United’s Biggest Weakness: Defensive Transitions

 

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. 

 

Why do McFred start for United

 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference comments, before the key UCL tie against Villareal explaining the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United’s starting XI, have made fans questioning why McFred enjoys so much importance and preference in United’s pivot for a good part of 2.5 years (Most of Ole’s tenure). Especially coming off the back of a few unimpressive performances in September, the United manager’s selections and tactics have been questioned in recent weeks. But like most things in football, the answer isn’t black and white. United definitely have issues under Ole which are clearly linked to a lack of structures and processes, which gives rise to a lot of variation and extremities – and within this variation Fred and Scott are Ole’s go-to midfield men thanks to their ability to cope.

 

United’s major issue under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

 It’s hard to pinpoint a singular issue but there is one overarching gap/criticism of Ole’s reign which, despite his amazing success in 2.5 years, prevents United from becoming elite. The issue under Ole is that the players aren’t being helped by the system/tactic. If they perform/cope, it’s not really because of the system, but despite it. United are not laying out clear patterns & processes to make things easier for the players during the game. For example, we have had build up issues for a while. Shaw being able to progress even after the build up structure being bad is him performing despite the system. He’s just that good dribbling and passing wise. It doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t get the required support. A player might play out of his skin & manage on a day or a new signing might come in & do better but it doesn’t change the fact that the existing system doesn’t facilitate. 

  A tactic has to leverage its players strengths & mitigate its player weaknesses. United aren’t doing that as well as they can under Ole. The summer window created an imbalance which has only opened us up more to the system inconsistency & inefficiency we always had. We now have more attacking players who have high ball-affinity & are left leaning & no holding progressive CM profile except Matic. But transfers only solve so much. We need more emphasized structures that put less pressure on the players. These patterns are what players fall back on when things don’t work out. This reduces the burden on individuals. The absence of these forces them to take matters into their own hands – an exaggeration of which especially in attack is what fans refer to as ‘individual brilliance.’

  That’s not always a bad thing. Giving players freedom & promoting flair is good, but there’s a balance. The current United side, thanks to the composition of its current personnel, is on the wrong side of that balance. Against Aston Villa last week, the burden on individuals was clear. The drastic change this year could be down to the immense attacking talent at Ole’s display. The temptation to go direct or rely on the world-class qualities of the attackers (Eg. Bruno’s final ball + Ronaldo’s finishing) seems to be bypassing logical system rules.

 

The value of Scott McTominay and Fred

  Where do McFred come in all of this? In a system as dynamic as this, which lacks structures and protection for its players, the players who have the best ability to cope become the natural picks. This is where Scott and Fred shine. Their physical and mental attributes alone form a huge reason for their preference. Both players regularly top the running charts for United, have good coverage of area, are naturally fit players who tirelessly do their jobs till full time and are usually available for selection 90% of the season. These aspects were confirmed by Ole in his recent presser before the Villareal UCL tie:

 

 “The stats for them two [McTominay & Fred] together, we’ve had many good results. The energy and desire, I really like to have the two of them. I can trust them to give us what they’ve got. Fans will always have opinions, it’s easy to say who should be playing.”

 

 The intensity and coverage that Ole needs in the chaotic environment that is United’s midfield can only be provided by Fred and Scott. Ole also refers to some ‘stats’ here. Let’s dive into that. There are some objective numbers backing McFred as well.

  

  As you can see in the above viz, last season Fred won the ball back most for United. His ball winning stats are all in the top 10 percentile in Europe and he is by far United’s most important tool for winning the ball back so that we can play our game. When he’s not on the pitch, United sorely lack a player who can win the ball back quickly and efficiently.

 In 21/22 so far, Fred’s per 90 defensive actions ranking (among players >2.5 90s played) reads:

3.6 Tackles Attempted: 1st
2.8 Tackles Won: 1st
27.1 Pressures: 1st
6.6 Successful pressures: 1st
12.1 Recoveries: 1st

 Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? Fred is immense for United off the ball.

 Let’s also list down Scott’s contributions in the same way:

2.1 Tackles Attempted: 2nd
1.1 Tackles Won: 3rd
13.9 Pressures: 4th
2.9 Successful pressures: 8th
6.1 Recoveries: 11th

While not as intense or efficient as Fred, Scott’s value in the defensive department is clear.

