Manchester United must switch reactive for proactive to improve their defending

Hot takes on Manchester United’s shortcomings aren’t exactly original. We’re treated to a weekly dressing down from former players; the club gets more ‘broken’ every week in Gary Neville’s book, while Roy Keane’s scathing assessments are now a staple of Sky Sports’ coverage.

When United win, they’re back on the right track. When they lose, the world is ending. We should expect this lazy coverage from an ever-deteriorating industry of football pundits who are desperate to make the headlines, and studios being packed to the brim with ex-Old Trafford stars makes things even worse. Nearly everything they say is reactionary (cough, Rio Ferdinand).

For nearly a decade, United’s transfer policy has been characterised by knee-jerk reactions whenever a big name enters the market. Whether or not you believe re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo was a wise decision (I think it was), there’s no doubt that his return to England epitomised this approach.

However, it’s on the pitch that United’s reactive nature produces the most disastrous results.

Players are rushed on the ball, lack basic tactical know-how and look like headless chickens when out of possession. Having had next to no proper coaching for the last few years (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will, one day, answer for his crimes), the playing squad are less coordinated than teams at the lower reaches of the table.

Everything about the club is reactionary. Erik Ten Hag’s first task will be changing that on the field of play.

When United were embarrassed by arch-rivals Liverpool last week, the amount of space Thiago was afforded in the middle of the pitch was simply stunning – and summed up the problem. Ralf Rangnick seemingly had no plan whatsoever to have someone follow the Spaniard around the pitch and make it difficult for him on the ball.

A smart idea would be to try and form a cohesive scheme to try and outwit their opponent (no mean feat, to be fair). This could involve targeted pressing, the blocking off of specific passing lanes or man-marking Thiago’s most likely options.

Instead, United only decided to focus on the former Bayern Munich man after he received the ball. This meant that, far too often, he had plenty of space and could dictate play throughout. He embarrassed Rangnick’s men.

Take the example below, which occurred just three minutes into the thrashing. Andy Robertson brings the ball down and finds Thiago, who has no United player within a 20-yard radius of him. He has time to take a couple of touches and look up before Bruno Fernandes decides to press him in any meaningful way…

… and by the time Fernandes does react, Thiago has already picked his spot and fires a stunning line-breaking pass into the feet of Jordan Henderson (below).

Just two minutes later, Virgil van Dijk plays into Thiago’s feet with Marcus Rashford a couple of feet to his left. With two or three easy touches, Thiago nips across Rashford and spreads play out to Joel Matip…

… before easily waltzing in front of the United striker to find another pocket of space. United barely react at all here, giving the best ball-player on the park all the freedom in the world.

Seventeen minutes had been played when Thiago picks up the ball here, easily shifts to the side of substitute Jesse Lingard and fires another good ball into the feet of Henderson, who this time makes a meal of his first touch and cedes possession…

… but look at the space Thiago has moved into below – and look where Lingard is. In less than a second, the Liverpool man has played a brilliant pass and moved into a dangerous area should a team-mate look to find him again.

United simply don’t react to situations like this until danger is staring them right in the face. Rather than cutting out these issues at source, danger men like Thiago are allowed to waltz through games, pick passes and put United’s defence under continuous pressure. It suffices to say that these three examples weren’t isolated incidents throughout the 80 minutes he was on the pitch.

You could argue (not very strongly) that allowing Thiago space in the middle of the pitch isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, United’s lack of proactiveness also has repercussions in their own third.

Rather than make sure they are goalside at all times, United let players run across them before making last-gasp attempts to rectify their errors. Take Alex Telles’ clumsy foul on Bukayo Saka which handed Arsenal a penalty on Saturday afternoon.

Telles originally makes the right decision by following Cedric Soares down the line, leaving Saka to Jadon Sancho when he cuts inside…

… but when Saka releases the ball, Sancho actually moves away from his own goal and leaves Saka entirely unmarked. This means Telles has to dart inside quickly, having been caught in no man’s land between two opponents…

… and he ends up clattering into Saka from the side, handing the Gunners a spot kick after a lengthy VAR check.

Good defensive units know when to push up, when to drop, when to break apart to put out necessary fires, and when to stick together in a block. United’s does not. Players aren’t on the same wavelength.

Plenty of these issues at the back are a result of individual errors too. This often results in dramatic last-gasp blocks which look good at the time, but are a symptom of a deep-lying problem. When it doesn’t come off (unsurprisingly, this happens quite a lot), it presents easy chances. Telles and Diogo Dalot are particularly bad for letting their men sneak away before lunging in to rectify their mistakes.

Dalot committed that very crime for Arsenal’s opener on Saturday. Below, we can see that when the ball is originally played into the United penalty box, Dalot is goalside of Nuno Tavares having just shepherded him back down the line…

… but by the time Raphael Varane and Telles have made a comedy of themselves trying to clear the ball and David de Gea has saved Saka’s original effort, the Arsenal full-back has dashed in ahead of Dalot and is on hand to slot home the rebound.

Rather than be proactive and make sure he is goalside of his man at all times, Dalot is caught flat-footed and pays the price. It’s a common theme.

United’s midfield is constantly dragged all over the place too (no matter who is playing), with their shape continually unraveled by the most basic of passing moves. Within seconds, attacks are launched on the United defence – who then react themselves, leave huge gaps and are exploited.

Take a look at Norwich’s goal to level things up at 2-2 on April 16. Following a routine United attack being halted, the ball is played into Kenny McLean. Note that he is surrounded by a diamond of red shirts – but that none of them are even remotely close enough to think about applying some pressure. Remind you of the Thiago conundrum?

McLean plays a simple ball into Kieran Dowell, who in the blink of an eye is staring down the United defence. Victor Lindelof is unsure what to do – should he stick with Teemu Pukki, his man, or dart forward in an attempt to cut out an attempted pass?

He chooses the latter option, leaves himself woefully exposed and allows Dowell to feed Pukki. The Finn makes no mistake and converts past de Gea. Look where Lindelof is when the goal goes in.

Too much space in midfield, followed by one easy pass that leaves a United defender facing a 50/50 situation that they will all too often gamble wrong on. Sound familiar? It happens almost every game – if not every couple of minutes.

United’s forwards don’t have a pressing plan either; they only run towards defenders when they feel like it, or when they want to look as though they’re putting in a bit of effort while knowing full well they have no chance of winning the ball back (Marcus Rashford, I’m looking at you).

If Manchester United are to improve, they need to stop being so reactive. They must press danger men before they create chances, no matter how deep they might be on the pitch; they have to stay with their runners; staying in a compact shape off the ball must become second nature, replacing a tendency to rush out at the wrong time and leave exploitable gaps.

The midfield must be tighter when in defensive transitions so that opposition players aren’t afforded the freedom of the pitch. That comes with being proactive – don’t wait for the counter attack to spring before dashing back, and instead get in quickly so it doesn’t start in the first place.

People often slam Roy Keane for his simplicity in saying that United need to ‘do the basics better’, but he’s right. They need a coach (and hopefully Ten Hag is that) who can instill good habits quickly, making sure his squad know what to do when and where. Put simply, they need to stop being so reactionary in their defensive actions.

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