Forgive the simplistic introduction, but Manchester United were poor in defense last season. See:
PL defensive record (2021-22)
They were 13th in the Premier League for goals conceded with 57 – four goals more than relegated Burnley.
PL xG comparisons (2021-22)
City of Norwich
They finished the league campaign with a total expected goals conceded (xGA) of 60.4, suggesting they were lucky not to have scored around four more goals in their 38 games.
Part of that was due to David de Gea enjoying one of his best seasons since his 2017-18 peak. Part of that was how little mercy the football gods bestowed throughout their dismal season. It is the most goals they have conceded in a league campaign since 1978-79. United were historically poor in defense in 2021-22, but they still needed a bit of luck to keep things better than they were.
Erik ten Hag will start the 2022-23 season playing against Brighton & Hove Albion, Brentford, Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester City in August. Three of those opponents scored four goals against United last season.
As it stands, the centre-backs available to Ten Hag for these matches are: Phil Jones, Axel Tuanzebe, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane.
If the above sentence made you think ‘United desperately need to buy a centre-back this summer’, then this piece is for you.
Here’s why Lisandro Martinez, Jurrien Timber, Benoit Badiashile and others continue to be linked with the club – but why they alone might not be able to solve United’s problems.
How have United kept spending money on centre-backs?
United have spent a lot of money on centre-backs over the past decade because – as many players signed with the club after Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 – every time they bring in someone, the situation around them changes.
In 11 years, Jones, Bailly, Lindelof, Maguire and Varane cost the better part of £200million in transfer fees alone, while Tuanzebe graduated from the academy and hovered around the first team.
Ferguson brought Jones to the club in 2011 to form a centre-back partnership with Chris Smalling and become the backbone of his “fourth great team”. That team never quite came together, and injuries and dysfunctional management spells in David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal left Jones and Smalling in need of help in 2016.
That help was supposed to come in the form of two defenders who arrived for two consecutive seasons under Jose Mourinho. Together they form a defensive duo that still makes sense on paper, with Bailly working as a scoring centre-back while Lindelof serves as a proactive defender from space. However, injuries and other interpersonal issues meant that many of Mourinho’s league games in 2017-18 and 2018-19 involved a centre-back partnership of Smalling and Lindelof.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried to improve on that first by bringing in Maguire as an upgrade on Jones/Bailly/Smalling in 2019 and then Varane ahead of the 2021-22 season.
Why doesn’t it make any difference?
Over the past six seasons, United’s defense has varied between solid and desolate.
The chart above shows a 10-game rolling average for United’s expected non-penalty goals for (xG – the blue line) and expected against (xGA – the red line).
Here are some movements to pay attention to on the red lines:
- Apart from that slow rise towards the end of the season where the team prioritized winning the Europa League over Premier League games, Mourinho’s first season saw the team defend at a competent level. . They rarely recorded more than 1.0 xGA in games – we’ll use that as a benchmark for future events.
- The 2017-18 season saw the team’s xGA increase significantly (look at the big spike between games 10 and 30 of that campaign). United got away with it thanks to the brilliance of De Gea, who statistically performed at absolute levels. They probably would have conceded 14 more goals and finished fifth this season if they had had an average goalkeeper in the league.
- De Gea couldn’t repeat his exploits in 2018-19 and United’s xGA per game continued to hover above 1.0. Mourinho wanted to buy Maguire in the summer of 2018 to help but was pushed away. Continuing defensive issues led to the manager’s dismissal.
- Solskjaer settled things throughout his interim period and improved them further in 2019-20, when the acquisitions of Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka brought two players who won the majority of their one-on-one defensive duels. It lasted the majority of the 2020-21 season.
- But that all came undone in 2021-22 when attempts to switch from a counter-attacking approach to a possession-focused team led to a group of players going into overdrive. The fast-peaking red line throughout the 2021-22 season covered a series of games when a semi-fit Maguire struggled to cope with opponents and Varane was injured. Solskjaer was fired, interim manager Ralf Rangnick was appointed and a miserable season limped to the finish line.
Solskjaer and Mourinho arrived at United and correctly admitted the team’s defense wasn’t good enough. They sought to remedy this problem by buying better centre-backs – and full-backs – but each man reached a point of diminishing returns on his purchases.
Solskjaer’s approach of buying better defenders to do the same job was somewhat effective, but when he tried to change the job of players in front of his back five, several previously competent defenders failed.
Rangnick’s attempts to fix a leaky defense changed little in a team that rarely took on team-wide responsibilities. Varane’s debut season was disappointing not only because of his injury problems but because of weaknesses in central midfield and full-back.
The possible signings of Tyrell Malacia and Frenkie de Jong will help Ten Hag solve some problems, but if his team wants to become anything other than a competent defensive unit, they will have to work on how they defend as a collective rather than each other. focus on what an individual brings.
What tasks await Ten Hag?
Defending is aided by collective effort, but United consistently failed to defend as a team last season. Rangnick, who tried to get his players to defend in a compact 4-4-2, repeatedly lamented the space opponents found between defense and midfield.
The caretaker manager was dubbed ‘The Godfather of Gegengpressing’ but neither he nor Solskjaer managed to press this team consistently.
They have averaged a defensive passes per action (PPDA) of 14.2 throughout the season, indicating a lack of intensity in trying to get the ball back.
They finished 13th in the league in high turnovers – a statistic measuring the number of times a team wins the ball in the final third.
United’s lack of intensity when pressuring opponents, coupled with their lack of success winning the ball high up the pitch, put stress on the back line. Few centre-backs in Europe could have defended well under such conditions.
Virgil van Dijk’s job is aided by Liverpool’s collective press and Fabinho’s work in midfield.
Manchester City conceded so few goals last season because Pep Guardiola goes out of his way to ensure his players are comfortable with the amount of space they have to defend. It is rare that Rodri is far from his teammates during the game phases, which allows him to intervene more calmly and repress threats. When United lose possession, chaos often erupts, with players unsure who should make the next tackle.
Rather than looking at individual centre-backs who can fix the mess through force of will and tackling, Ten Hag will need to improve his team’s form when out of possession, how he presses as a collective and how he counter-presses by losing. the ball.
His Ajax side of 2018-19 were known for ‘pressing variance’ – they changed the speed and angles at which they pressed opponents before winning the ball back. United won’t be a replica of any of Ten Hag’s Ajax sides, but in his first interview with the club he spoke of wanting his United to play ‘dominant and dictated football’ eventually. The skill and quality of the people — therefore the players — decide how you should play”.
Better defenders can only get you so far by preventing goals – United will have to play with a clearer collective vision.
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)