Manchester United have conceded 6 goals in 7 games so far while managing to keep just one clean sheet. Their xGA (Expected goals allowed) is 7.9 which is the 10th worst in the league so far. This means that United should have conceded roughly 2 more than they actually have, and have David de Gea’s inspired form to thank for not doing so.
This record comes against a modest opponent roster of Leeds, West Ham, Wolves, Southampton, Newcastle and Everton. The big boys are yet to come. It’s clear United have defensive issues. Signing Varane (who has settled in excellently for his part) hasn’t really helped the defence improve as of yet. In this article we’ll explain the major problem in United’s defence and offer some solutions to fix it.
Analysing the problem
Let’s jot down all of United’s key defensive numbers to understand exactly where we are facing issues. These are 21/22’s Premier league rankings for United’s team defensive stats:
Passes into penalty area allowed: 6th best
Number of Shots faced: 7th best
Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL
Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL
Shots faced outside of box: 2nd best
Errors leading to opponent shot: 6th best
Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL
Miscontrol (Possession loss due to poor ball control): 4th best
Aerial win % (Aerials won/Aerials contested): Best in EPL
This provides some insight into our defending this season. We seem to be okay in terms of allowing passes into our area and shots from afar. Shots created from open play passes and set pieces (Huge improvement thanks to Eric Ramsay) aren’t high either. Our players’ miscontrols aren’t an issue and our aerial win % is amazing (Lindelof has been the best with a 87% aerial win rate). So lets list down the biggest problem areas:
Shot creating actions allowed from dribbles: Worst in EPL
Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL
Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL
Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL
These 4 seem to be the issue and if looked at in a combined way they read – We lose the ball due to opponent pressure/tackle, which leads to a counter dribble at our goal, which creates a shot, which is a shot taken within the D box, and all of this happens A LOT. Long story short, we’re giving away too many clear cut chances in defensive transitions.
Before I go further let me make some terms clear.
What is a transition? A transition in football can be defined as the process of recognising and responding in the first few seconds after losing or regaining possession of the football. In recent years, teams at the highest level of football have recognised this process as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their opponents.
The 2 types of transitions are attacking transitions and defensive transitions. The former term is reference for when the team gains possession and initiates their attack and the latter is when teams lose the ball and react to the opponent’s attack. United are pretty good at the former. Quick counters after regaining the ball have led to some well-worked goals under Ole’s tenure. The likes of Fred, Pogba and Bruno are good counter-initiators from deep while players like Shaw, Rashford, Greenwood and now Ronaldo are great dribblers and creators/scorers on the break. Ronaldo’s 2nd goal vs Newcastle is a great example of a good attacking transition.
It’s defensive transitions where United are terrible. And ‘terrible’ isn’t an exaggeration here. United are the worst in the league for giving away shots from dribbles they face and 6th worst at being dispossessed due to tackles/pressures. A combination of these effects is what leads to a large amount of steal-and-run opportunities for opponents. Couple this data with the fact that United concede most shots within the D box and a clear strategy for United’s opponents emerges – Sit back in an organized fashion, let United have the ball and commit men to break the block, press and steal the ball at the right moment and counter quickly via dribbles to create a clear cut chance. It’s a strategy that suits the majority of the teams United face in the first place. They usually aim to organize in low blocks and hit us on the break. A little bit of planning on the timing of the pressing/tackling opportunity and attacking pattern can go a long way in ensuring a high success rate gameplan. Which is what the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Young Boys have done to great effect in recent weeks. The fact that 4 of United’s last 8 opponents ended up with more xG (Expected goals) than United by the end of the game is telling. They got clearer chances to score and probably should have won on merit. United salvaged a win in 2 of these games – Villareal and Wolves, thanks to De Gea’s heroics and 2 late winners. That won’t happen too often if this remains the strategy.
Examples of issues in defensive transitions
Enough stats! Football is played on the pitch innit?
Well, please be warned in case you are a United fan. If you thought the stats were painful, the visual examples below are new levels of hell. Here are 4 examples of defensive transition situations in the recent weeks:
We start with the one whose wounds are still fresh. Against Everton, Bruno takes a very poor corner which is cleared first-time from the Everton box. Gray picks the ball in a decent position outside the box. Transitions are all about choices. I’ll be explaining every United player’s choice from here on. Firstly, Fred has a choice to run with Gray and give his team time to regain shape or attempt the tackle on Gray. Fred goes for the latter, and this isn’t something he has thought through. It’s a natural tendency for him – he is a press and tackle ball winner who always goes for the ball. It wins him a lot of his duels which usually helps United.
