“Goals win you games, defences win you titles” – Everyone has heard of this. Famously said by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. Check the statistics however, and you’ll see that it is rarely the case that the best defence wins the league. More often than not, the highest goalscorers are the ones that will take the prize of league champions home.
Being the best defence may not be the best qualifier for being champions, but being one of them certainly is. There is often a misconception that the best coaches focus mostly on attack, placing it on a greater plain of importance than defending. It is not true. Chris Davies of Leicester, the assistant manager to Brendan Rodgers, says “defending is always more than attacking, despite what people say”. Xabi Alonso asserts the same with Pep Guardiola, where defending is more in his thoughts than attacking. Jurgen Klopp’s calling gegenpressing the best playmaker doesn’t need any more explaining.
Even those who wow us with scintillating football, there is increased importance on defence. In fact, it is integral to any team of theirs.
Then you come to Man Utd. After 24 games, the team has conceded 31 games. Taking out the outlier of the Spurs game, it would still be 25 in 23 games. Discount the first three games as United were lacking requisite fitness, it is still 20 in 21. All which goes to show that, on average, if United play, they will concede. Luckily, United have scored enough to average 2 goals a game.
Unfortunately, the scoring has not been enough recently. The shoddy defending that has been a dirty hallmark throughout the campaign has come home to roost. The team has kept 8 clean sheets. Four in big games – Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal – where there was little concern of attacking so it was easier to keep one. Two – Burnley West Brom and Wolves – against the second, third and joint-fifth lowest scorers in the league. The other against a Southampton team reduced to 10 men within the early seconds of the game. A quarter, or thereabouts, of Sheffield United’s goals this season have come against the Red Devils.
United gained 13 clean sheets last season. Funnily enough, they would be on the way to 13 clean sheets this season if they continued at this rate. 24 games into last season, 29 goals had zoomed past David De Gea. Only two less than the current. The noises being propagated in the media was one of increased ability to defend however. To justify the transfer fee of Harry Maguire, distinctly average in his own right, maybe? The improvement on the god awful numbers posted by the defence in 2018/19 perhaps played into that as well.
Truth be told, United have not been a good defensive team for a very long time. 2016/17 being a probable outlier. Luckily, between the sticks for some of those years there stood De Gea, with some of the best shot stopping performances. Between 2013 and 2018, his form was quite remarkable. It was only in the aforementioned first season of Jose Mourinho, a 25 game stretch that saw the team only concede 12 goals, that United offered stout defending. Unfortunately, it was the attack that would let them down. Now, De Gea has regressed into a pretty average keeper since the beginning of 2018/19. Miscounting his well combed over problems, what else is the issue?
As with everything, it cannot be confined to one unit or characteristic of the team. But in stating the obvious, the personnel just isn’t good enough to protect the goal. Forget the waning goalkeeper behind them. The issue of letting good, continuous looks on is incredibly problematic for a supposed top team.
The Full Backs
Aaron Wan Bissaka came in as a £50 million acquisition. His modus operandi was a right back who had shown off an incredible knack of 1v1 defending. When Wilfried Zaha, one of the best 1v1 dribblers in the league is unable to get past you consistently in training, it shows his level. It was such a standout, it prompted Solskjaer to spend the premium money on him. However, once we drill down into the Croydon born defender’s abilities, it may be that is his only outstanding trait. Because, taking into account his other defensive qualities, they don’t live up to the same billing.
Such is his ability dispossess his man when he tries to jinx past him, Wan Bissaka has built up a terrible habit of venturing out slowly to the winger. It’s almost a coaxing tactic to dare them to try to knock the ball past him. The problem begins when that isn’t what they want to do. When they look to shift it quickly and cross it, Wan Bissaka is never positioned to adequately stop the cross.
You can think of the draw at Old Trafford with Liverpool last season. The 2nd and 3rd goal in the away game at Leipzig or the 2nd goal against Sevilla in the Europa League semi-final. At 23 years old, there is still scope for improvement but it would need to come quickly. Tenacity in getting out to the ball is a large asset of most top level full backs.
