Manchester United emphasized the importance of a proactive style of football when building a blueprint for their rebuild that took off this summer.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guided United to third and second placed finishes, but a lack of clear identity always raised doubts over his credentials. Once the results dried up, it became clear the Red Devils were not going to progress under him.
Accordingly, when looking for Solskjaer’s successor, John Murtough, the club’s director of football, was determined to bring in a manager capable of introducing structured and attractive football at Old Trafford.
Erik ten Hag trumped Mauricio Pochettino in that respect, and was eventually appointed as United’s new manager in May.
At Ajax, the Dutchman’s players progressed the ball from the back, and pressed with a high defensive line. The importance of efficiently moving the ball in the first phase of the build up in that Ajax side cannot be overstated.
United were successful in convincing the marionettist to move to the Theatre of Dreams, but failed to provide him with adequate marionettes to put on a proper show.
In order to maintain possession in deeper zones by creating an overload, Ten Hag depended on the ball-playing ability of his goalkeeper, and more importantly, a midfielder who could drop and receive the ball off the centre-backs.
Yet Murtough was unable to address both key positions. Despite his well-known struggles with the ball at his feet, David de Gea is still United’s No 1, while Ten Hag’s priority target Frenkie de Jong stayed at Barcelona.
Fortunately for United, they’ve hired a manager, who despite his Johan Cruyff Arena roots is not as rigid with his philosophy as their former manager Louis van Gaal.
Ten Hag sacrificed his ideas as well as the ball after two straight defeats in the first two Premier League games in pursuit of better results.
The Dutch coach made some significant personnel and tactical changes in all areas of the pitch. For the purpose of the current discussion, our sole focus will be around United’s central defenders and how Ten Hag has used them so far and how he can partner them going forward in order to make the best use of their individual traits.
Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof don’t complement each other and are not an optimal tactical choice against any opponent and will very much remain rotational options.
Martinez-Maguire: Possession Heavy
Ten Hag’s team selection in his early days at the club indicated he wanted to implement his possession-based system at United from the get go. He shifted Maguire to the right side of the defence and signed Lisandro Martinez to fill the left spot.
Martinez was expected to act as a carrier, and find better angles to break the lines and progress the play due to him being left-footed. Maguire, meanwhile was handed the role of a passer, finding his teammates higher up the field with his right-foot.
Reality quickly dawned upon the new manager, as De Gea’s ability or lack thereof fell right into Brentford’s pressing traps, who thwarted United’s every attempt to build from the back. The absence of a first phase midfielder to receive the ball off centre-backs didn’t help either, leading to Ten Hag keeping his ‘total football’ vision aside.
Ten Hag introduced Varane in the very next game, ceded territory and looked to hit Liverpool on the counter. The Frenchman’s defensive prowess, understanding of switching from zonal marking to man marking, and communication helped United in absorbing pressure before exploiting the space behind with the pace of their forwards.
Varane’s recovery speed has also allowed Martinez to be more aggressive in his attempts to recover the ball.
However, the France international isn’t very assured in possession, and hence United have more or less opted to overlook the midfield in their possession phases. In recent games, De Gea has been instructed to go long, while centre-backs have distributed the ball to full-backs instead of playing through the middle.
But against teams who allow United to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and don’t offer any space to run in behind, Ten Hag’s men might struggle to cut open the defence, especially considering the limited creativity in their midfield. This could tempt the gaffer to reintroduce the Maguire-Martinez pairing to move the ball better in their own half before passing it into the final third.
Maguire-Varane: Away Day
Martinez has so far dealt well with the physical forwards in English football, but it’s no secret that teams have – as highlighted by Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher after Brighton and Brentford loss – and will look to play more long balls to take advantage of his stature, especially away from home.
The Argentine uses well timed run to get the better of his opponents aerially, but such factors become less influential during set piece situations. And with the goalkeeper who’s not great at commanding his box and claiming crosses, United are always vulnerable when the ball is played in their penalty area (Ben Mee’s goal from the corner at Brentford).
Meanwhile, both Maguire and Varane are towering defenders and can be relied upon against teams who maximize the use of physically imposing forwards (Michail Antonio for West Ham and Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham among others) to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Ten Hag has already used three different combinations at United, and considering the shortcomings in midfield and in between the sticks, as well as the different profiles of his centre-backs, the 52-year-old will have to regularly rotate Martinez, Varane and Maguire to mask his side’s weaknesses and yield desired results even if it means putting his philosophy on hold for the time being.