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3 Hot Takes: Liverpool and Man Utd do just enough, Spurs and Newcastle win in different ways
Whole lot of football's been happening!
Hi, and welcome to another 3 Hot Takes that should not have taken until Thursday. It’s a fairly long one, which may or may not be a good thing for you. I’ve tried to make this feel a bit more like a column, with some other sections at the bottom and a slightly more informal feel. Hopefully, these hot takes shouldn’t be about whether a team is good or bad as much as some things I noticed and thought were interesting. Let’s get into it.
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
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1. What is Ten Hag trying to do?
If you told me beforehand that Man Utd would beat Sheffield Utd and FC Copenhagen (or FC København? UEFA go with the translation, but if any Danes have a strong opinion, do say so) but look pretty flat and uninspiring, I’d have said that sounds about right.
Nine players started both matches: André Onana, Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay, Sofyan Amrabat, Ant*ny, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Højlund. Raphaël Varane returned for Jonny Evans against Copenhagen, but that’s just an upgrade rather than a tactical tweak. I thought Sergio Reguilón coming in for Victor Lindelöf at left back might change the way United played, with Reguilón overlapping a lot more and Rashford cutting inside, but it didn’t cause a huge shift, and Rashford was generally very wide on the left.
Both matches had similar patterns. Save for a mad five minutes against Sheffield Utd when Scott McTominay scored then gave away a penalty, Erik ten Hag’s team spent the first 70 minutes struggling to find a goal before eventually getting there. The issues were the same in both cases. Let’s take this moment against Sheffield Utd below.
Maguire has the ball in his own half and the team are looking to build from the back. There’s just one problem: he has no one to pass to. Ideally in this situation, you’d want a centre back to pass it to a midfield player and work the ball through central areas. But the Blades have nullified this by just sticking their two strikers in front of McTominay and Amrabat. Neither has so much as tried altering their positions to receive it. The right back, Dalot, could, in theory, come a little bit closer into that huge gap to receive it, but he’s way out on the right where it’s a difficult pass. The left back, Lindelöf, has pushed all the way into the forward line where he’s now being covered by a red and white shirt. And he’s one of four players pretty much standing in a straight line. Who in this graphic looks comfortable to receive the ball from Maguire? His only options are to pass it sideways to Evans, or knock it long, which he does. The thing is they do actually get a reasonable attack out of this when Fernandes runs onto the ball, but that’s their only source of getting forward: booting it long.
Cut to midweek and it was the same story straight away. This is only a minute in. Maguire has some options across the back four, but no one who can help progress the ball through the midfield. The opposition forwards are just standing there, and United don’t know what to do because McTominay and Amrabat are so flat. He plays the ball right to Dalot this time, whose head is just peaking through at the bottom of the frame.
United play the ball across the back line a few times, before Reguilón decides he’s bored of this and dribbles forward straight into traffic. Copenhagen win the ball and turn it over to attack. At this point, United are passive in getting into shape behind the ball. I know it looks like I’m cherry-picking, but this happened so many times throughout the matches. Pauly Kwetsel, tactics writer for Man Utd site The Busby Babe, did a good Twitter thread pointing out the same issue.
Maybe this is all fine. They won both games, after all. I don’t think it is fine because Sheffield United and Copenhagen are not impressive opponents, and United should be asserting themselves on these teams. But Ten Hag has been here long enough now to stamp some kind of identity on this team, and it’s passive and direct.
Almost everything good that United do comes from individual moments of quality. Their three goals in these two games were a scuffed shot out of nowhere, a screamer from range, and a punted cross in the second phase of a corner when the centre backs were still in the box. United were heavily criticised under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for being totally reliant on individual moments rather than collective structure. I don’t think that’s really changed.
Ten Hag has been around for a long time, even if he only came to international prominence at Ajax. Despite managing a club that named their stadium after Johan Cruyff, and working at Bayern at the same time as that man’s most famous coaching protégé, Ten Hag is not a lifelong Cruyffian. He spent most of his playing career at FC Twente in an era when they were known for functional football. Perhaps he simply adapted to the players he had at Ajax and is doing the same here.