Usually. In this case, it’s the wrong choice as he’s too late and Gray skips past him easily. Gray then sees his next challenger in Wan-Bissaka. United’s center-backs are still jogging back from the Everton box after the corner.
Unlike Fred, Wan-Bissaka decides to hold his position and force Gray wide, carefully tracking him from the side.This is a good choice from AWB that allows Fred to recover and engage Gray in a second attempt. Surely, now sandwiched between 2 great ball winners, Gray’s number should be up?
But, no. Gray pushes off Fred with a strong shoulder. It should be noted that Fred went for the ball in both cases and lost. A tactical foul on Gray near the halfway line stops the counter early and prevents the catastrophic sequence of events that is about to unfold next. These are the things smarter teams do. More on that later.
Coming back to the scene of United’s crimes, Wan-Bissaka is now faced with the same choice again. But this time he takes the other option, preferring to lunge forward at an in-control Gray who has a lot of space to pick out a pass.
This is the wrong choice, as AWB’s rash pressure opens the gap for the oncoming Doucoure who has acres of space with only Luke Shaw parallel to him and a determined Lindelof (who has done well to run back from the Everton box) behind him. Shaw has enough ground on Doucoure and should be able to cover the angle to the goal with his speed easily.
But in possibly the most inexplicable choice in this series of wrong choices, Shaw aggressively runs towards Doucoure who has the great honour of 3 United players closing in on him for no real reason. This movement of United players in transition where they get attracted to the ball-carrier like moths to a flame is seen often in games and is possibly the biggest criticism of the transition tactics. They have no idea how to move and usually decide to just attack the ball carrier in a gung-ho fashion without thought or organisation. This will be seen in the other examples too.
Shaw’s aggressive charge completes it’s image of foolishness as a simple feint from Doucoure sends Shaw flying past him and takes Shaw out of the equation. Lindelof’s emphatic recovery must be noted here. He is now in position to block Doucoure’s path to goal. This would have been a goal-saving track-back from Lindelof, if Shaw had just held his position to block the natural pass to Townsend.
Sadly, that was not meant to be and Doucoure makes the obvious pass to the oncoming Townsend who gleefully accepts the invitation to shoot from within the box which makes it 1-0 to Everton.
Our next example takes us to the Wolves game earlier in the season. United were up to their usual passing around without any real sequence or penetration. A crowd of United players in the D box are stuck around the same area (clear indictment of our poor positioning during attacking sequences) which leaves Fred with no option but to attempt a wide pass to AWB who asks for it.
Even if the United attackers’ poor positions forced such a pass from Fred, he probably shouldn’t be making such a mistake anyway. He passes straight to Adama Traore who picks up the ball and presents Fred and Pogba with the same choices. To lunge or not to lunge?
United’s pivot both decide to take Adama head on – Fred pretty aggressively so and Pogba in his own lethargic way. Stylistic choice apart, both midfielders invite Adama to do what the footballer with the most dribbles in the league does.
2 touches later Adama has skinned both players and sped past them. Once again, it should be noted that while Fred was taken out thanks to his forward lunge, Pogba was still on his feet and had enough time to foul Adama in a spot that was much closer to the Wolves box than United’s. He refuses to do so, lifting up his hands to convey his innocence for something where innocence wasn’t required at all.
Adama does what Adama does, covering the middle third with such speed that Fred and Pogba are now out of the equation. Varane and Maguire are the final 2 defenders to beat. It’s a 2v2 situation with Jiminez in support. Varane does well to hold off from pressing forward and tracks Adama’s run while Maguire tracks Jimenez behind him. Good choice by Varane.
Varane does well to hold off on Adama until the defensive third and then closes in to cut Adama’s approach to goal. It’s Maguire’s actions that are debatable in this sequence of events. Maguire had a constant eye on Jiminez throughout the transition, so his choice to stay inward and create the space for the pass is questionable. One reason could be him offering extra protection to Varane in case Varane also gets dribbled past, which is fair to an extent since Adama is a potent dribbler. But even then, Maguire’s positioning to cut out the pass seems wanting.
A very modest slow pass is enough to beat Maguire thanks to his poor positioning. Jiminez has a good sight on goal. The other problem of Maguire’s decision comes to the fore here. If he left the pass to block Jiminez’s path to goal with the confidence that he could block the shot…..
…then he totally miscalculated. Maguire is in no position to block now as Jiminez gets the shot away. These are the kind of shots that Mason and Ronaldo converted this season. Giving them away so easily isn’t a good idea. The real worry here was Jiminez aiming for the far post. If clinical, he could end up scoring and even if DDG got a leg or hand to it, the chances of a tap-in for the oncoming Wolves striker in the box would have been high. Thankfully, neither happens as Jiminez’s shot is a near-post one that De Gea saves easily.
