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What is the question at Manchester United?
What is the club actually trying to achieve this season?
Hi, everyone. The big game next “weekend” (well, Monday) is Man Utd against Liverpool. Neither team is in great form, so we’re assessing the problems of Man Utd first and then Liverpool in a newsletter later this week
“Any idiot can manage for the short term and any idiot can manage for the long term. A really good manager does both.”
— Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric
Cristiano Ronaldo has lost by four goals or more just six times in his career1. Three of those times came for Real Madrid and three have been for Manchester United. The Real Madrid defeats are fair enough, coming against Barcelona (twice) and Atlético Madrid. And the first of those Man Utd losses came against Liverpool last December. But the last two are really embarrassing. In May, they lost 4-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion. And on Saturday of course, they suffered the same scoreline against Brentford.
Brighton and Brentford, supposed minnows of English football, humiliated one of the greatest players in history. They’ve changed the manager in between those matches. Only four players started both games (David de Gea, Diogo Dalot, Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo). The result was the same.
Man Utd are down bad.
The Brentford debacle was about both individual failings and a collective lack of cohesion. Just about everything that could go wrong in that first half went wrong. Thomas Frank might have said it wasn’t “a 4-0 game”, but it was certainly a something-nil game. As bad as the defensive mistakes were, the attack never looked like scoring. United were chasing the game for almost the entire 90 minutes while Brentford were content, and that should have led to lots of good chances. Instead, they weren’t even able to create one expected goal’s worth of shots, with most of that coming after the score was already 4-0
Just about everything that could go wrong is going wrong at the moment. They’re in a hole that they need to get out of pretty quickly, through whatever means. I expect they’ll bring in more players before the window, but their targets are scattered and short-termist. Where do they go from here? How do they progress? And what should they even be trying to do this season? Let’s break it down.
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There are, I think, four main reasons why Man Utd might be underperforming right now, and let’s review them all:
Players not good enough/don’t fit well together
Poor tactical understanding
Attitude: “What I asked [the players] to do is play with belief and take responsibility for their performance”, Ten Hag told Sky Sports after the Brentford game. “And that is what we didn’t do”.
I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out the mentality in the United dressing room is poor. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Considering how things have disintegrated in the last two years, I increasingly think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did an impressive man-management job here. In the 20/21 season, Man Utd picked up more points from losing positions than any other team. Say what you will about everything else, but the vibes were good.
And now the vibes are bad. It’s easy to say Ronaldo is a turning point who disrupted the dressing room. Whatever the cause, it certainly looks like these people do not get along with each other. Any bond that previously existed seems to have been broken. It’s hard to imagine this getting fixed without significant player turnover.
Players: De Gea is not capable of playing out from the back the way Erik ten Hag wants. We all know that. Christian Eriksen is not a defensive midfielder. Ronaldo isn’t really a striker and never has been. We all know that.
What we don’t know is why De Gea can make such obvious shot-stopping mistakes. We don’t know why a team with Eriksen, Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Ronaldo couldn’t create more than one xG. Maybe you think some of those players are overrated, but they’ve all achieved more in the game than anyone starting for Brentford. This is a poorly constructed squad. None of the pieces align with each other. But it’s not a talent issue.
Fitness levels: Ten Hag reportedly stressed this in his job interview. It’s not an area where I know what I’m talking about. Rashford has been playing through the pain barrier for some time now and that’s evident in his performances. He needs a rest. It doesn’t seem like that’s something Ten Hag wants to do, as he put his players through a 13.8km running session on what was supposed to be a day off after the game. I’m not quite sure what that’s supposed to help with, but it’s probably not fitness. It seems like Ten Hag is prioritising attitude over fitness levels.
Tactical understanding: Well it’s obviously not there, is it? It’s beside the point whether Ten Hag’s ideas are, in theory, the correct ones. Right now, getting better at executing the game plan would improve performances regardless of whether the plan is any good or not. Even if this squad isn’t going to be outstanding at Ten Hag’s possession football, there are fundamentals that can be improved within that to at least reach basic competence.
Then again, United are working around player constraints. A lot of this squad isn’t suited to what Ten Hag is trying to do, but that’s not news. If this project is going to succeed in the long term, it will probably be with a heavily reshaped squad. That will happen anyway, whatever tactical approach the club takes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mauricio Pochettino’s first season at Spurs in relation to this (which isn’t to say Utd should’ve hired him instead). Tottenham’s most used eleven that season was as follows:
Hugo Lloris; Eric Dier, Federico Fazio, Jan Vertonghen, Danny Rose; Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb; Érik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli; Harry Kane.
Some of these players obviously went on to star for Pochettino in the better years to come. Others just didn’t end up being good enough. But to get there, he had to discard some high-profile names who either weren’t able or weren’t willing to buy into his ideas. High earners like Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor were pushed aside for younger and hungrier players.
Do Man Utd want to go down this route? Let’s say they did. It might involve, for example, Teden Mengi or Facundo Pellistri playing regular Premier League minutes. United would not be good this season, but it would give Ten Hag a clearer chance to enforce his own ideas on this squad and build a framework for new signings in the future to come into. They’d be bad right now, but it would at least involve a clearer destination.
Or do they maximise trying to win now, in the view that they can’t progress long-term if results get really bad this season? All the transfer noise suggests they’re doing that. Every time I refresh Twitter in the last few days, they’ve been linked to a different player. Some are the kind of younger high upside pieces who could become key players in the long run, but many seem to be more experienced players who could improve things right now. Ten Hag wants the squad to be better immediately.
So what’s the plan here? I know this could be asked at literally any point since Sir Alex Ferguson retired with no good answer. But how are they aiming to balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow? I don’t think they could tell me.
It’s fine for this to be a transition season for Man Utd. It’s fine for it to be the start of a long process. But they have to be clear about what the main problems are, how they are going to be solved over this period, and how all the decisions made work towards this goal. Otherwise, they’re just going in blind once again.
No, I’m not counting Portugal’s 6-2 defeat to Brazil in 2008. Friendlies don’t count here.