Manchester United are a mess.

In the current Premier League era, the truest title contenders are known for things such as positional discipline, excellence in possession or the speed of their counter-pressing, but since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement United have become better known for exorbitant spending with little discernible reward.

If we look at the nine years since Ferguson left, United have had spells where they have been a defensive football team without defending very well, followed by spells where they have been free-scoring without having clear, repeatable methods as to how to attack.

Make no mistake, the Manchester United side that Erik ten Hag will be inheriting is not short of problems.

Here are the challenges that lie ahead…


The 2021-22 season will conclude with United in a period of sideways drift; secure but unconvincing when defending and lacking in confidence when going forward. The final squad includes six academy graduates and 21 players signed by five different managers (two of them signed by Ferguson himself).

United’s squad issues are top to bottom. Manchester United’s heavy investment would suggest the intention was for them to be in “win now” mode, given most players are in their peak years, but the team is several steps away from winning anything. They have two strikers in Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani who are at the tail-end of their careers, yet it is Ronaldo bearing the brunt of minutes and goalscoring when it comes to United’s attack.

United often field wildly unbalanced starting XIs that are vulnerable to the most straightforward attacks, and the club’s inefficiency when it comes to selling players (they have made a profit on only four players in the last 10 years), and their choice to dish out long-term contracts to fringe players has created a bloated squad of ambiguous quality (Phil Jones in 2022 is good enough to be a Premier League player, we don’t know for which team) and varying duties.

There is a tangled tactical mess for Ten Hag to sort out, and unlike the famed Gordian Knot of legend, he cannot simply cut everything and start again.

To understand the job at hand we will dissect United’s issues in and out of possession, in each section of the pitch.


Goalkeepers need to be more than just shot-stoppers

David de Gea isn’t a bad goalkeeper. In fact, when it comes to shot-stopping athleticism he is pretty remarkable, but that simply may not be enough for United.

Playing as goalkeeper in one of United’s worst defensive seasons isn’t a job to be taken lightly. The graphic below underlines how De Gea has faced a high volume of high-quality shots per 90 and prevented almost just as many.

But shot-stopping isn’t the only question asked of a modern goalkeeper. Out of the entire Premier League, De Gea ranks the lowest when it comes to cross engagement. He rarely comes off his line and that leaves United vulnerable, especially at set pieces.

Perhaps what is most relevant to Ten Hag is how De Gea operates on the ball, given that he does not fit the mould of a Ten Hag goalkeeper. Ajax’s Andre Onana, who has made more appearances under Ten Hag than anyone else in that position, is one of the best ball-playing modern goalkeepers in Europe.

This can be shown by not only the volume of Onana’s distribution of the ball but also where he distributes it, finding midfielders across the central areas and full-backs high and wide in the flanks. With De Gea, Ten Hag is starting a race with his shoelaces tied together. The graphic below shows how De Gea’s distribution pales in comparison with Onana. He is unable to move it far outside of his box and is uncomfortable positioning himself far off his line when United are in possession.

As a result, United are always one man down in their build-up play.

While United’s second-choice goalkeeper Dean Henderson might prove to be a more suitable stylistic fit for Ten Hag’s football than De Gea, it’s uncertain whether he has enough quality for a team wanting to win trophies.


A mismatch at right-back

Aaron Wan-Bissaka has strengths to his game, particularly in defensive situations, but he loses value to United when you consider how modern teams wish to use their full-backs on both sides of the ball.

Wan-Bissaka intervenes successfully in situations that others wouldn’t, especially closing down tricky wingers, but if a side like United aims to dominate possession (which they do) that means what Wan-Bissaka offers in possession holds more weight than what he does off it.

The right-back does not offer much with the ball compared to other players in his position in the Premier League. He isn’t a high-volume chance creator or one to deliver “thread the needle” passes to his forwards. He is a dormant participant in United’s attack — often there, but not really there.

When playing ahead of Wan-Bissaka, Jadon Sancho often has to receive the ball deeper than he typically prefers, forcing him to drop deeper and vacate the spaces where he works best. Ten Hag’s sides are notorious for full-backs being encouraged to bomb forward in attacking positions and tucking in the midfield, which leaves Wan-Bissaka with a question mark going forward.