So we know now Ole likes the intensity, consistency & mentality of the duo and the ‘stats’ he’s referring to back up their ball-winning ability on the pitch as well. The next question on your mind might be – But why do we need 2 ball-winners in midfield anyway? Why can’t we have 1 or 2 playmakers in the pivot instead?

 

The answer to this is straightforward – United have too many creators and scorers on the pitch in their 4-2-3-1. Bruno who plays CAM is one of Europe’s elite creators and for all practical purposes a key pass machine. He ensures high chance creation and final 3rd balls at the cost of losing the ball in possession thanks to ambitious passes and shots. Ahead of him, United have a star-studded cast of Ronaldo, Greenwood and Pogba and in rotation (for now) Cavani, Sancho and Rashford. Pogba guarantees more ball-playing talent and already leads the league for assists. Ronaldo and Greenwood are starting often thanks to their ability to finish the chances Pogba and Bruno create. The front 4 is packed with creativity and scoring to the limit. Some might say it’s beyond the limit and is hurting retention and safety since all 4 lose the ball a lot thanks to ambitious shooting and passing. 

 

 With this kind of setup and a lot of ball losses to deal with, the pivot essentially becomes a ball-recovery engine for the team. With the fullbacks often caught ahead on the flanks, the front 4 as attacking as they are and the CB pairing focussing on winning their duels to ensure they aren’t bypassed by opponent attackers, the pivot 2 are under unreal pressure to cover a lot of area in midfield, win the ball back and recycle it efficiently to the front 4 again. This creates a high ball-winning pressure which can only be satisfied by Fred and Scott. The below viz confirms the contributions in defending and progression from the midfield 3 options:

 

There is a reason Bruno-Fred-Scott is the preferred mid 3. They have the right balance of progression and ball-winning Ole wants. Matic’s lack of agility, coverage and defensive intensity mean that he can’t cope while VDB and Mata don’t offer as much progression or defending. The reason why Pogba doesn’t make the pivot is also visible here. Defensively he can’t cope, which Ole has learnt through a few experiments. But given Pogba’s quality, Ole has now turned to use him as a winger. McFred becomes the default pivot. All of this is also indicative of the lack of good options in midfield which is a good argument. We felt United needed a holding playmaker CM this summer and are badly ill-equipped without one (Read our CM shortlist here). But let’s keep that aside for now and work with what we have.  

Even with the defensive traits of McFred, the midfield is barely being dominated by them which is one of the main reasons for United’s recent form. Until last year, McFred somehow coped with these system gaps, but this year with the addition of Ronaldo and the higher attacking (read possession losing) quotient of the front 4, the pressure on the pivot and CB pairing in transitions is even more intense leading to some very open games (Like West Ham and Aston Villa) where possession retention and circulation were tough and a lot of time and energy of the squad was spent in winning the ball back and competing in 50-50s.

  

What is the way forward?

 So far, we have deduced the following: 

  • United’s setup lacks structure and hard-coded processes
  • In such a volatile setup, with 4 attackers to carry, the pivot needs to be a consistent ball-winning machine
  • Fred & Scott are the best ball-winners and preferred pivot choice as a result
  • Even this might not be ideal and seems like too much to manage in 21/22

 

We circle back to the lack of processes to ponder over solutions.  As mentioned above, a tactic should mitigate player weaknesses but United don’t provide any such cover for the pivot or backline. For example, Fred’s weaknesses are his poor first touch and affinity to lunge forward instead of holding position. These haven’t been covered for. Either due to a lack of coaching or players not being receptive to coaching, both continue to be an issue in Fred’s game. His excellent ball-winning and underrated progression are masked by those rare but critical moments when he loses the ball under pressure in a deep area or loses the 50-50 in a transition. A system that allows him more time on the ball or more protection in transitions would be beneficial.

 Which then brings us to another question – Why can’t the system change enough to facilitate Pogba or Matic in the pivot? For all theoretical purposes, it can. One can argue that their progression traits (as shown in the viz above) are valuable enough to justify playing them in midfield. But they then require a system that covers for their defensive weaknesses. If the need to run around intensely to win the ball is reduced, Matic and Pogba can start – and this is clear since Ole uses them against low blocks (like Newcastle recently) to good effect where that need is minimal. But the lack of set patterns and processes means covering for deficiencies isn’t easy. In a nutshell, the message from Ole and his coaching team seems to be – ‘We can’t cover for your weaknesses, so be as consistent and well-rounded as possible.’  This leads to him picking/wanting players who can do most things without having any glaring weaknesses in their game. Which isn’t a sustainable approach to building a tactic or team.

