Erik ten Hag was right to build from the back at Manchester United | Manchester United
“Apologies Lisandro and all Man United fans, can you stop tweeting me about Lisandro Martínez now please!” Jamie Carragher used Monday Night Football as an opportunity to apologise for having doubted the Argentinian centre-back when he moved to Manchester United last summer. Martínez is not the most intimidating of centre-backs, standing at only 5ft 9in, and Carragher suspected he would be “too small” to deal with the physical side of the Premier League, particularly against sides that would go direct and target the former Ajax man.
But Martínez has played a key role in a successful season for United. He has forged a solid centre-back partnership with Raphaël Varane, helping Erik ten Hag win some silverware in his first season in England as well as guiding the club up the table and into the top four. With 17 clean sheets, David de Gea has won the Golden Glove award with two games to spare. Only two teams have conceded fewer goals than United (41) in the Premier League this season – Manchester City (31) and Newcastle (32) – so there has been a marked improvement in the goals against column. United conceded 57 goals in the league last season – the same number as they scored.
It is relatively simple to pinpoint where United have improved. The additions of Martínez in defence and Casemiro in midfield have been key, as has the attitude instilled in the team by Ten Hag. With a stronger structure, United are conceding fewer shots per game this season (12.7) than they did last season (13.4). Mikaël Silvestre, who won four league titles at the club, has noted a new mindset in the team. “In a one v one situation, the United defenders are much more solid and aggressive,” said the Frenchman earlier this season. That should not come as a surprise given they have brought in a centre-back nicknamed “The Butcher”.
The statistics back up Silvestre’s observation. United are making 17.2 tackles per game this season, compared to 15.4 last year, and they are also making more fouls (up from 10.4 per game to 11.1). This comes despite the fact that United are enjoying more possession this season (54.2%) than they did last season (52.1%). So the improvement is twofold: they are keeping the ball for longer and, when they do lose it, they are showing a greater willingness to hunt down opponents and win it back.
The decision to finally address the midfield problem has helped. For too long United muddled through with a central midfield partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay, neither of whom had the positional and tactical discipline to hold down the midfield. By comparison, Casemiro has shown why he remains one of the best in his position – his tally of 3.8 tackles per 90 minutes is the second best in the Premier League this season behind Fulham midfielder João Palhinha (4.3).
United are a different team without Casemiro. When he has been in the team, they have conceded 0.91 goals per game in the Premier League; when he has been absent that figure has shot up to 1.5. With an actual plan in place, United have enjoyed a progressive campaign under Ten Hag. The question now is how they build for next season.
In defence, Kim Min-jae has been strongly linked to the club. The South Korean was a revelation for Napoli this season as they won the Serie A title for the first time in 33 years. Given Varane’s fitness issues and Harry Maguire’s inconsistency, another world class centre-back would not go amiss in a squad that will be competing on four fronts next season.
They should also consider signing a more attacking right-back to play in Ten Hag’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system. In Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia, United have a pair of offensive left-backs who stretch opposition defences. As such, it’s no shock to see that 41% of United’s attacks come down the left, the joint highest in the Premier League, while just 33% of their attacks come down the right, the joint lowest in England’s top tier.
United have been linked with Denzel Dumfries of Inter and Jeremie Frimpong of Bayer Leverkusen – a pair of Dutch attacking full-backs who could mirror what Shaw and Malacia do on the other flank. Frimpong has really shot to prominence this season, completing 85 dribbles, the second best return in the Bundesliga. Bringing in a new full-back this summer would mean one of Diogo Dalot or Aaron Wan-Bissaka leaving the club, a decision that would have been far easier to make six months ago when Wan-Bissaka was out of the side. His renaissance has given Ten Hag something to think about but, if the manager wants to add another attacking outlet to the team, at least one of his current players needs to go to accommodate a forward-thinking right-back.
In midfield, cover for Casemiro is also of the utmost importance. United were fragile during his suspensions this season, so it’s no surprise to see the club linked with a move for Adrien Rabiot. The France international, who is out of contract at Juventus next month, was rumoured to be on United’s radar last summer and he could be a decent fit to ease the burden on Casemiro.
Roméo Lavia, who should be available now Southampton have been relegated, is another option, though United would face competition for the Belgian from a number of Premier League suitors. The 19-year-old is one for the present and the future. There are other players in the mix who could add some bite to midfield, notably Palhinha, Edson Álvarez of Ajax, and Marcel Sabitzer, who has spent the second half of the season on loan at United.
On the whole, Ten Hag’s first season has been a positive one, with the League Cup in the trophy cabinet and a top-four finish nearly secured – they need to pick up one point from their two remaining games. The defence has improved but Ten Hag will not be fully satisfied just yet. The challenge is to keep building and then strengthen further up the pitch to make United a force again.
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