If Jim Ratcliffe can come in and improve the recruitment, then maybe United just need a few of the right signings and this will look like a decent team. Fix the midfield and you’re halfway there. But is that really what Ten Hag was supposed to be doing? Where are the automatisms, the intensely rehearsed patterns of play that become second nature to players? Where’s the manipulation of space? Does he just want to rely on individual quality? When Jürgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta were managing in their second seasons, we could see exactly what they were trying to do, even if they didn’t always have the players to do it. After over a year at Old Trafford, I still have no idea what Ten Hag is trying to do.
2. Liverpool’s weird choices against Everton
To sidestep any conversations, I’m not going to be talking about the refereeing here. Form whatever opinions you like. I hate talking about referees and I won’t be doing it today.
Sean Dyche sprang a bit of a surprise in the Merseyside Derby last weekend. His team were defensive, as you’d expect from Everton at Anfield but, in the first half, they were quite proactive in that defensive style. They were happy to press Liverpool in the opposition half and, when they were on the back foot, there was a clear idea: keep the ball outside the box at all costs. That meant some pretty hard challenges right outside the area. Of course, this cost them pretty quickly when Ashley Young picked up two avoidable yellows and the plan went out the window.
There’s no shame in parking the bus when you’re down to ten at Anfield. And Everton did a good job of it. Even though they got there in the end, I wasn’t wild about how Liverpool tried to break that down, though. You can see from the xG race chart below that it really took them until the penalty to crack that low block open.
After struggling for the first hour, Klopp made two changes. Harvey Elliott came on for Ryan Gravenberch and, notably, Darwin Núñez replaced Kostas Tsimikas (Joël Matip later came on for Ibrahima Konaté, but that made no difference tactically). I tend to think managers are far too conservative in these types of situations, so I do want to give Klopp some credit for really going for it. But I didn’t love how Liverpool were then set up. Luis Díaz went to left back, though as a very attacking left back, with Diogo Jota as the left winger and Darwin Núñez as the nine. Trent Alexander-Arnold continued his role as an attacking right back who really comes inside as a quasi central midfielder while the actual right-sided CM, Elliott, could drift out wide to fill that gap on the flank. Mohamed Salah was of course the right winger.
When the opponent is defending extremely deep and narrow, all the space is going to be on the flanks. So Liverpool naturally ended up with two players occupying each flank. On the left, that was Díaz and Diogo Jota, both right footed. On the right, that was Elliott and Salah, both left footed. Do you see the issue here? Every cross was an inswinger. Every time someone received the ball in a wide area, he’d first have to take a touch to move the ball onto his stronger foot, giving time for the defence to reset. I understand Liverpool have used inverted wingers brilliantly under Klopp, but that was with natural-sided full backs overlapping. This had very little variation.
Worse still, because Alexander-Arnold had drifted inside and Elliott was hardly going to overlap, Salah was constantly having to stay wide. He’s Liverpool’s most obvious threat in the box and he’s putting crosses in for others. All of this would be pretty easy to fix. Just instruct Alexander-Arnold to stay wide in the second half rather than coming into the centre, and use Elliott as the left-sided central midfielder, with Dominik Szoboszlai on the right. Klopp has forgotten vastly more about football than I will ever know, but I’ve been scratching my head about this one since last Saturday. Let’s not see it again, yeah?
3. Spurs and Newcastle’s vastly contrasting approaches
Tottenham Hotspur are top of the league. Their victory over Fulham made it seven wins out of nine this season and the sun is shining on
White Hart Lane Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. And yet, by expected goal difference, they’re seventh.
The best team in the league by xG difference? Newcastle United. While having a fairly hard run of fixtures. So, Newcastle are clearly better than Spurs and we should expect fortunes to reverse over the rest of the season, right? Well, I honestly don’t know. Newcastle’s attack has been weird. They lead the league in xG, but are tenth in terms of touches in the opponent’s box. They generate just over 8 xG for every 100 touches in the penalty area. That’s obviously best in the league, and up significantly from a middle-of-the-road 6.2 last season. Michael Caley posted a chart in the Discord (join now if you’re a paid subscriber!) showing this efficiency against overall xG generated in the big five European leagues since 2017.
It’s not unheard of, but it’s an outlier. Newcastle are also mediocre in terms of touches in the final third, with their total in that so far being ninth-best. According to the data, Newcastle are average at moving the ball into advanced areas, but once they get it there, we’re looking at one of the most effective teams ever at turning those situations into good chances.