 The same effect was seen with the CB pairing. United leave themselves open on transitions so often, that the CBs face a lot more duels than they should. The expectation then becomes – winning duels consistently and efficiently. Varane to Lindelof was an upgrade with the aim of increasing that duel winning rate (which Lindelof couldn’t maximize due to being average in aerial duels). But the fact that the CB pair face a lot of duels in transition hasn’t changed. No matter how good Varane and Maguire are (and they are pretty good as we explain here) , exposing them repeatedly will cause a few to get through and those few goals are usually the difference between trophies and losses. 

 

 It’s the same for the pivot. No matter how good Fred and Scott are at ball-winning, a system that forces them into so many defensive actions is probably not a title-winning one anyway. In short, McFred are the best at what they do and deserve to start for that reason, but for United to win titles, no midfielder should probably be doing what they do in the first place. It’s not a complaint against them, it’s a complaint against the tactic under Ole. And upgrading every position (like Varane for Lindelof or Scott for a new CM) can only take you so far at the end of the day. If the root issues aren’t tackled, no player can perform to his best. 

 A good example is Chelsea under Tuchel. They are defensively solid without the need to get into so many duels. Tuchel has covered for his player’s weaknesses and given them a system to fall back on, which limits the situations they struggle in considerably. The best example is Jorginho, who was always criticized for not being defensively strong. But, like Matic, his progression and playmaking was always exceptional. In a system where he isn’t forced into defensive actions regularly and has time on the ball to do what he does best, he is a gem. And that’s what Tuchel has provided him – to the point of success of Ballon Dor shouts.

 In summary, Ole is justified in starting McFred. His comments on their intensity and stats are right. They are the best fit for the system United currently play with. But the larger question is whether this is the path for the future – whether repeating this process or even slightly improving on it can get United to really control transitions, dominate midfield, create efficiently, win consistently and lift the trophies the Old Trafford faithfuls have been dreaming of. That’s a question Ole has to think much harder about than his recent presser responses. 

 

 

 

 

Sensible Targets: Eduardo Camavinga

With recent reports suggesting that Paul Pogba’s future lies away from Manchester United, it is only natural for the Mancunian club to be linked with a replacement for the French superstar. Pogba, who has a year left on his contract is not willing to extend his stay in England’s footballing capital and United can try and sell him right now, or keep him and hope he signs an extension before his contract expires next season. Regardless of whether Pogba moves or not, United desperately need a midfielder anyway. We have already done two articles on this before so I won’t elaborate about it here.

If Pogba does make a move this window, United should be (ideally) in the market for 2 Central midfielders. One midfielder being able to play a more deeper role and another one being a more dynamic, runner of the ball. And as it the case of almost every trsansfer window, Manchester United are linked to a host of different midfielders of both of those profiles. With Declan Rice being the standout name for the former and Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul being the most high profile for the latter. 

Another French midfielder who has one year remaining on his contract and would fit the Pogba replacement profile perfectly is Eduardo Camavinga. Today, I will try to explain how the young French sensation can fit the team and what little tactical tweaks we can observe with Camavinga in the side. 

History

For someone who is still in his teens, Camavinga already has moments in his short career that have been etched in the history books. Eduardo Camavinga signed his first professional contract when he just a month older than 16 and it was not long before he made his debut. 

Eduardo Camavinga was the youngest player at Rennes to sign a professional and also the youngest player to ever play for the first team. His breakout game came against PSG when he put in a MOTM performance in the midfield and also set up the only goal of the game. His assist meant he became the youngest Ligue 1 player ever to register an assist. 

After that, it wasn’t long before the young Frenchman cemented his place in the Rennes starting 11. The 2019-20 season can widely be regarded as his breakthrough season in France. Now, a full fledged first team regular and also a French International and with only one year remaining on his contract, it seems as if moving Camavinga on is the best move for all parties involved and Manchester United are among a host of clubs monitoring his situation at Rennes. 

Playing Style

When he first broke on the scene in 2019/20, Julien Stephan, the then Rennes manager used him as a defensive midfielder in a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-1-2 at the tender age of 17. Camavinga is excellent in tackling and disrupting the opponent’s play in his own half. He has displayed Kante-esque traits where his work ethic and excellent tackling make him a very good workhorse for the team. He won more tackles than any other player in the Ligue 1 in 2019-20 despite only playing 25 games. 

