Apologies if this post is a little less structured or visual than usual, illness has struck me down but commitment to newslettering keeps me going.
You may have noticed that Manchester United (among other clubs) are IN CRISIS. Depending how you define ‘crisis’. StatsBomb’s expected goals model has them fourth-best in the league. It’s probably not worth putting too much on the specific placement, but the general takeaway is ‘things aren’t as bad as they seem’.
Still, even if performances have been better than the ‘12th-place, two points above the relegation zone’ current state of affairs, the club is still mired in the atmosphere that they’ve resulted in. Fans are antsy, players look deflated, media is ready to let loose the headlines of war.
What could Ole Gunnar Solskjær do now his team’s in a rut?
First we have to consider what he can’t do. He can’t solve all the injuries (that have kept out two principal attacking players Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba) and he can’t buy better players. In a similar vein, he also doesn’t really need to fix the defence. Only four teams have conceded fewer goals than their eight; second-place Manchester City have conceded one more. The problems are all on the attacking end.
Stick with the formation: Now, part of Solskjær’s rationale for playing the 4-2-3-1 he has United in this season is probably to bolster a defence which was suspect at times last year. I’m not convinced that changing formation is something that the Norwegian wants to do or even should do.
Let loose Maguire: We saw it a little of this against Newcastle, but there’s been nowhere near enough of it during the season as a whole. Given that part of United’s problem is in progressing the ball in general, making fuller use of one of the most adventurous on-ball centre-backs seems like an obvious step to take.
His passing accuracy isn’t pinpoint but the range he has on him means that they should use him for switches of play or to speed possession up. His jaunts with the ball at his feet should disrupt opposition midfield shape in a way that their current midfielders are struggling to do too.
Actually play balls for Rashford to run onto: Gary Neville highlighted on Sky Sports after about 40 minutes of the Newcastle game (if I remember rightly, which is a medium-sized ‘if’) that Rashford had stopped making the runs in behind the Newcastle defence that he’d been doing previously. That’s understandable. Playing even a token couple of passes to match his runs would keep Rashford engaged and the opposing defences on their toes.
But who to play these passes? Part of the problem with United’s general play — quality of players aside — feels like it’s because none of them are very used to playing with each other. To take the Newcastle game as an example, how well do Marcus Rashford, Daniel James, Andreas Pereira, and Juan Mata really know each others’ games?
To keep it simple, I think Solskjær should focus on the players he knows will be in the side. That seems most likely to be Rashford and James on the attacking ‘runner’ side and, probably, Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire on the ‘passer’ side. (Saying that, McTominay playing these passes would be a harder job, given the increased likelihood of being under pressure).
It’s an advantage to have an international break on our hands. United’s coaches and analysts should be fairly familiar with the kind of runs that Rashford and James like to make, and they should be able to find, one way or another*, clips of similar runs that are released by passes from CMs or CBs. They should send these clips to Maguire and McTominay in particular to study over the break, but also to the rest of the team so that they can think about how to manufacture situations where these passes are easier to play.
Keep tabs on the expected goals table, and keep going: Solskjær wouldn’t be the first manager to use expected goals as a way of geeing up his team. “Heads up, lads, we’ve not been getting the luck but it’ll come — and if you doubt me or are starting to doubt yourselves, here are the stats to back it up” could be a useful short-term message for as long as 1) results keep faltering 2) performances in the underlying numbers actually stay decent.
Will these four suggestions send United onto a dead-cert winning run? No. Are any of them particularly innovative? Also no. But a team in a rut probably can’t afford to try anything innovative. And with United’s underlying numbers what would be the point in risking ruining what they’ve got at the moment?
But a driving Maguire and a more active, happier-looking Rashford would add a small spark to a team that looks lacking in one as well as giving performances a superficial lift that, hopefully, fans could latch onto (as long as the long passes weren’t overdone so much that they started to look like aimless long balls).
Thanks for reading. Let’s see if United start to do any of these, or if results swing round, or if they change things up completely.
*In a future and idealised world, where tracking data across teams and leagues was freely available and teams knew what to do with it, this is how it’d be done. You could statistically categories the runs that James and Rashford make and then search across Europe for similar runs and link that up to video. But we’re a long way off that becoming reality yet.