London Buses and all of that. You wait so long for one and then two come right after the other. United and away wins are the same. Having not achieved a victory on the road since February, United edged out an, albeit forlorn, Leicester team. The game’s only goal came when Dalot found a great pass into Bruno, who had pulled out wide. His pass inside into Rashford dragged Ndidi over and this allowed a space for Sancho to run into. Rashford’s pass to Sancho was on the money and the ex-Dortmund man took Ward out of the game with a deft first touch, which meant that he was presented with an open net. Outside of that, the game passed without much event. Maddison managed to pull a good save out of De Gea from a free kick and in the dying embers of the game, Justin blazed over from a good position that could have seen the Foxes come out with a point. Alas, the game ended as it was with United now sitting in 5th after being rock bottom 13 days ago.
Last season, Man Utd managed to finish on a goal difference of zero. It was something that was indicative of the state of the team. Not only were the goals not flowing as much as they should have been, the defence was unable to stop the ball from going into De Gea’s net. Usually, one of the main aims of a new coach is to add some solidity to the backline.
With Ten Hag’s introduction however, you saw a lot of what I call plastering. Rather than get the staples of a defensive structure down, he looked to cover up the deficiencies with progressive ideas. The full backs wouldn’t venture beyond their winger too much, coming inside to maintain possession and protect against potential dangerous transitions. The attackers and midfielders were told to press intensely once the ball was turned so as to not let the opponents build up and find easy passes that could target the back four. However, Brighton and Brentford were able to beat these things by having stretched offensive systems so the full backs had to go out to meet the widest player and, more importantly, longer direct balls that would forego the high press.
In the last 3 games however, we have seen a change. Against Liverpool, the lines were more collapsed and we played on the counter. Southampton was similar even with the onus on us to attack. Leicester was the same as the Saints. The introduction of Malacia and Varane into the XI, to replace Shaw and Maguire respectively, have been a massive help. It could come with more shortcomings in terms of build up and final third play but their advantages in defence are incredibly key.
One of the main criticisms of Varane before he joined the Red Devils, was the fact that he was very much the secondary defender in his tenure at Real Madrid. Every defensive partnership has an inherent leader in it and coming into the United team, with a defence that needed to be led, it was expected that he would have to take this role. Yet, you can see that he is relishing that fact right now. With Martinez alongside him, he is comfortable in taking charge of the depth that the line is to be held at.
On the night, he was instructing people where to be, pulling midfielders back into shape so as not to expose the defenders and going out into wide positions to help Dalot when he needed cover. A shining example of this is when Martinez lost the ball in the middle of the park and United were out of shape. Leicester were about to slip through a pass that would have Vardy baring down on De Gea but Varane positioned himself excellently to both go for the potential cover in the wide area and to cut out the more dangerous pass. In the end, he was able to do the latter and stopped one of the few dangerous moments in the game for United. In what seems to be a building exercise to just get the team into a flow of wins, Varane is integral to the defensive structure at this moment in time and hopefully the individual training regime he endured during pre season means he can go through this season without being blighted by injuries, as he was in the last.
When it came to attacking play on the night, there were very few occasions at which Man Utd troubled Ward’s night directly. Outside of Sancho’s goal, there was actually very little to be seen in that way. However, what could be seen were little sprouts of combination play that comes from better positional play. In an oxymoronic fashion, playing off instinct can often slow down passing moves because you have to be able to look for the next action. Knowing where everyone is and being sure that a space will definitely be filled means that blind passes can be played and that can be the most unsettling thing for defences. Particularly in the first half, the amount of touches needed in the final third for United was much less than previously seen. Lots of little combos between Bruno, Rashford and Sancho were coming off, even with Dalot and Malacia coming to add their presence once settled possession had been established. It didn’t exactly lead to shots raining down on Leicester’s goal but the ability to do it, is a good foundation for the future prospects of this attack. With the impending arrival of Antony, who also likes to join attacks in this way, the attacking imprint of Ten Hag is likely to be seen even more.
An interesting quirk of Ten Hag in the last three games has been his substitutions. Especially one he makes that means Bruno Fernandes shifts out to the right hand side. Taking your primary creative hub out of the middle of the pitch could be seen as a strange move but it is done for good reason. For all of his good work, Fernandes’ penchant to not be careful in possession can heap pressure on the team. Doing this from central positions is even more harmful. So, by moving him out wide and moving Eriksen forward, it keeps him on the pitch and allows him to play on the counter with less risk of harming the team. Also, his ability to track back, something that has noticeably increased this season, gives better protection for the full back. United have enough wingers now so that Ten Hag could make like for like changers, however I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing continue when United are leading games.