Even though he first made a name for himself for his tackling and work ethic, the youngster offers so much more than just that. He operates in the areas of a deep lying playmaker and his long passing also offers him to distribute the ball and start attacks playing from deep midfield. He completed 91% of long passes in 2019-20 displaying a perfect blend of maturity, tenacity and elegance in his style of play helping Rennes qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. 

In 2020-21 season, Rennes shifted to a 4-3-3 formation and with Steven Nzonzi sitting at the base of the 3 man midfield for the French side, it allowed Camavinga to play a more advanced role. He has played at the heart, on the right and on the left side of the midfield throughout the last season but he mainly played as a RCM in a 3 man midfield. 

Even observing his heat maps from the 2 seasons we can see his development as a player.   

As we can see, in 19/20 (Top) he played a much deeper role compared to the one in 20/21 (bottom). 

Due to being given more freedom to roam ahead and play further up the pitch, Camavinga’s creative numbers have gone up. His dribbling and passing numbers have improved while his tackling has remained the same. Camavinga can best be described as a combination of N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba. He has the work ethic and the tenacity of Kante while being as elegant on the ball as Pogba. 

The Frenchman has shown a lot of maturity in shifting his game from a deeper lying midfielder to a box to box midfielder. He had a pass completion of 89.3% in Ligue 1 while also averaging 6.37 progressive carries p90. Adding to this, he also had 3.4 tackles p90 and 1.92 dribbles completed p90. He ranked in the 97th and 95th percentile for both the stats in Ligue 1. Very impressive for an 18-year old. 

He also possesses great awareness for his age. The 18 year old always wants to get on the ball and is never one to shy away from responsibility. As a result of his great awareness, he can be deemed as one of the midfielders who are ‘press resistant’. He has also got a strong physical presence. Even though he is just over 6 ft, his lean physique is just about at the stage where he can turn and dribble past players quickly but also not be bullied by his counterparts while he is in possession of the ball. His awareness coupled with his great vision allow him to play the creative, box to box role he has been playing for Rennes. Almost acting like a ‘Mezzala’. 

However, Camavinga still has a long way to go in terms of his technical and physical aspects. The midfielder still can’t be considered as a goal threat, either by his long shots or his presence in the 18-yard box. While his positioning and vision is still not polished, it is to be considered that the Frenchman is just 18 years old. 

In short, Eduardo Camavinga is a tenacious, dynamic, box to box midfielder. His awareness, tackling ability, dribbling and passing allow him to be a great all round option to have in the middle of the pitch. 

Tactical Fit at Manchester United

Well, first things first, Eduardo Camavinga is not someone who can play alongside Paul Pogba in the pivot as many fans are suggesting he might. He may have some of the skills required but his natural game isn’t that of a holding midfielder and if Pogba is to be played in a double pivot, he needs someone in that profile to play alongside him. Someone in the similar mould of a Nemanja Matic and even that is not enough to get the best out of Paul Pogba. He works best playing in the attacking areas of the LW-half space, something he has done recently for Manchester United playing from the LW.

So, if we cancel out the possibility of Paul Pogba playing in the deep midfield pivot in a 4-2-3-1 that leaves us with 4 potential partners Eduardo Camavinga can be paired with them being Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek. Now the main reasons why van de Beek can’t be a good partner for the French youngster is the same as Pogba in the sense both are much better playing closer to the goal. Adding to the fact that whenever van de Beek has played, he has played in the no.10 spot under Solskjaer. So, the Norwegian manager definitely doesn’t consider him to play in the pivot as a deeper lying midfielder. 

Now, that leaves us with only 3 options. Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic. Camavinga would thrive if he’s paired with any of the aforementioned midfielders. Let’s understand why by taking the most recent game against Leeds United as an example. 

In that game, Manchester United lined up in their trademark 4-2-3-1 with McTominay and Fred playing in the double pivot while Pogba started on the LW and Bruno Fernandes played in his usual no.10 role. The McTominay-Fred pivot or ‘McFred’ allows Pogba and Bruno to link up further up the pitch. 

The midfield pivot was very dynamic as they both didn’t have a defined role as McTominay and Fred (and Camavinga) are all pretty similar players. Manchester United usually build up with a 2-4 or a 3-3 shape including the backline and the fullbacks depending on who the opposition is. In that build up phase, Fred drops deep to receive the ball while McTominay is the one who is a more free midfielder given the license to roam in the middle of the park looking for pockets of spaces but again, even that depends on game to game. In short, both midfielders can do the job of carrying the ball from the deep and their high energy and work ethic suit the fast-paced counter pressing, quick transition style of play Manchester United like to play.

