Manchester United sacked José Mourinho in December 2018. They appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in order to change the mentality at the club. It’s a work in progress and some of Solskjaer’s principles are different from Mourinho’s. It will take time and patience to make United a dominant side again. However, Solskjaer is not a fan favorite after 14 months at the club. One of the main criticism he has faced lately is about United’s defensive record. Despite spending £125m on Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, United’s defensive record didn’t improve as much as expected.
Under Mourinho, Manchester United weren’t a high pressing side. Mourinho’s tactics consist of sustaining pressure without the ball. Solskjaer decided to be more proactive in defensive duties. A big change which takes a bit of time, especially when you have to focus on many other issues to fix within the squad. ”Many before have hailed the end of history; none have ever been right.” – All of this to say we will judge United on what they are doing right now. Our judgement about the current state of United’s defensive structure won’t take into account how it will be in a year from now.
United’s defensive stats this season have been better than last season but this is still not enough to be part of the elites of the league. They conceded 29 goals in 25 games, which represents around 44 goals over the course of a 38-game season. Last season, United conceded 54 goals. Regarding xG against, United are third. However, it would be misleading to say that United have been unlucky since six out of the Top 10 teams are underperforming their xGA. Also, United are conceding 10.3 shots per game this year, less than last year’s 13.13.
Link between defence and attack
Being good defensively starts with being organised when you have the ball. This way, you can prevent any good transitions from your opponent. It also means your overall shape defines how good you can be on both ends on the pitch. It is a basic understanding of tactics for any football fan or coach.
With United, it begins with David De Gea and their centre-backs. Indeed, De Gea isn’t very good with his feet. Him being more advanced than usual would mean United can push higher up the pitch and be more compact than they are at present.
It will reduce space between the lines and will allow them to get on the ball quicker to press the opponent when they lose the ball. However, having Maguire and Lindelöf playing in a higher line would be risky. They don’t have the recovery pace to do it. That is why you can see Eric Bailly being chosen by United fans. He would be a better fit alongside Maguire, should he stay fit. This is backed by the image below where you see Maguire and Lindelöf not being able to get back to the Brugge’s player.
Then, De Gea shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. De Gea not being great with his feet is a major issue for United. Although he has improved since last season, De Gea is still not good enough to relieve pressure off his team. He can’t play as the 11th player in the side so instead of creating an overload in the buildup, Fred and Matić can still be man-marked and it results in United not being able to progress the play.
It wouldn’t be a big issue if United had a forward strong in the air but they don’t. It results in United not being able to sustain pressure while the opposition is able to do it in Red Devils’ half, which leads to defenders being more likely to make mistakes. United have made five errors leading to goals this season and we can add the Bournemouth game where Maguire and Wan-Bissaka weren’t able to sustain pressure in their own box.
When assessing the quality of a defence, we just can’t ignore the fact this is linked to how the offence is handled. Everyone is raving about United having the third-best xG in the league. However, when you only take into account xG from open play, you can see that United are only seventh with 30 xG from open play whilst teams like Liverpool and City have 49 and 57 respectively.
Adding onto that, United are only 11th in terms of big chances created per game. Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Leicester are leading the league in terms of that statistic. There is a big creativity issue at United but it isn’t the only reason for these numbers. United are a precautious side who won’t push too high and will rather play on the counter.
All in all, football is a game of compactness and balance. However, United are far from being a balanced side. It will take time and it has a massive impact on both ends of the pitch but it will come good. Unfortunately, their compactness and ability to move as a unit aren’t United’s only issues. Set-pieces are one as well.
United concede a lot more goals than they should through set-pieces. United are defending in what we call zonal marking. With zonal marking, each player is responsible for a certain zone in the penalty area, and you can work on this in the training ground by using coloured cones to mark out a zone.
If the ball comes into a zone, then it is that player’s responsibility to deal with it. When implemented properly, zonal marking can make you much tighter defensively. The key to it is plenty of practice on the training ground and ensuring there is good communication between players on the pitch. Rafa Benitez used it at Liverpool and even though he was blamed for using it, he showed the efficiency of zonal-marking on his website. You can see below Liverpool were performing pretty well on set-pieces.
Although it would be lazy to say using zonal-marking is the only reason to why United concede this much on set-pieces, there are times where you seem unlucky but this is because you don’t deserve to be lucky. United players seem to suffer pressure instead of being well organised in their penalty area. This is due to the fact they aren’t used to zonal-marking yet. However, it doesn’t mean Solskjaer and United players shouldn’t take blame for it.
In the first picture above, you can see United are in zonal-marking, which will result in Maguire being isolated in a 2 vs 1. Despite Maguire being good in the air, he just can’t win a 2 vs 1 situation. What is even more telling of United’s struggles is in the second picture, where you can see Maguire on Gomez, yet he is the one who will be beaten in the air by Van Dijk.
We can also say this isn’t all down to their marking. Indeed, when you are struggling with set-pieces, your goalkeeper needs to relieve pressure off your backline. David De Gea isn’t doing it and is even bad at it. We all remember his mistake against Everton this season but stats are also backing what the eye can see. De Gea is ranked joint-10th in terms of claims per 90 in Premier League this season. It has always been his main weakness and he still hasn’t improved in this regard. He should do better because United are struggling because of it.
All in all, we can say that United are struggling to defend set-pieces but it’s a work in progress which will prove to be efficient very soon. However, whilst they are working on it, United can prevent these issues by not conceding corners or set-pieces which result in the team being all over the place. This is what we will try to explain in the next part about United’s pressing structure.
United’s pressing structure
United are pressing higher up the pitch this season and it shows. Their PPDA (Passes allowed Per Defensive Actions) is 9.6 this season whilst being on around 10.2 for the last two seasons. In order to put this into perspective, City, Spurs under Poch and Liverpool are around nine or below. So, what explains this change in pressing? Firstly, we need to see United’s pressing zones from StatsBomb.
This is much more coordinated than in the past and it is also higher up the pitch. They have also adopted a very efficient way of pressing. United orientate the play on the outside in order to not be hit on the inside. They are using a man-orientated zonal marking for this. Once the play has been directed to the outside, players close the inside whilst activating pressing traps. It forces the opponent to play long or to play back to their centre-backs.
In the pictures above, you can see United players closing the inside very well. This is still not perfect because they are still letting gaps appear but the opponent doesn’t take advantage of it most of the time. They should be careful though.
Manchester United are very comfortable pressing high up the pitch. However, they aren’t good enough at inviting pressure in their own half. In the image below, you can see United defenders being disorganised when the opponent is close to their box.
A very interesting case is the one below when Wan-Bissaka is pushing high and Scott Mctominay doesn’t close the space behind him and it results in United conceding a corner, from which Dunk scored for Brighton. United could have prevented the goal if the players moved together.
All in all, United’s pressing structure still needs work but there are solid principles. Once it will be perfected, United will concede even fewer goals than they do now.
United’s defensive structure still needs to be worked upon but it is much better than in past three seasons. It’s a work in progress and we shouldn’t expect to see instant changes in only one season when many issues in other areas of the game are still there. Solskjaer and his staff have done a great job about it but it’s nowhere near good enough for a club of United’s level. It takes time because of one big task they have on their hands: working with a dozen of average players whilst trying to change United’s mindset.
All in all, we shouldn’t misinterpret our analysis of United’s defensive structure. they have improved but they aren’t the perfect defensive side yet. This is mainly due to key positions such as goalkeeper being outdated and a lack of different profiles in the backline. Solskjaer isn’t doing that bad of a job defensively all things considered.