An annoying proclivity aside, Luke Shaw has finally shown why United spent that money on him 6 years ago. Despite this, the 25 year old still gets out to his man a bit too slowly. Sometimes, he even tucks in so far that getting out to his man at any speed would be nigh on impossible. It may have been the numerous games as a LCB last season that grew his confidence defensively.
It played into his need to tuck in far too much when at LB. Now he has managed to sort out his spacing to an adequate level. 1v1, he is much harder to beat and he does not switch off as often at the back post as he would. The recovery runs start much earlier rather than the usual jogging back we became accustomed to. A little hope for his right footed counterpart about that improvement, given he was where Wan Bissaka was about 2 seasons ago.
The Gruesome Twosome
That age of improvement is not there for Maguire or Victor Lindelof however. This is their prime. On a technical, mental or physical standpoint, neither fulfil the required level for a United centre back. Nor do they mix well to build up a suitable partnership so they could potentially cover for their weaknesses. The Swede, nicknamed the Iceman, is anything but solid. Any type of physical challenge he is put under – recover runs, aerial challenges or jostling contest – it is a bit too much for him. From a positional standpoint, he is not intelligent enough to circumvent such occasions as often as you would want. A similar issue presenting itself with the man often stationed beside him, Maguire. What Lindelof has in ever so moderate pace however, Maguire makes up for it ruggedness and being aerially dominant.
Brandished on the sleeve of the English international every game, controversially in some quarters, is the captain’s armband. We are all still waiting to see the mental attributes associated though. Neither in the defence he should be ordering or the whole team. Focusing primarily on the former, Maguire’s slowness means he hardly wants to get into foot race with his opponent. So you repeatedly see him try to nip in ahead to stop a 1v1 situation from occurring.
The problem is that he seems to do this on his own accord, not taking into account the backline he should be leading. The Lookman goal in the 2-1 win at Craven Cottage, Maguire wanders into a space to close a gap but he doesn’t tell his partner, Eric Bailly. An inordinate amount of space opens up, which Bailly should close, but the line is haphazard. Solskjaer said after the game that United do not play for offsides so you can see how this contravenes with the way in which Maguire can often defend.
Busting The Myth
United’s defence has been of much debate recently. In terms of goals concession, the defence has been performing at a similar rate over the past two seasons. However, the attack was well below par last season. 36 in 24, a whole 50% drop off compared to this season. The focus was not on the defence so people did not look as coldly at the numbers as they do now.
The team finished with 36 goals conceded last season. 7 goals conceded in the last 14 games. Quite impressive. 1 vs Everton, 1 vs Spurs, 2 vs Bournemouth, 2 vs Southampton and 1 vs West Ham. Outside of the second goal against Southampton, majority of these were individual defensive errors. It was why many were lauding the fact that United had the third best defensive record in the league and had kept the most clean sheets across Europe’s top 5 leagues.
They were looking in the wrong place though. The defence had not been sured up nor were they performing any better. The protection in front of them just became a lot better.
If you were to ask many what the turning point of last season was, it would be two things. Bruno Fernandes’ arrival or the Coronavirus break. As cynical it may be to suggest such, the injury to Scott McTominay against Newcastle on Boxing Day may have perhaps had as much effect. Less so because he longer featured but more to do with Nemanja Matic playing. That Newcastle game literally cut the season in half. The 19 before, which Matic hardly played a part in – 23 goals conceded. The 19 after, which he started 16 of – 13 goals conceded.
It ties into the wider issue United have had for years in front of their defence. Because as poorly as that back five has looked over these past season, being able to get there has never been much of an issue for the opponent. That does not start in defensive midfield but that is something to come onto later. As good as any CB pairing is, having an ample protection in front of it is worth its weight in gold. You only need to look at the winners of the league in years gone by. A younger Matic for Chelsea, Fernandino at Man City, Kante AND Matic for Conte’s Chelsea, Fabinho with Liverpool. United have not had this in any form since the legs of Michael Carrick started to wane.
As much as the infamous portmanteau partnership of McFred (McTominay and Fred if you couldn’t figure out) are attributed with adding defensive solidity, it does not. Since the beginning of last season, that pairing started in 5 games where the team kept a clean sheet. McTominay subbed before half time in one of those.