As we can see here, United build up in a 2-4 shape when they are pressed with 2 strikers with McTominay and Fred both dropping a bit deep to receive the ball. But once United are past the build up phase, McTominay is the one who makes the late runs from midfield and Fred is the one who holds his position. 

Just by seeing his heat map in the game against Leeds United, it is pretty evident that McTominay likes to make runs and maraud forward

That is the role where Camavinga would thrive under at Manchester United. He is good at dropping deep and building from the back but he is also among the best young dribblers in Europe making him a very good ball carrier. His work rate coupled with his excellent dribbling and we have a younger and maybe arguably better version of Scott McTominay. 

As you can see, his progressive carrying and dribbling makes him a very viable alternative to the role the Scotsman plays at Manchester United.

Considering the fact that Eduardo Camavinga is still very young, he can very well be developed into the role Fred plays as well. While his passing and vision isn’t polished, his awareness and press-resistant nature means he is very good at dropping deep and receiving the ball. His passing and vision can only improve in the future. As mentioned earlier, when Manchester United build up in a 3-3 shape with Fred or Matic dropping in the defence, Camavinga can easily be the mid who drops deep too as he has all the attributes in him to be developed in that profile. Adding to the fact that Camavinga’s work rate is pretty similar to Fred. 

Being alongside Nemanja Matic and he can very well play the same role Scott McTominay plays as the Serbian is the perfect DM allowing Camavinga the freedom to carry the ball forward in threatening attacking spaces allowing Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba to be closer to the goal and flex their creative or goalscoring muscles. 

All in all, Eduardo Camavinga going by his most recent form is the perfect alternative for Scott McTominay in the current 4-2-3-1 setup that Manchester United play but can be a viable alternative for Fred also seeing how much of a versatile midfielder the young Frenchman actually is. Assuming that Paul Pogba would play on the wings in the near future, signing Camavinga would make a lot of sense for Manchester United. 

Now, there are multiple situations pertaining to this. Manchester United are long term admirers of Declan Rice and if Rice was to switch sides and join the Manchester based club along with a contract extension for Paul Pogba, it would mean Pogba would be dropped back into midfield as a pure Defensive midfielder like Rice would allow Pogba to play with more freedom from the midfield pivot which could hinder Camavinga’s opportunities in the first team. If Pogba won’t renew his contract then Camavinga is probably among the top 5 candidates to replace him. 

If we look closely at the current scenario, it looks like Paul Pogba would be staying at Old Trafford this season and that would mean the current setup with Pogba playing on the LW would be Solskjaer’s go-to system considering that Rashford is out for a considerable time. That leaves Manchester United with only 3 viable options who can play in the midfield pivot with ‘McFred’ and Matic and it only makes sense to bring in another option to add to the depth of the squad. 

In conclusion, Manchester United should make a late push for Eduardo Camavinga as his asking price is probably the lowest it can ever be and the financial strength of Manchester United’s competitors for his signature is also the weakest at the current moment. If Camavinga does decide to run down his contract and leave Rennes next season, then Manchester United may have to be involved in a bidding war for the young Frenchman’s signature. If Manchester United do manage to make a late push and get his signature then the transfer window would be classified as a very successful window for the Red Devils. 

Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

If you’re wondering whether it would be right or wrong to call Manchester United’s ongoing season a good one, then you’re not alone. It has been an exciting for the fans of the red devils but it’s still hard to place any name tags like ‘successful’ or ‘improved’ on it yet. A positive run in the league that sees the club in a so-called “title race” has been sandwiched the disappointing Champions League group stage exit and recent Carabao Cup semi-final loss to City. A very different season of football which started with no pre-season break, is filled with fixture congestion issues and still hasn’t been immune to repeated COVID contractions and player fitness issues, makes it hard to assess whether United are actually having a good season or not. We try to break through the confusion using our greatest weapon – data. Below are a few detailed data visualizations of some of the underlying numbers that can indicate how the red devils are performing this season and who the stand-out players are.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

