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Why Ten Hag needs time to iron out Man Utd's defensive issues

Posted on March 10, 2023

Manchester United’s 7-0 defeat to Liverpool was a shock.

No matter the circumstance, seeing a team concede seven goals in a single match is an anomaly, even more so when the side who suffered the defeat had lifted the Carabao Cup the previous week.

But when looking closer at the way Erik ten Hag’s side have played this season, it could be argued they are the cause of their own downfall, and these sort of results have come from the way they have approached games this season. Add a Liverpool side hot on confidence with a fierce attack and a 7-0 scoreline becomes more inevitable.

That result was the third time in the Premier League this season in which United have conceded four or more goals in a single game; only Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest (both 4 times) have suffered that fate on more occasions.

While it is hard to find precise reasons behind this, what can be said is they are allowing opponents more chances.

In the 2020/21 season, generally with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof as the centre-back partnership, the Red Devils conceded 44 Premier League goals, while this season alone they have already conceded 35, with 13 games to go.

Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane, arguably two higher quality defenders, have played the most part this season, but can in no way take blame for this decline in defensive stability. Only Newcastle (12) and Arsenal (11) have had more clean sheets than United (10), which is close to that 2020/21 season, where they kept 13, with the same goalkeeper in David De Gea. However the goals conceded per game this season (1.4) is slightly higher than two seasons ago (1.2).

Ten Hag’s side are setting up in a much more attacking way this season, highlighted by their average possession standing at 52.8%, which only five teams this season can better in the Premier League. With this they are of course playing a much higher line, which in theory would leave gaps for the opposition to expose and capitalise upon and thus would lead to potentially conceding more goals.

Only Everton (8) and Leicester (6) have conceded more goals from a counter-attack situation than United (5), which goes to underline that the former Ajax manager’s plans haven’t been implemented perfectly as his current side aren’t doing enough to contain the added threat they are under on the break.

The high line hasn’t quite been perfected yet either. In terms of catching teams offside, United rank 18th (28) in the league this season. Arsenal a team, who not too many seasons ago were struggling under a new manager, conceding far too many chances and goals, are ranked the joint best this season for provoking offsides (65). What this shows is this style of play can work at both ends of the pitch with time.

In terms of shots, on average, they are conceding 12.6 per game, which eight teams, including 16th-placed West Ham (12), can better. Though the bulk of these efforts conceded is away from home (13.7), 11.3 are still coming at Old Trafford, which is a staggering return for a team to concede on home soil, especially for a team with an outside chance at winning the league. Manchester City (6.5) and Arsenal (7.2), the pair above them, concede far fewer shots on average at home in the league this season, and yet still play with a similar high pressing type of football. Ten Hag has of course only been in charge for a few months, so this may simply be a case of adjusting to life under their new boss for many of the players.

Allowing this much pressure on the backline means scorelines like 4-0, 6-3 and 7-0 become more inevitable as generally more shots results in more goals. Brentford had 13 shots, Manchester City had 22 and Liverpool had 18, all of which surpasses the average those sides would have in a game this season, so it is no wonder they were able to inflict such heavy scorelines.

Ultimately the worry for United is that in too many instances, teams are having too much joy in the attacking third against them. Of those teams to register the most touches in the opposition box in a single Premier League match this season, four of the top 20 came against Ten Hag's side. A larger presence in their box means players are likely to get more opportunities to shoot.

The Carabao Cup winners have to find a way of cutting out the unnecessary pressure on their goal and definitely have the players to do so. For example, Casemiro’s 3.1 tackles per game is only bettered by three players in the league this season, and Martinez’s 24 blocked shots is the fourth highest in the league. What this shows is firstly things would be a lot worse were it not for these summer purchases, but also that they can contain teams well, but must reduce the frequency at which opponents are allowed chances if they want to reach the next level.

Perfectly implementing a style of play takes time and bringing in reinforcements this summer along with the bulk of this current squad adjusting to the new way of playing will eventually lead to a high risk approach reaping high rewards.