After back-to-back Premier League losses to open the season, Manchester United won four Premier League games in a row. However, a 6-3 defeat against Manchester City in the first game after the season’s first international break returned focus to the areas where the team still wasn’t playing well.
Since the Manchester Derby, Manchester United has been unbeaten in six games. During this time, the team has won 2-0 against Tottenham, drew 1-1 against Chelsea in London, also defeated Everton, and won two Europa League games. Erik ten Hag has improved a few key areas of the team that have led to success.
The Midfield, Last Season’s Weakness, Has Become a Strength
Manchester United had one of their worst-ever seasons in the Premier League last season according to how many points the team earned during the year, and one of the main reasons was the team’s midfield. United often struggled to control the midfield throughout last season, whether the manager was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, or Ralf Rangnick.
As a result, one of Ten Hag’s main priorities when he became Manchester United’s manager this summer was improving his team’s midfield. Two midfielders, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro, were part of the team’s summer signings to help improve United’s midfield depth.
The results have been positive so far this season. Ten Hag’s defensive system, which emphasizes an organized press led by the forwards, occasionally relies heavily on the midfield depending on the opponent. One example of this was in the team’s game plan against Tottenham.
Against Tottenham, Ten Hag encouraged his forwards to pressure Tottenham near their goal, which forced long passing attempts into midfield, frequently from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Manchester United’s midfield then focused on regaining possession and restarting the attack, with the team’s fullbacks also frequently helping to win the ball.
As many as nine players were committed to the press and were on Tottenham’s side of the halfway line throughout the game. The game plan was extremely successful. Manchester United had arguably its best performance in any game since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson after the end of the 2012-13 season; earning the most shots by any team in a Premier League game this season while allowing only two shots on goal.
The most encouraging part of the game may have been that it came when Eriksen, who is part of Ten Hag’s first-choice starting lineup, was unable to play. Instead, Fred started the game and had one of the best performances of his Manchester United career so far.
Fred often got into very good positions as part of Manchester United’s offense. He scored Manchester United’s first goal of the game, and helped score the team’s second goal. In the buildup to the second goal, Fred made a run ahead of Marcus Rashford, and after he received the ball, his shot was deflected and fell to Bruno Fernandes, who scored to extend the lead.
Throughout the game, Fred’s positioning helped lead to chances for Manchester United. Because he frequently positioned himself closer to Tottenham’s goal, he caused issues for their defense and also allowed Bruno Fernandes to have more space and time on the ball, which helped Manchester United organize their offense and create goal-scoring opportunities.
Equally as important in United’s win against Tottenham was Casemiro. According to FotMob, Casemiro won the most duels in the match, had the most tackles in the game, and had 10 recoveries. He was one of the main reasons the team’s press worked so well, and his excellent game, along with the defense, was why Manchester United’s offense had so much success.
Against Chelsea last weekend, Eriksen rejoined the starting lineup alongside Casemiro and Fernandes. The team’s midfield began the game so well that Graham Potter made a substitution in the 36th minute, bringing on Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucurella while changing the team’s formation from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1. Potter did this because Manchester United had an extra midfielder as compared to Chelsea, and United’s midfield used the advantage well, controlling the midfield throughout the first half of the game.
Eriksen has been one of Manchester United’s most important players at the start of Ten Hag’s tenure, especially in games against opponents who allow United to have more possession. He and Fernandes frequently combine to set Manchester United’s tempo when the team has possession. His creativity in midfield led to an important goal against Arsenal earlier this year.
Manchester United’s midfield was one of the main reasons the team didn’t have success last season. However, it is arguably the part of the team that has improved the most during Ten Hag’s time as manager so far. The midfielders’ contributions defensively as part of the press, and their passing and creativity on offense, have allowed Manchester United to create more goal-scoring chances while also improving on defense.
An Improved Defense
In addition to the midfield, Manchester United’s defense has improved significantly so far this season. Lisandro Martinez, who joined the team from Ajax this summer, and Raphael Varane have combined to be an excellent center-back pairing so far this season.
Additionally, Diogo Dalot has improved dramatically under Ten Hag and has started all 11 of Manchester United’s Premier League games so far this season. Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia, who signed with Manchester United this summer after playing with Feyenoord, have competed to play left-back this season, but both players have performed well when they started.
Those players, along with goalkeeper David de Gea, have helped the team allow only two goals in its last four Premier League games. Dalot, Shaw, and Malacia have also been a key part of United’s offense.
Particularly in Manchester United’s last few games, the team’s fullbacks have become more involved in helping create scoring chances. Against Tottenham, Dalot frequently positioned himself in midfield when United had possession. This is a trademark part of Pep Guardiola’s system at Manchester City, where Joao Cancelo frequently positions himself in similar areas; Ten Hag was previously the coach of Bayern Munich II when Guardiola was Bayern Munich’s manager.
Ten Hag’s rebuild at Manchester United is not yet complete, and won’t be for the next several seasons. However, the team has undoubtedly improved during the first few months of his tenure, and Manchester United is seemingly improving in each of his matches as head coach.
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