The first viz highlights the Premier League teams who are over-performing on their expected goals like Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and those who are under-performing with respect to their goals scored like Sheffield United and Burnley. All stats used are per 90 minute stats. United and Liverpool have not only been scoring high but also more than expected. This kind of slight over-performance is sustainable and expected for a top team challenging for titles since they would boast of players with the ability to over-perform and score from unexpected situations as well. It reads well for United fans who are trying to understand if this type of performance in the league is sustainable.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, MUFC in all comps 20/21]

The next logical question will be which United players are over-performing and under-performing on expected goals. This viz highlights exactly that. The players over-performing on xG are Rashford and Bruno. Rashford’s xG in the game against Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford was just 0.1 whereas his goal against Brighton at home was a 0.3 xG chance. Bruno’s double against Everton at Goodison park had a combined xG of just 0.2.
Worryingly, Anthony Martial has a negative G-xG differential. His blank against PSG at Old Trafford accrued 0.9 xG while he failed to scored at West Bromwich Albion even with an xG of 0.8. Martial has had a reputation of over-performing on his expected goals metric, the best of which United fans witnessed in the 19/20 season where he scored 17 goals in the league with an xG of 10.9 only. Greenwood has also been underwhelming so far with just 3 goals this season after having scored 17 in all competitions in 19/20. If those two can start finishing like their usual selves and support Rashford and Bruno in attack, United fans can expect even better attacking output from the team in the remainder of the season.

 

 [Progressive passes vs Progressive Distance,MUFC 20/21]

This viz maps progressive passes per 90 against progressive distance of thoses per 90 minutues. Alex Telles’ consistently aggressive crossing helps him top progressive distance while Bruno regularly looking for line-breaking passes and assists helps him top number of progressive passes. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw and United’s Centre-Backs ensure high progression even with lesser number of progressive passes. Donny Van De Beek and the forwards prefer less progressive passing.

 

[Pressures per 90 vs Pressure success %, MUFC all comps 20/21]

This viz gives a good indication of United’s pressing strategy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It highlights how Bruno Fernandes and Fred are press-hungry at the cost of success % while Paul Pogba & Scott McTominay maintain a good balance. Luke Shaw and the centre-Backs prioritize success. It gives a general indication that the attackers don’t press too high, while Bruno and Fred have complete license to go overboard to win back possession and Pogba, McTominay Matic are expected to strike a controlled approach. The defence opts for safety over high pressing numbers. In short, Ole prefers winning the midfield battle the most.

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

This viz highlights player movements with the ball. Nemanja Matic stands out on both the number of carries per 90 and progression towards goal while Marcus Rashford and Daniel James boast high progression even with less number of carries.

[MUFC Goals & Expected goals Trend in EPL 20/21]

Last but not the least, we take a look at the game-by-game trend of United’s expected goals and actual goals scored in the league so far. It’s clear that the red devils didn’t create enough against top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and weren’t good value for the win in both games. United should have scored at least one goal in the drab 0-0 draw against neighbors Manchester City. But the team showed great spirit in over-performing on xG to clinch wins against West Ham and Sheffield United even when the team wasn’t creative enough which shows a winning quality lacking in recent United sides against such clubs in the league.

In summary, much of the underlying numbers have indicated clear progress from last season and a genuine forward-thinking approach from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer which have rewarded him with good attacking displays and an unexpected title challenge in the league. The worries have been towards the defensive end where United have let in some goals cheaply often owing to set-pieces. Doubts also remain of United’s performance in big games this season after having done wonderfully well last season in such games. The last worry seems to be over-reliance on a few players. Days in which Bruno and Rashford are shut down result in poor attacking displays like against City in the Carabao cup. Ole will be looking for more from the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba towards the latter of the season. Who knows, if the missing members step up and things go his way, Ole might be the first United manager post-SAF to make a genuine push for a league title towards the end of the season. As of now, United fans should take solace in knowing that the underlying numbers support the narrative of improvement from last season and they should expect more points in the league at the very least.

The path to the perch, Part 2: 1992-1999

We continue our series following Sir Alex Ferguson’s journey in bringing Manchester United back to the top with the second leg of this 3-part series. We recount the years from his first title at the club to possibly the greatest moment of his career in 1999.

March to the first titles

As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team. After a shortage of goals in the second half of the 1991-92 season cost United the league title, Ferguson was intent on signing a new striker. His key target was Southampton striker Alan Shearer, but he lost out to a newly promoted Blackburn Rovers side managed by Kenny Dalglish, who had managed Liverpool to three league titles and was backed by the millions of steel baron Jack Walker to bring similar success to the resurgent Lancashire club. Ferguson then switched his attention to Dion Dublin, the 23-year-old striker who had excelled in the lower divisions with Cambridge United. Dublin completed a £1 million move to Old Trafford to become United’s only summer season signing.

