The ‘bigger picture’ is that Ten Hag’s Manchester United tactics invite peril

Manchester United v Fulham was supposed to be one of the more predictable fixtures in English football.

The London side had not won at Old Trafford since 2003. In the last 18 fixtures between these two sides in all competitions, United had been victorious on 15 occasions, drawing the remaining three. Fulham had won only once away from home in 2023-24, an opening weekend victory over Everton. No result in the Premier League is ever guaranteed. Still, when Erik ten Hag described United’s remaining games in 2024 “as a final”, few believed a visit from Marco Silva’s side would carry the same danger as ones from Jurgen Klopp in April or Mikel Arteta in May.

United’s hopes for qualifying for the 2024-25 Champions League have been seriously damaged after a 2-1 defeat highlighted their many long-standing issues.

A counter-attacking to-and-fro in the first half led to Calvin Bassey opening the scoring in the 65th minute, taking advantage of slack defending from a corner. Alex Iwobi’s 96th-minute goal would be the second-latest winning goal against Manchester United in the Premier League. The sight of Adama Traore powering past Christian Eriksen and Harry Maguire to set up the goal was damning. The reaction of Alejandro Garnacho, who collapsed to the turf after the goal was conceded, was telling. 

United react to Iwobi’s goal (Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

United ended the match with more shots on target (nine to Fulham’s five) and a higher xG (1.67 v 1.11) than their opponents, but that owed a debt to a seven-minute rally on Fulham’s goal after a hard-earned equaliser from Maguire in the 89th minute. They were passive for most of Saturday’s proceedings; a starting XI full of square pegs in round holes was made more complicated when Casemiro was forced off early in the second half due to a head injury.

“It was a big loss to lose Casemiro. We lost some stability in the team and conceded a goal that is very avoidable before we fought back in the game,” was Ten Hag’s assessment. “I have to credit the team – they showed great character. Then we went for the win, but by the end we let them slip away.”

The United manager asked fans to “see the bigger picture” rather than focus on the result, but his team are approaching a precarious state. Ten Hag has repeatedly argued that injuries have hobbled his team’s ability to perform at their best this season, yet he appears unwilling — or unable — to deviate from a tactical setup that leaves them vulnerable to counter-attacks.

United have a poor pressing structure, easily bypassed by opponents, even when the squad is at full strength. United wish to attack at speed but lack precision in their passing, meaning the ball is often lost in the final third. They cannot control games (nor do they seek to) and are often porous in defence. They have conceded 100 shots in their past five games. They remain sixth in the league table, with a goal difference of zero.

“We made some changes,” said Marco Silva about Fulham’s approach on Saturday. “We knew what we were going to face and gave more freedom to Andreas Pereira to play some moments side by side with Harrison Reed and Sasa Lukic. Without Joao (Palhinha), who can cover a lot of kilometres on the pitch and big areas, we try to change some things to be compact and change our build-up. We won that battle, which is really important. Alex (Iwobi) didn’t always play on the left, he came inside to help as well.”

One of the reasons United lost at Old Trafford is that Ten Hag believed a tactical system that yields many easy chances for opponents, even on a good day, would be enough to beat Fulham. Silva acknowledged what weakness Fulham would arise due to Palhinha’s suspension and worked to minimise it and to find a way to maximise what other talent remained in his starting XI.  Injuries to Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw and Rasmus Hojlund limited Ten Hag’s playing options, but his continued insistence on a transition-heavy playing style invites peril. 

“Other players coming in have different identities and different skills that we have to adapt to as a team, but the routines and principles are still the same,” said the United manager when asked if he could change things. He’s not the first manager to prioritise Plan A’s refinement over Plan B’s development, but United have too few match-fit individuals who can carry out his football to the level he wants. Games in the FA Cup and the Manchester derby next week could define the rest of their 2023-24 campaign.

Manchester United are stuck in a tactical rut, without their best players to help them. Something has to change. Only time will tell what that something is.

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top