What on Earth is going so wrong at Manchester United?
Manchester United’s difficulties should be kept in perspective. They have problems clubs below the Premier League fantasise about. Media talk about being “8 points behind the leaders ALREADY!!!” as though eight points from top spot with seven months left in the season is an un-spannable canyon. This early, it is nothing.
But United clearly need big improvement to get anywhere near the EPL title in May. Strangely, their showing against Liverpool was so appalling that the outcome might do them a favour. Quite simply, Liverpool did not just thrash United, they melted them down, exposing every weakness in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. United coaches need not trawl through video of other matches to catalogue problems, they were all in one game.
Most observers have noted how Liverpool are a team and United a mass of individuals, and Liverpool’s vastly higher work-rate. Certainly United must address those issues. But I also noticed startling confusion in United, suggesting their basic organisation is faltering. I detest the knee-jerk tendency to attack coaches whenever things are imperfect, but this does indicate that Solskjaer’s coaching really is weak.
The single biggest flaw
When not in possession, United players seem to be trying to accomplish two mutually-exclusive approaches to defending simultaneously. Half of them hold position, maintaining a tactical shape difficult to break down. The other half push up to pressurise the player in possession.
Look at Liverpool’s first two goals; it stands out like an Evertonian on the Kop. Both times, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood left their positions in formation on the right, hurtling upfield chasing the ball like it was an under-7s match. Behind them, the other defenders were trying to remain tucked into formation, but found their entire right flank empty. They therefore had to shuffle right, spread thin, leaving the opposite flank and parts of the middle wide open. With the pace of Liverpool’s attackers, that is hitting self-destruct.
I doubt United’s players have the speed and fitness required for the high press. Liverpool are so good at it because Jurgen Klopp’s fitness regime is the most intense in football. But whatever the case, the key thing is that, whichever approach a team adopts – high press or keeping formation – everybody must implement it. It is one approach or the other. It cannot be both. That choice is the most fundamental bit of preparing a team, but Solskjaer seems to be overlooking it.
One way or the other, not both
If half the team presses and the other half holds formation, both will fail. The half holding shape will find enormous gaps between them vacated by the other half lurching forward. And with only half the team pressing, there will be always be at least a couple of open players to pass to.
That was what happened throughout the first half against Liverpool, who were probably startled by how easy it was. Had they wished, Liverpool could have run up a really embarrassing score in the second half. Instead they chose to play keep-ball for about twenty-five minutes, going easy on United in the late stages. That, perhaps, is what will hurt United the most.
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