The first victory of the 1992-93 league season came only in the fourth game when a late goal by Dublin provided a 1–0 win at Southampton, but Dublin then broke his leg in the next game against Crystal Palace and was sidelined for six months. By late October United had endured a run of five successive draws and the all too familiar goal shortage was attributed to this once again. United sat at 10th place in the league by November 1992, with one of the lowest goal tallies in the division. United were linked with moves for some of the most highly rated strikers in the English league, including Brian Deane and David Hirst, but on 26 November 1992 United made a £1.1 million move for French striker Eric Cantona, who had helped Leeds United win the previous season’s league title. The arrival of Cantona transformed United, and by the turn of 1993 they were looking like title contenders again. Despite challenges from Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and surprise contenders Norwich City, United went on a storming run during the final weeks of the season to win the title by a 10-point margin and end their 26-year wait (the last title being under Sir Matt Busby in 1967).

United broke the English transfer fee record over the summer of 1993 by paying relegated Nottingham Forest £3.75 million for Irish midfielder Roy Keane. United started the following season beating Arsenal on penalties in the FA Charity Shield. They led the Premier League at the end of August, a lead they maintained all season. By the end of October, they were 11 points ahead and their lead peaked at 16 points in the new year. Despite a second round exit from the UEFA Champions League, United had their sights set on a unique domestic treble. In March 1994, United dropped points against Arsenal and bottom-of-the-table Swindon Town, in which Cantona was sent off in both games and subsequently received a five-match suspension. They then lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa and nearly went out of the FA Cup in the semi-final at Wembley, before Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser to force a Maine Road replay, which United won 4–1. An upturn in results soon followed, and United clinched their title on 1 May 1994 when they won 2–1 at Ipswich Town. In the 1994 FA Cup Final, it was goalless at half time but two Cantona penalties and subsequent goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United a comprehensive 4–0 win over Chelsea. Cantona finished the season with 25 goals in all competitions and was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Other players to impress during this campaign included Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United celebrates in the dressing room with the Premiership Trophy after becoming FA Carling Premiership Winners in the 1993-94 season at Old Trafford on May 8, 1994. Manchester United 0 Coventry City 0 (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“You can’t win anything with kids”

Ferguson felt that his squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the Double, and made only one signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2 million for defender David May. The 1994–95 season saw United rarely out of the headlines. On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had taunted him with anti-French racist abuse. Cantona was suspended by the club for the rest of the season, a ban which the FA extended until the end of September. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury. 1994–95 also saw the debuts of promising young players Paul Scholes and Phil Neville. Scholes was particularly impressive, scoring five goals in 17 games. Having made a handful of appearances between them in the previous two seasons, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt all made more regular appearances for United during 1994–95.

United broke the English transfer record again on 10 January 1995 by paying £7 million for Newcastle United’s free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Mark Hughes. United almost made it three league titles in a row, but just couldn’t get the better of a West Ham side who held them to a 1–1 draw in East London on the final day of the season. Blackburn, led by Kenny Dalglish, were crowned ­champions. The FA Cup also slipped out of United’s grasp when they lost 1–0 to unfancied Everton in the final.

 

 Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs walks dejectedly off the Wembley pitch after his team lost in the Cup Final, watched by manager Alex Ferguson (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

“Have you taken your eye off the ball?” asked Professor Sir Roland Smith, after Fergie had been summoned to the chairman’s Isle of Man home to discuss his request for a six-year deal. Smith’s suggestion that Ferguson should come back next year was not what the 54-year-old was hoping for. And chief executive Martin ­Edwards added insult to injury by warning Ferguson there would be no cushy boardroom job for him at the end of his tenure. “We don’t want a repeat of the Matt Busby syndrome,” Edwards is reported to have said. It is fair to say that Ferguson was not in a good place. His bid to become the first manager to defend the Double had ended in failure. 