The graphic below shows how Sancho receives the ball in higher positions when playing on the left, ahead of Luke Shaw, compared to on the right-hand side ahead of Wan-Bissaka.

Diogo Dalot has shown some attacking promise and intelligence for passing from the half-spaces during his outings for United this season, and Brandon Williams has put in some competent performances for Norwich in patches while on loan, but it’s clear Ten Hag will need to find a suitable system for his right-backs next season — or recruit a new one.


Weaknesses in defence are often left exposed

Manchester United’s defence has been dealt a bad hand this season, as the side’s (nominal) defensive midfielders often make poor decisions gambling on tackles while the wingers are reluctant to track back.

This leaves United’s back four with acres of space to manage, making it impossible for any defender to look efficient in this United system. Instead of hiding players’ weaknesses, this United side tends to expose them.

Smarterscout’s duel ratings allow us to assess a player’s ability tackling, heading and dribbling, while taking into consideration the quality of opponent a player has faced in those duels, and acts as a weighted measure. Out of all United’s defenders, Harry Maguire is the only one that provides aerial threat and dominance. But his agility, or lack thereof, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to tackling opponents.

For a side that steadily controls possession, this would not be such an issue, but this Manchester United team is not known for its stable defensive structure.

A team that has spent hundreds of millions strengthening their defence should not be so vulnerable as United — but two big reasons for that are the lack of adequate protection in front of them and the fact the chosen defenders do not wholly complement one another. Maguire struggles in situations against tricky wingers, Varane tends to be too safe in possession, Lindelof tends to be exposed when he engages with physical forwards in aerial duels and Bailly isn’t short of rash decision-making. Wan-Bissaka, while very good at beating his man, still has positional issues (for example, he is too narrow when United are in possession, leaving his opposing winger in space). And where Maguire and Varane is seen as the ideal partnership, the latter has only played just more than 50 per cent of minutes available due to multiple injuries.


A struggle to exit their own half

The graphic below illustrates the most frequent type of passes that United make from sequences beginning in their own third. It shows us how they typically move the ball when making the first, second and third pass.

Once again, United’s issues begin from the bottom. Given that these are the very early passes of a possession sequence, De Gea’s lack of involvement further underlines how little he offers on the ball.

There is also a clear lack of central penetration in their passes. Two of their frequent pass groups are sideways passes or switches to the opposite side. That points to the fact that United’s midfielders struggle to progress the ball and find forwards in valuable space.

And while this may be a case of banging the same old drum, Manchester United still heavily rely on the left flank to progress, given that their frequent pass groups to move the ball forwards come from the left, notably Shaw, which worsens the imbalance of the flanks.

Everything about United moving the ball in build-up suggests that they struggle getting out of their own half, especially when facing an intense press.

Here’s an example of this from the FA Cup game away to Leicester last season, when Fred was the unfortunate target of a pressing trap whose use was by no means limited to Leicester.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were attempting to build from the back but both full-backs were too deep and too narrow for Maguire to make a progressive pass that would not be immediately shut down.

Note the positioning of Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho in relation to United’s centre-backs. An easy passing option is cut off through the middle.

It is at this point that one of the defensive midfielders, Fred, drops deep and offers an outlet for Maguire.

But he is immediately pressed from three directions by Leicester…

The ball is won back and it runs through to Iheanacho for a simple finish…

Little has been done to improve this over the course of this season. For all of his passion and application, Scott McTominay lacks the match-reading awareness to escape “cover shadow” and stand in areas where he can easily receive the ball and help United in their build-up.

Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes have dropped deep at times to aid in build-up, but this often leaves United shorn of one creator closer to the opposition’s penalty area.

Ten Hag will need to address United’s weaknesses in getting the ball from the edge of their own penalty box towards the centre circle — let alone to the edge of the opposition’s penalty box.

Which brings us neatly on to…


The lack of a progressive midfield 

Passing sonars summarise how frequently players complete passes at each angle, and by looking at sonars for United’s double pivot of McTominay and Fred we can look at how those players do or don’t progress the ball in midfield.