We stay with the Wolves game for the next example. Technically not a steal-and-run situation as Wolves win the ball back in their third this time and Moutinho looks around to kickstart the move. But United’s shape is in it’s attacking nature and starting to transition to defend so the same logic (or lack of) applies to defend the upcoming transition.
The front 3 are taken out immediately. Bruno and Mason look tired. Pogba attempts a jog back while AWB is just tracking back after attacking down the right. He has a nice cover on his Wolves counterpart as of now.
Moutinho carries the ball taking Pogba out of the scene first. AWB who was covering his man, suddenly makes the really odd decision to change direction to run towards the ball carrier Moutinho. Again the moths-to-flame effect of United players running towards the ball carrier is visible here. AWB has no need to do this. Thankfully, Fred has anticipated the problem and is already running towards the wings pro-actively this time.
AWB’s poor decision leaves him in no man’s land as he creates the gap for someone as skilled as Moutinho to thread the ball through. Neither does AWB intercept the pass nor is he marking the receiver on the left wing, Jiminez. Poor choice. Fred is honing in on Jiminez as Adama makes the central run. Varane has a choice to make here to stick to the center and trust Fred to cover the wings or go for Jiminez himself.
Once again, attracted to the carrier, Varane makes the choice of going towards Jiminez, completely abandoning the center. This is another ball-affinity choice that was unnecessary considering Fred had almost caught up to Jiminez by now. Fred’s correct choice and his ability to cover good areas quickly are wasted with Varane’s wrong choice. The gap is created for Adama to run into and Jiminez really doesn’t have to think hard before playing into that area.
Jiminez plays the ball and Adama has the speed to run towards it. Varane and Fred both are completely taken out with this obvious pass and Adama now has Maguire running behind him, struggling to keep pace.
Adama receives the ball inside the box which makes any chance of tackling him zero. Fred’s busting his gut to get back and recover the ball but once again presses a little too over-zealously. A left-footed shot from Adama in that position would have been improbable and easy to save for DDG if it ever came.
A simple feint is all it takes for Adama to sidestep the aggressive Fred and create an angle for his right foot. Maguire probably had a choice here to cover centrally after seeing Fred’s run back but the pace at which Adama was operating was too much to track probably. Trincao holds his run to present the clear passing lane for Adama’s right foot.
Maguire is in no position to cut the pass as Adama lays up a perfect ball for Trincao’s left foot. Central location, left foot, inside the D box, almost close to the penalty spot – chances don’t come any clearer than this. But Trincao fluffs the shot as it rolls wayward of goal and United are saved by a prayer.
Our final example takes us to Newcastle at the start of the season. Yes, even the easy 4-1 win had given us occasional transition trouble and Newcastle’s goal is a perfect example of our difficulties in transition.
The move starts deep from Newcastle’s half – again not a classic steal-and-run-from-the-center-of-the-park example but the same issues are highlighted. Almiron at the centre of the pitch is noticed and played towards from deep. None of the United attackers pressing the passer or trying to intercept is one issue, but that can probably be forgiven considering how deep the start of the pass is.
What comes next is a bit more problematic. Like we’ve seen a few times before, both Matic and Shaw have an immediate desire to move towards the ball. Shaw especially has no need to and would have been better off holding his position and tracking back while Matic troubles Almiron a little. Almiron sees the 2 converging United players and takes advantage.
One smart touch is all it takes. Almiron hits the ball into space with his left foot and starts the counter as Shaw and Matic collide into each other in comical fashion. One advantage for the attacking side in a transition is that they usually have acres of space. Even a heavy touch from Almiron doesn’t cause him to lose the ball. Saint-Maximin turns and runs around Maguire who now has to make a very familiar choice – to lunge or not to lunge?
The comedy of events reaches a new high as the Newcastle fans cheer Almiron who jumps over a sliding Maguire. Maguire chose ‘lunge’ and upgraded his choice to ‘emphatic sliding tackle’ – a completely unnecessary act that cedes control and confidence to Newcastle and leaves him in no shape to recover for the rest of the counter. Varane stares at his partner’s mistake wondering how he can stop both Newcastle players.
Varane decides to cut the angle towards the goal as he tracks back. He turns to see who he has for support. He knows he needs a 2nd person to regain the numerical advantage. He notices Shaw, who has done well to recover from his clash with Matic and is recovering good ground. These are the moments where a well-thought out transition defence shines. Both players ideally should know who takes which player. Varane motions Shaw to take Almiron on even though Shaw is far away. This probably isn’t a bad choice since Varane probably wants to cover the angle to Saint-Maximin on priority. But it leaves Shaw with a lot to do.