In the desolate dressing room at Wembley, Ferguson warned that any players who had let their team-mates down would not be around much longer. The ­manager shocked his board of directors by announcing that he planned to sell Paul Ince. The England midfielder might have been at the top of his game, but Ferguson felt he had become too big for his boots. Ince had christened himself ‘The Guv’nor’. His nickname was even stitched into his ­Predator boots. As Ferguson explained in his ­autobiography, “I had observed Paul closely for the past five months and decided his attitude and performances had ­altered to a degree that I could not tolerate. This Guv’nor thing should have been left in his toy box.” Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £6million and fan favourites Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were to follow through the exit door. Ferguson was on holiday in the United States when he was told that Hughes had decided not to sign a new contract and had joined Chelsea instead.

United had lost three key players, and the club’s directors weren’t the only ones who felt Ferguson had lost the plot. When the opening game of the season was lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared United would win nothing with kids, thousands of fans voted in a poll run by the Manchester Evening News asking whether Ferguson should be sacked. The pressure mounted on Ferguson as the new season began without a major signing, with Ferguson instead putting his faith in young members of the squad such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This was seen as a big gamble, especially as the likes of Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal had spent heavily, but Ferguson stuck to his decision. He mentioned in his autobiography, “It was clear I now had youngsters equipped to play at the highest level.” In September 1994, when United travelled to Port Vale in the League Cup, ­Ferguson unleashed the rest of the club’s 1992 FA Youth Cup winners. Ferguson recalled: “After that night at Port Vale there were ­protests in the House of Commons. One woman MP said I should be banned for life for not playing my strongest team when people had paid their £10 to get in.” United prevailed 2-1 at Vale Park, thanks to two goals by Scholes.

Aside from a New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, United regained their winning touch after Christmas and reached the top of the Premier League in mid-March. Cantona was instrumental in many victories, and United remained firmly in control at the top and sealed the title on the last day of the season with a 3–0 win at Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. A week later, Manchester United beat Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the Double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995–96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted FWA Footballer of the Year by football journalists and was made team captain following the departure of Steve Bruce to Birmingham City.  Ferguson once again crossed the Irish Sea to speak to Professor Sir Roland Smith.

 

 Eric Cantona and manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United with the FA Cup and Premiership Trophy at Victoria Station, Manchester on May 12, 1996 after completing The Double. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“Football, bloody hell”

In the summer of 1996, United once again tried to sign Alan Shearer, but were beaten to his signature by Newcastle United for a then world record fee of £15 million. A new striker did arrive at Old Trafford that summer – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a little-known 23-year-old Norwegian striker. Another Norwegian, defender Ronny Johnsen, was also signed to fill the gap left by veteran Steve Bruce’s departure. Manchester United won their fourth league title in five seasons in 1996–97, helped by 18 goals from Solskjær. Hopes of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1968 were dashed, however, as they were defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona announced his shock retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. He was replaced by England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5 million signing from Tottenham.

A new adversary loomed in the form of Arsenal and their new boss Arsene Wenger. Although the pair would often have a fiery relationship in the press, Ferguson was full of praise for the Frenchman guiding the Gunners to the 1997-98 title, stating: “I think it’s good for my young players to lose on this occasion.” Shortly after this disappointment, Ferguson broke the club’s transfer record twice by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa.

Ferguson’s words would ring true as in the following 1998-99 season United rose to the occasion and gained a reputation for not conceding defeat even in what seemed the most hopeless of circumstances, winning and drawing several matches with late goals. Ferguson himself called it ‘Squeaky Bum time’. Some of their more notable comebacks were the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, which Liverpool led from the third to the 85th minute, both legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, won by a Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time, forced by a last-gasp Peter Schmeichel penalty save in the last of his eight seasons at the club. However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2–1 win in stoppage time. After the game, Ferguson uttered one of his most famous phrases: “Football, bloody hell.” United lost just five times in the entire season; three times in the league, the Charity Shield at the start of the season, and the League Cup quarter-final to eventual winners, Tottenham Hotspur. They defeated every other Premier League team at least once in all competitions and were undefeated in the Champions League.

Fans and writers regard the treble haul as manager Alex Ferguson’s finest hour, although he dismissed that assertion in later years. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Manchester to welcome the team as the season drew to a close. In recognition of his achievements Ferguson was awarded a knighthood, and handed the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in November 1999. By the end of the season, Manchester United had become the world’s richest football club and the most valuable sporting brand worldwide. Sir Alex Ferguson had well and truly converted United into a global force.

 

 Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Jaap Stam, Jonathan Greening, Andy Cole, David Beckham, David May, Alex Ferguson head coach, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville celebrate his victory with the trophy during the UEFA Champions league final match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich on May 26, 1999 in Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain. (photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)