlike Man City, for example, who ensure an even distribution of players around the pitch and recycle possession to stay in control, United’s counter-attacking style and disorganised press combine to leave their midfield wide open when the ball breaks back against them.

To put it another way, if United’s counter-press fails, and if using direct forwards means high starting positions and little tracking back, then just one opposition forward pass can take out most of the Man Utd team.

How Liverpool solved their poor transitions

Jurgen Klopp knows all about the problem of direct attacking football and defensive transitions.

This was a serious issue for Liverpool last season, when they won only 42 points from the first 27 Premier League matches in a campaign defined by opposition counter-attacks easily piercing through their porous midfield.

After losing Georginio Wijnaldum’s capacity to sweep up loose balls and take control of the defensive transition, Liverpool’s counter-pressing was further disrupted by Fabinho and Jordan Henderson looking jaded as they entered their twilight years at the top.

The solution was twofold. First, Klopp turned Trent Alexander-Arnold into an inverted full-back who moved into central midfield when Liverpool had possession, meaning there was an extra body there to cope with the defensive transition.

That stabilised them substantially, immediately leading to an 11-match unbeaten run in the Premier League to the end of the campaign.

Equally important were the upgrades over the summer as more energetic pressers joined the club, the most significant being Dominik Szoboszlai.

Szoboszlai ranks 25th among all Premier League players this season for total pressures, with 351. For context, Harvey Elliott was Liverpool’s highest-ranked player last season, in 79th place with 488 pressures.

Liverpool still have their issues, but things are clearly moving in the right direction. Compared with last season, their Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) has dropped from 10.4 to 9.8, while they have only conceded one counter-attacking goal as we approach the halfway stage. Last campaign they conceded six.

What can Man Utd learn from Liverpool’s example?

Aside from signing tactically intelligent players more suited to a hard-pressing game, it could be beneficial to permanently move to utilising an inverted full-back. Luke Shaw has played this role on occasion for Ten Hag and is the best candidate for the job, but he is now an injury doubt.

Liverpool’s reignition is the result of years of coaching, a stable set-up, a club pulling in the same direction and a coherent transfer policy tailored to the manager.

United are unlikely to spend big in January, but that might not matter. It speaks volumes that midfielders seemingly suited to transition-focused direct football – Mason Mount and Donny van de Beek – have been unable to settle.

In other words, there is no shortcut to tactical fluency; no bolt-on parts that can fix the whole.

It all points to a big win for Liverpool at Anfield.

The buzzing energy of their midfield three, complemented by Alexander-Arnold, should overwhelm McTominay, Amrabat and whoever replaces the suspended Fernandes. And if United attempt to meet Liverpool high up the pitch, the hosts will enjoy streaming through the lines.

It could be a long day for Man Utd, another disappointing result, and another marker of the great distance between the two clubs, both tactically and culturally.

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