To his credit, Shaw does cover ground aggressively but Almiron still has time to pick out a pass – a pass which Varane should be blocking. Varane’s entire reason to hold back was to mark the real threat of Saint-Maximin, right?
The ball from Almiron is good here but for Saint-Maximin to get it so easily shows how Varane goofed up. The decision to hold and cover the angle of the pass was correct but the execution was completely off. Varane probably didn’t expect Almiron to pass early or pass so accurately and that reads badly on him.
Right-back Manquillo’s run is the obvious play for Saint-Maximin who takes a nice touch and waits for the defender to overlap. Varane again has a choice to lunge or hold. He decides to go for the tackle – again probably not the best of choices. Varane seems desperate to make up for his mistake of allowing the pass in the first place. A calm and composed Varane has the ability to hold his position and then quickly cover Manquillo’s path after the pass.
But the reality of his failed tackle allows Manquillo to pick up the ball and enter the D. Varane is in no state to recover for a shot block attempt. It’s back to relying on a De Gea special (or prayers) for United at this point.
Manquillo makes no mistake while slotting the ball in the far corner.
Possible solutions to defend transitions better
So what are the solutions for this issue that seems to be plaguing us regularly? There are largely 3 options:
1. Coaching out bad habits: Probably the fastest way to gain some quick improvement, the low-hanging fruit is to simply coach the players to change their bad habits. Most players’ initial reaction is to counter-press, as opposed to regaining team shape & delaying the counter. When the opposition is equal or more in number, it is typically better to drop off in an attempt to get more numbers behind the ball which United players rarely do. Like moths to a flame they get attracted to the ball and perform really clumsy lunges or display aggressive acts of pressing that are completely unnecessary. This puts them in must-win situations which isn’t sustainable for a top team. No team can win all the duels in such speedy transitions under pressure. A few will slip through and the resultant chances given are usually very high xG big chances within the D as the stats showed. United need to show restraint in transition and come up with more set patterns to track back and constrict the spaces that opponents use to counter. Right now, every counter chance against United seems like an invitation to run into acres of space which is further amplified by unnecessary presses/tackles.
2. Tactical fouling: United aren’t the first team to face transitions. Most top teams employing a possession system do. The dangers of being caught in such situations when you commit numbers forward in an attempt to spread play are always high. This is where the subtle but important art of tactical fouling is beneficial. If the risk to go for a tackle/press and the chance of being dribbled past are both high, then sometimes a simple trip or body block near the halfway line can be just the best tool to stop a deadly counter early. Fernandinho is a master of this and often bails Manchester City out with the use of smart tactical fouls. The reason he’s a master is because he often makes them and doesn’t even get a card for it. United midfielders don’t have to show such prowess in the dark arts. Even the fouls which get a yellow card will do. Fred against Everton and Pogba against Wolves in the above examples are clear use cases of a simple tactical foul that stops a dangerous counter near the halfway line. United need to be less naive in defensive transitions and do what’s necessary.
3. Buying a defensive midfielder: I kept this option for the last since I really don’t want to make it sound like a transfer solves everything. But when you sorely lack the profile of a holding defensive midfielder, it has to be said. All said and done, Fred and Scott are 2 ball-winning/box-to-box midfielders who are masquerading as holding midfielders. They are press-and-tackle monsters who have minimal talents in the finer art of positioning. In this article we explain why McFred are the best option for the current system, but the current system isn’t the best option for United). While the above 2 solutions can help them be better at their job, it’s probably wise to get someone who is an expert at the job. United have other reasons to buy a defensive midfielder too with the team’s need for better build up and progression from deep also crying out for a young Matic-style midfielder. This player has to be adept at positioning and strictly not be a high press/tackle player – someone who has high positional IQ to take up good positions in transition and help the defenders in stopping counters. (We detailed this requirement along with the passing ones to make up a summer 2021 shortlist here.)
If Varane’s signing was meant to help United concede less, then Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and the coaching staff probably had a very myopic view of the problem with United’s defence. It was never about the center-backs. Lindelof and Maguire suffered in defensive transitions in the last 2 seasons and Varane has simply joined them in being another talented defender lacking the required midfield protection in a team that’s probably lacking the required coaching guidelines to defend transitions better. Until these issues are ironed out, United’s opponents can line up knowing that a well-planned counter approach can help them create big enough chances to win. The best players and riches cannot make up for a lack of tactical application. The disease United have been harbouring under Ole for more than 2 years called ‘Poor Defensive transitions’ has now reached critical levels that are threatening to derail their entire campaign.