Both players struggle to move the ball forwards in frequency and distance. Fred’s passing value comes higher up the pitch and McTominay tends to hide when United are in possession. That has a ripple effect. United can’t get the ball to their forwards and it creates a burden on the likes of Shaw and Maguire to progress the ball instead of their central midfielders.

More importantly, the stack of forwards that United have assembled in recent seasons all demand a different system. Fernandes thrives on high-octane transitions while Ronaldo wants sustained pressure in the opposition half and crosses.

This central midfield cannot provide any of that. It fails at being a sword for the front four and at being a shield for the back four.


Shot volume 

When attacking, United used to have a knack for doing just the right thing at just the right time — that is granting talented players freedom to express their creativity. Now United have a tendency to treat putting the ball in the net as an afterthought.

United’s shot volume has stayed consistent for the past five seasons, but that is consistently low for a team of their stature. With 13.8 shots per game in the 2021-22 Premier League season, they rank below all of Liverpool (18.52), Manchester City (18), Chelsea (15.17) and Arsenal (14.53).

Simply put, United do not create enough chances. Nor do they finish the ones they do manufacture with a great degree of authority.


Ronaldo: more or less than a goalscorer? 

Ronaldo didn’t prove to be the missing piece of United’s attack as marketed, but he has frequently struck gold for United this season, including his hat-trick in Man Utd’s 3-2 win against Spurs and his brace in the win against Arsenal.

His hot streak of form upon his arrival didn’t last long but he remains the focal point for United going forward and generates a very high tally of 3.9 shots per 90, the second-highest in the Premier League after Mohammed Salah.

Ronaldo is undoubtedly not the player fans remember. Once a ruthless striker in front of goal, now he is underperforming his xG by a difference of three goals.

What Ronaldo offers to this United side is about more than just the split seconds in which he scores goals; it is also about how he participates in possession.

The graphic below depicts where Ronaldo received passes in each phase for Juventus before his move to United. The size of the scatter is how long the pass of that particular possession sequence lasted — was it a transition or was it settled play? The colour indicates if the possession reached the next phase (i.e. moved higher up the pitch, or in the case of threat, generated a shot). Green means it did reach the next phase, red means it didn’t.

It is not news that Ronaldo has always been the type of player that likes to show for the ball. The difference now is that when he does receive it, he cannot do much. When building up, many of his pass receptions do not lead to United going forward, especially in counter-attacks (short possession sequences) and for a team like United that thrives on them, this presents a mismatch.

He takes up positions all across the pitch, taking the ball away from notable creators like Fernandes and Pogba. When he does get involved in the final third, most sequences do not lead to shots. That is the player he was at Juventus (as shown in the graphic above) and he is still the same player.

Ronaldo does offer value through his goalscoring and movement in the box though. The difficulty for a manager like Ten Hag is how to integrate Ronaldo into a side looking to dominate possession.


Passive from set pieces 

Manchester United’s set pieces carry more of a goal threat for opponents than themselves. For a side that struggles to break down teams in a low block, dead-ball situations are good mechanical ways to break the deadlock, just by practising and executing a pattern.

But United’s set pieces, especially corners, most often tend to be a naive attempt at a hallelujah that gift the opposition a good opportunity for a counter-attack.

The table below shows how only Norwich have scored fewer goals from set pieces in the Premier League this season. This is particularly surprising given that United’s squad isn’t short of technical ability in delivering crosses (Pogba, Bruno, Shaw and Sancho) and aerial threat (Maguire, Ronaldo and McTominay). The personnel to be a threatening side at set pieces is there, it is just not used adequately.

If United are to be a threatening team they have to be one that is able to create (and score) from all situations.


United’s issues on the pitch aren’t immediately solved by the bold (and creative) appointment of Ten Hag. It’s clear to see that they have cracks in their structure in and out of possession: that includes everything from how they move the ball and how they attempt to win it back.

The club hasn’t always operated the most efficiently in the market — whether that is buying good players that don’t fit their current archetype (Donny van de Beek) or neglecting gaping holes in certain positions (a defensive midfielder) — but the current batch of players are better than their last string of performances.

How Ten Hag, a manager who has always operated under a clear philosophy, chooses to navigate the unclear maze of this United squad is what makes the appointment all the more exciting.

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