Like the pole that the dog’s leash is wrapped around, Matic alongside any pair acts as pivot for which the other, whether it be McTom, Fred or Pogba, to go hunt. Positionally, he is the best. Proactive pressing is good. Only within reason. Pogba has his faults defensively, even if they are overstated. Fred is a maniac when pressing, which would be brilliant if we were a particularly high pressing team or if he applied any sense to it. McTominay sits in a halfway house between the Serbian and Brazilian that makes him an awkward fit altogether.
If Eric Bailly is unable to stay fit for a sustained period of time, another CB will be on the horizon. Possessing all the skills, he still has to harness them and can’t quite get the grips of it without the much needed game time he has missed repeatedly in his United career. Even with that other CB though, without a defensive midfielder, you are likely to see this same issue crop up. For all his faults and coming from one of his biggest critics, an ample replacement for Nemanja Matic should be the highest on the shopping list. A mobile, intelligent, technically able defensive midfielder in front of a defence can change the fortunes of the team quite dramatically in modern football. Casemiro and Javi Martinez are two continental examples.
But searching for the Bruno Fernandes of defensive midfielders would offer up the same problems as having the Bruno Fernandes of attacking midfielders. It should not be a one man job to make a defence look good. It is a team effort. Harkening back to the words of Chris Davies, the words preluding those referenced were “Our first idea is to press high in a defensive phase“.
Since his appointment as interim, Solskjaer has spoken about being able to outrun the opponents. He has praised the pressing that Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes brings to the front line. Last season, you saw Anthony Martial’s pressing numbers increase quite significantly as Solskjaer made it obvious to the Frenchman that being good without the ball is as important as being good with it. This season, the message seems to have gone missing but I digress.
For a team obsessed with it, United aren’t very good at it. It is neither well organised or highly effective. There are many different types of pressing, some quite crude in nature like Arrigo Sacchi’s at AC Milan and some more sophisticated, like the ones you see from Liverpool, Man City and Bayern contemporarily. Again, Man Utd’s is neither.
It’s the worst iteration there could possibly be. It’s individualistic. Often you see the centre forward go to press the keeper, who has an easy way out. It’s wasted energy. If there is anything a Fred, McTominay and Bruno midfield would be able to do, it’s shift quickly, close off avenues and press upon loose touches. Yet, it is quite passive. United don’t play offsides so their defensive line is often in a medium block. The attackers may press higher up the pitch, but the defence will stay in that same block. It may creep up a little more when Bailly is on the pitch but stretches of green park still open up because the team isn’t coordinated in its pressing actions. Sacchi’s Milan may have been crude by today’s standard but at least they all went together.
You see nothing of the sort at Old Trafford and it feeds into the wider point at Man Utd. From the outside looking in, Solskjaer looks to want to build a chameleon team that can play in any style. Now while that might have been fine 10 or so years ago, where distinctive identities were as marked as they are today, it isn’t enough now. Game plans can still shift and be adjusted for the opponent. But something to fall back on will provide a safety net for the players, something provided to the rest of their counterparts.
From a defensive viewpoint, from goalkeeper to the front, the team is mish-mash of styles. A reactive goalkeeper who stays on its line, with two ill-fitting CBs in front of him. Full backs who encourage crosses to come in, despite them being the main source of our issues with goals concession. An energetic midfield, who all would look better in a pressing team, but in a system that only seems to go half way with it. Wingers, who are often encouraged to take up cheating roles, making it harder for the defence to deal with 2v1s down the side. Strikers told to press but hardly with any support behind them.
I believe that Ferguson’s quote was misinterpreted. If you look at it based on numbers, a game starts off at 0-0. Scoring puts you ahead, which gives you two more points than a draw. Scoring goals will always doubly as good. The problem is conceding can lose you those points. Man City built up their good form this season off the back of slender wins. Being defensively staunch, seldom do you have to worry about losing leads gained. This is what I believe it means. Scoring goals will win you games. Conceding them will lose you points. Even the ones you score in.
United are far from a good offensive outfit. But in terms of what you would rather hang your hat on to achieve success this season, it would be attack to do it. Given that the defensive unit costs near £220m when the starters are fit, it must make you shudder. In the end, if all continues, they will be in defence of nothing but failure.