I can think of three possible reasons for this:
Their attackers are exceptionally brilliant at generating good chances when they have the ball
Eddie Howe is doing something tactically distinct that the numbers can’t see
It’s a hot streak that won’t last forever
Spurs’ two big outlier seasons on the graph were 2020/21 and 2021/22, primarily managed by José Mourinho and Antonio Conte. They were all about the partnership between Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in those seasons. Kane and Son were incredibly good at blasting through open space in those seasons and turning almost any ball quickly launched forward into a dangerous opportunity. The PSG 2019/20 season in the top right corner was surely driven by Kylian Mbappé and Neymar doing brilliant things. Are Callum Wilson, Alexander Isak, Miguel Almrión or Anthony Gordon at that level? If you wanted to tell that story, you could argue that Isak at age 24, and Gordon at 22, are both now taking leaps forward. But I’m going to need some more convincing to believe that argument.
Spurs under Mourinho and Conte were, like Howe’s Newcastle, a fast counter-attacking side. They were quicker to get it forward into their attackers than most “big” clubs. Newcastle do the same. This wasn’t really sustainable under Mourinho’s “launch it straight down the gut” approach, and arguably wasn’t under Conte the following year, but it did seem to hold for long stretches. The more I think about it, the more I suspect it’s about the players, and so I don’t quite know what Howe can be doing that suddenly made Newcastle so exceptionally good at this. It might still be comfortably above average, but right now I’d guess Newcastle will become a little less efficient at turning advanced touches into good chances.
Who has the most touches in the opponent’s box, you might ask? Why, it’s Ange Postecoglou’s Spurs this season! They’re also second, behind Arsenal, for touches in the attacking third. Son excluded, this is largely a different attacking core than the one that was so clinical a few years ago, so they function differently. Maybe they need more touches to generate those chances, but they’re better at working the ball into dangerous areas. Maybe they’ll start picking up more xG than Newcastle going forward. I don’t know. What I do know is that analytics often assumes that while finishing can fluctuate, xG is a fixed and predictable thing. It’s more stable than goals, but it’s still heavily reliant on a million factors before the attacker takes the shot, and those can go up and down. I don’t know whether Tottenham are better or worse than Newcastle. It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out in the data.
Interesting things I read and watched
Coaches Voice had an interesting article breaking down Liverpool’s tactical tweaks this season:
Díaz, Jota and Núñez have all provided penetrative movements inside Salah as he cuts inside from the right. Szoboszlai’s forward runs offer more support and take defenders away as Salah moves inside with the ball. This works to reduce opportunities for the opposition to double up defensively on Salah – a strategy that teams have inevitably used in the past to limit his attacking output. He has still been able to dribble – he ranked 16th after eight league games in 23/24 - and attack opponents 1v1.
Alexander-Arnold narrowing into midfield for longer spells has dragged opposing left-wingers inwards, too. This has given Salah increased space to receive and drive at his opponent. He can then cut inside and work shots on goal, or use his passing range across the pitch.
The Purist has quickly become one of my favourite football accounts on YouTube, breaking down complex tactical approaches while rooting all of this in culture and history of different countries. The latest video on Brazil’s recent issues under Fernando Diniz is typically great.
Something that isn’t football
To the surprise of no one who knows me, I absolutely adored Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon. Yes, three-and-a-half hours is a lot of time to sit in the cinema, but I really believe it earns that length. A shorter and tighter film would inevitably have to focus on the case, becoming something a little closer to a procedural thriller. That’s what Scorsese originally envisioned: the story of the FBI investigation into these killings, with Leonardo Di Caprio playing federal agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons in the final product) rather than villainous Ernest Burkhart. That could’ve been a very good film in the way legal thrillers can be, but it wouldn’t have been transcendent in the way the final product is. It was a film they all felt like they’d seen before, Scorsese explained in an interview I read but infuriatingly can’t find on Google right now. Worse still, it was at risk of playing into white saviour tropes.
Instead, the film became about the story of an entire community. It very carefully builds the world of the Osage Nation before showing you how these murders driven by greed tore it apart. It’s so textured and offers room to breathe and interpret moments in a variety of different ways. Instead of telling a story about a man, Scorsese made it about a community. And doing that well takes three-and-a-half hours.
I knew very little about the history of the Osage tribe and these murders going in, but it really fascinated as well as horrified me. Joel Wertheimer, friend of and occasional contributor to the newsletter, tells me the book version of Killers of the Flower Moon is excellent. I must get to reading it.
See you next time.