Written by Artyom Tonoyan
Manchester United had a very stormy fall. Prior to the victory over Villarreal, the Red Devils have lost 5 of their last 7 matches in the Premier League, are hesitant to pass the Champions League group and have been eliminated from the League Cup.
Watford defeated Manchester United with a negative difference between goals scored and conceded in the Premier League. Manchester United scored 20 goals in 12 rounds of the Premier League, conceding 21 times. It’s impossible to close our eyes to such results, because they stem from the terrible quality of the game. Let’s take a look at the main reasons for this situation. What is happening with Manchester United and what factors influenced it?
With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, there has been a noticeable change in the way Manchester United operates without the ball. The team became passive and less cohesive. Manchester United gives opponents time to prepare for offensives and allows them to move into more dangerous zones. Simply put, Manchester defends worse and does not control the course of matches.
The Red Devils conceded first in nine of their last 12 games. This negates the progress of the past seasons, when we have deservedly praised United. Previously, it was possible to effectively hold the defense by switching between high pressure and positioning mode. No one fell out of the pressure, everyone acted intensively and harmoniously. It was a strong argument in big matches, where it gave efficiency along with fine tuning of the formation to match the opponents’ play.
This season there were difficulties with pressing, and further along the chain, the entire defensive play of the team worsened. The contrast can be seen both visually and statistically. In the 20-21 season, United on average allowed only 1 expected goal per match, and now allows one and a half.
The intensity of pressure on the opponents has decreased, and attempts to prevent the start of an attack on another third of the field have become less frequent. The average number of such pressing actions decreased by 18% – a fall from fifth place in the league by 16. Overall pressing success across the field sank. This is how the numbers express the influence of Ronaldo on the team’s game, or more precisely, on its actions to contain opponents and return the ball:
Pressing actions on another third in the season 20-21: 35.3.
Pressure actions on another third in the season 21-22: 29.
PPDA for the season 20-21: 10.95.
PPDA 21-22: 12.7
Manchester United rivals XG 90 minutes in 20-21 season: 1.03 (4th).
Manchester United Rivals XG 90 mins 21-22: 1.52 (15th)
Cristiano himself performs less than 6 pressing actions and occupies low places in this component both in the team and in relation to all the forwards of the top leagues. Very few people allow themselves to be so off without the ball. When Ronaldo is focused on tackling and pushing with all his might, there is a transformation of the team in defensive action.
You can remember the first matches of Ronaldo after his return, as well as the game with Atalanta. But even there, attempts by Krishtin were not enough. Why Solskjaer was never able to agree with Ronaldo on this matter is an unanswered question. Cristiano’s offensive benefits often outweigh the defensive difficulties. The task of the Portuguese coaches and partners is to adapt to all mechanisms, which few people succeed in. Ronaldo’s passivity can be compensated by his fellow attackers.
But so far only Cavani and Fernandes are plowing for two from the front line of Manchester United. With both of these players on the pitch, United is good at pinching opponents in his side, despite Ronaldo being cut off from defense. His work is shared by Edinson and Bruno, covering the center and semi-flanks. A striking example is the confrontation with Tottenham.
Bruno and Cavani chose the most optimal moments for pressing, directed it, blocked the pass lines to the defenders and entered the selection if the passes passed. The pressure of the Red Devils was aimed at pinning the opponents on the flank, where fullbacks rose high and helped to take away. Tottenham was not ready for the game under pressure, Atalanta also had difficulties. United’s problem is that Cavani is often injured, and without him the passivity and imbalance of the team return.
The quality of United’s game is also affected by injuries and the suboptimal shape of all defenders. Rafael Varane spent a little more than half of the maximum possible time on the field by mid-November. Harry Maguire was also injured, and his return to the match with Leicester was hasty.
For an important game against Man City, Victor Lindelof was not ready. Everything is aggravated by the fact that none of the defenders in the fall has gained optimal shape for themselves. This manifests itself in a large number of individual mistakes and shortcomings – the terrible imports of Maguiar with Leicester, the weak opposition of Bayi Zapata in the return game with Atalanta, the helplessness of One-Bissaki against Foden, the turbidity with Shaw against Liverpool.
The enumerations can be continued, but the output will not change. Individually, each United defender makes an already dire situation worse. Problems of a different nature are observed: both a lack of understanding of how to act, and psychology. For the sake of fairness, we note that the poor play of the defenders is also associated with the looseness of the top lines. So everyone needs to add.
United’s conspicuous shortage of quality defensive defensive midfielder-destroyer. When Ronaldo plays the lone striker, he needs a defensive plowman behind him to bring the balance back. This should be not only a hardy, but also a tactically trained defensive midfielder, who would cover more space, be successful in martial arts and not make mistakes in decisions – when to advance himself, and when, on the contrary, to go down and secure the advanced center def.
In these components, problems are observed for everyone with whom Solskjaer covered the support zone. It is unclear what the sporting director and head coach were counting on when this position was left unchanged in the summer. The team has a shortage of defensive players and an overload of wingers, and the career of the promising Donny van de Beek is also crumbling.
Continuing the restrained criticism of Solskjaer, we note the following: one gets the impression that Ole and his staff have begun to prepare the team for matches in less detail and react less well along the way. In a number of matches, the players did not understand how to react in a situation, whom to advance to, whom to transfer to partners. A relatively recent example is the City derby.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka concentrated on playing according to Foden, while Cancelo received huge spaces and either no one moved to it at all, or Fernandes belatedly. The tactical decision of Solskjaer framed the team and during the disastrous first half, the coach did not react in any way. There are at least 2 analysts in his headquarters who simply could not help but pay attention to this. Wan-Bissaka suffered in meetings with Liverpool and Atalanta, when they also lacked clarity of instructions and mutual safety net.
With summer transfers, Manchester United greatly raised the expectations of fans and the media. Many in all seriousness recorded the Red Devils as the main contenders for the Premier League championship, despite strong competitors.
All these expectations gradually put pressure on the team, and after a series of unsuccessful matches, they were replaced by a powerful stream of mud. Few people did not smash Solskjaer and his team. All this affected the team and destroyed the atmosphere inside.
The Norwegian coach could not save Manchester United. After losing to Watford, the club decided to fire him. All that remains is to say a big thank you to Solskjaer. He has done a great job here. He brought Manchester United to the Europa League final, won a derby against Guardiola, and rid the team of Marcos Rojo… But Ole is not yet ready to fight Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel.