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How far off are Manchester United?
Fixing up this team is a process. How is it going?
Update: an earlier version of this article mistook
It’s never quiet at Old Trafford.
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I think that’s largely because the club generates so much media noise. As they are the biggest and most supported club in the loudest and most popular league in the world, there are always clicks in writing about Manchester United. And no one gets clicks in writing about how things are basically fine (which is why this article isn’t about to make me rich). All that means there must always be capital D Drama at Old Trafford. It must either be brilliant (“get the contract out, put it on the table, let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there, Ole’s at the wheel”) or terrible (“this is Manchester United”). That has exaggerated the truth in both directions for a decade now since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
This hasn’t been helped by the club. Under Ferguson, Man Utd started every season with the aim of winning the title. Once the team “got good” at exactly the same time as the formation of the Premier League in 1992, they did this very effectively, dominating the division over its first two decades. We’re about to hit the ten-year anniversary of their last league title win, but it took much longer for expectations and demands to shift.
When David Moyes arrived in 2013, the target was to win the league as usual, which he obviously fell far short of and inevitably got the sack. Louis van Gaal was at least honest in his belief it would take three years to get back to the top, even if he couldn’t show significant signs of progress and lost his job after two seasons. José Mourinho’s era might represent the worst of this thinking. There was a belief that United could simply skip the rebuilding progress by hiring a serial winner in Mourinho and buying him Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly (it was a weird time). In their season preview, 12 of BBC Sport’s pundits predicted Man Utd would win the 2016/17 title, compared to just three for eventual winners Chelsea. It turned out United couldn’t actually jump the queue, but the same was expected the next season as the club spent big on Romelu Lukaku among others. It didn’t happen, and Mourinho ended up flaming out as usual.
The club had a brief moment of clarity under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. That’s not to say that Solskjaer is a brilliant manager, but there was an acceptance that it would take time to win the league again. They were showing signs of progress in that direction until their usual “do it now” impulse got the better of them. Cristiano Ronaldo came in with a promise to elevate this team immediately. And now he’s playing in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps United had to go through all these experiences to get where they are now, with a realism that they’re at the start of a journey. Erik ten Hag has not promised to do anything besides coach the team as best he can and improve the side over an extended period. And it hasn’t been perfect, but so far, so good. A win against Nottingham Forest will put Man Utd on more points than they managed last season with eight games to spare. This is not an exceptional team, but they feel like they’re heading in the right direction.
They’ve seen the biggest improvement on the defensive side, even if xG takes the air out of those numbers a little bit. United were conceding 1.5 goals per game last season, and this year it’s 1.23. That’s worth about ten goals over a season, though xG takes out about half of that difference. Even so, it feels like a defensive unit is emerging that can get better next year. They’re letting teams make one fewer pass on average before making an attempt to win the ball back. They’re winning the ball back within 40 metres of the opposition goal an extra time per match. The differences are small, but Ten Hag is trying to get this team to press collectively, which Ralf Rangnick never managed to achieve.
Those things do take time to learn, which is why I’d be optimistic about improvements next season. It also requires a personnel overhaul. Last season, United’s most used centre backs were Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf. In all fairness, United had a decent defensive record in the previous two seasons they started together, conceding an average of 40 goals a season, fewer than the club conceded in the last title-winning season. But they don’t work in a high line. We saw this time and time again last season, with Maguire getting memed for mistakes almost every week. For what uses they may have, if the club is to play a proactive style going forward, a new partnership was needed.
Raphaël Varane didn’t have the best first season in England. Considering he came regarded as one of Europe’s best centre backs over the past decade, I don’t think he’s totally restored his reputation this season. He’s still limited with the ball at his feet. But he understands what he’s doing in this team now, and a sense of familiarity has emerged alongside Lisandro Martínez. I’m going to have to take the L on this one. Martínez is able to get away with playing centre back at only 5’9 (1.75m) because he’s such an aggressive and front foot defender. I think he’d struggle in a low-block system, but he allows the side to get higher up the pitch, which in turn makes the aerial question less important because United are closing down the opposition quicker. He’s the lynchpin of that defensive system for the long term.
Obviously, both of these players just picked up injuries. In Martínez’ case, I think it’s just bad luck. He only has one really serious injury on Transfermarkt’s records, so I don’t think we should expect him to consistently miss a chunk of each season. Varane, meanwhile, has been picking up knocks here and there for some time now, and you wouldn’t expect that to suddenly slow down when he’s just about to turn 30. There’s no problem when both centre backs are fit, but considering Varane’s injury record, I do think they should be in the market for another option this summer.
Luke Shaw remains a world-class left back when he’s on and… less than that when he’s off it. In terms of keeping him honest, bringing in Tyrell Malacia as competition was probably a good idea. I’m not sure either player is the perfect left back you’d want, but it’s nice to have both options available and I’d leave that position alone for the time being.
Conversely, one of the most straightforward ways to improve this team would be to just sign a top-quality right back. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made some improvements, but at age 25, I think we can be confident he’s not going to add all the attributes he needs to be a complete right back rather than an excellent 1v1 defender with limitations. Diogo Dalot is more of an all-rounder, but I don’t see him as the quality needed to win the title. Just get someone really good (I know I’m making that sound easy here) and sell whichever of the existing right backs has a clearer buyer.
Some would argue this defensive unit “works”, to the extent that it does at all, because of Casemiro. Though it’s a bit like saying the best feature of your house is that you plugged the hole in your roof. Man Utd have needed someone in this position for years, and they finally got around to googling “good defensive midfielders” and buying the first name mentioned. He’s fourth in the Premier League for combined tackles and interceptions per 90. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty serious going considering Man Utd have averaged 54% possession, and you can only win the ball back when your team doesn’t already have it. Casemiro is also clearly prone to fouls, committing the fourth most per 90 in the league. But that’s something he should adjust to better in his second season in the Premier League, as players like him rely on a clear sense of where “the line” is.
Casemiro’s good work has allowed Christian Eriksen to play a deeper midfield role. While never a “lazy” player, Eriksen never looked robust enough to play as a central midfielder for most of his career, yet he finds himself impressing here. When Eriksen and Casemiro play together, which hasn’t been often enough in the second half of the season, the build-up play is really good. When Eriksen was injured, United moved to bring in Marcel Sabitzer on loan. It’s taken some time to figure out what he brings to this team because he’s not Eriksen. He’s not someone who always wants the ball at his feet to pick out a pass. He completes 29% fewer passes than Eriksen when on the pitch. But in some ways he’s more classically suited to English football. He’s a “vertical” player, getting into the box and back to cover, and I’d actually like to see the three midfielders here play together at some point.
Age is an issue here. Casemiro is 31 and has miles on his legs, playing in deep Champions League runs at Real Madrid and numerous international tournaments for Brazil. Eriksen is 31 and it’s a miracle that he’s even able to play at this level after his medical issues. They should be fine for next season, but if United are going to win the title in a few years’ time, it might realistically be with different midfielders. It’s also not a position where they have a talented young player starting to emerge. This might be the best argument against signing Sabitzer permanently. He’s 29 and, for what he offers, there’s probably a younger player out there who could do many of the same things.
The main problem with trying to play Casemiro, Eriksen and Sabitzer together is Bruno Fernandes. If Ten Hag ultimately aims to play a controlled and fluid style akin to his Ajax team, Fernandes might frustrate him. But in the meantime, you can’t deny the man is effective. He’s behind only Kevin De Bruyne in xG assisted per 90. Yesterday’s win over Nottingham Forest became “The Bruno Show” at times, showing how much he can create for himself and others when given the time and space. There are definitely games where he can frustrate, but he gives this team a lot more than he costs, and everything else isn’t yet good enough to make “just give it to Bruno” a bad option.
The wide areas have been a little more mix and match. Marcus Rashford has been a nailed-on starter when fit which he, unfortunately, isn’t right now. Antony is the next most used wide player, followed by Jadon Sancho, Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Elanga. Rashford is definitely the most direct goal threat of these players. He’s always had quality driving towards the box in order to generate his own shots. But he’s added a better sense of finding space in the box to get on the end of chances created by others. Watching a compilation of his goals this season, you see plenty of classic Rashford moves following a dribble or clever bit of skill. But you also see more headers and tap-ins, more scruffy poacher’s goals. That’s how you become a prolific goalscorer.
Unfortunately, his injury problems can’t be ignored. He reportedly spent most of 2021 playing through fitness problems, taking painkillers before each game, and his form clearly suffered for it. Rashford needs to be 100% fit to play at the standards he’s set this season, and we just can’t count on that all the time. Ten Hag says there is “a chance” Rashford could play again this season. For the sake of his career, I wonder if it might be better to let him rest up and come back strong next season.
This is important because United’s other wide options can’t do what he does. Sancho’s had his issues, but even the best version of him is playing clever one-twos and incisive passes rather than getting into the box and scoring goals consistently. Antony really showed his quality against Forest, but his decision-making is nowhere near what it needs to be to offer what Rashford provides. Garnacho is hugely gifted, but he’s still built like a frail teenager, and needs to physically develop (not a surprise for an 18-year-old). Elanga, meanwhile, looks like he’s stalling out after early promise. I think this is largely a good group of wide players, but it’s pretty reliant on keeping Rashford fit.
Right now, Ten Hag favours Anthony Martial upfront. I don’t think we need to do the dance again about considering whether Martial might be the long-term answer in that position. He’s capable of good bursts of form but he’s not going to suddenly become a complete forward at age 27. They need a striker as the first target. Not a wide player or number ten who can also play upfront a bit. A genuine, undisputed, honest-to-god number nine. That’s the most important thing this summer.
You may have noticed I skipped over the goalkeeper here. This is now David de Gea’s fifth year of mediocre performance. Over that time, he’s conceded 216 goals from a post-shot xG of 201.4. I don’t think the Opta-based models are great here, but this is a huge sample size, so it seems pretty clear he’s now a slightly below-average shot-stopper. Considering how little he offers with the ball at his feet, it’s obvious United can do better here.
So, by my count, Man Utd need a starting right back, a rotation centre back and a striker for certain, along with at least one midfielder and a goalkeeper to challenge for the title. That’s plenty to do, but it’s not unreasonable over the next couple of windows.
Ten Hag’s contract runs until the summer of 2025 with an option to extend it until 2026. Let’s assume that option is taken right now. That should mean the target is to win the Premier League title in 2026, three years from now. Every football decision they make should come with a simple question: “Does this make us more likely to win the league in 2026?” If the answer is ever no, don’t do it. That should be a single-minded focus running throughout the club.
The elephant in the room is obviously the ownership situation. Perhaps
the Qatari state Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani will buy the club and spend enough cash to speed up the process. But that looks less likely than it did a month ago, and some kind of investment group there to make a profit seems more likely. So United will have to merely rely on their huge revenues to buy players. Money has not been the problem over the past decade nearly as much as mismanagement.
Man Utd can get there. I’m convinced of that. Ten Hag is doing good work building a side and needs to be supported with the right signings, but match those two together and they should get to where they want to be. If the club show some patience for once, the rewards could be huge.
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