Year two of the Erik ten Hag era was anticipated to be a significant turning point for Manchester United. However, in their first four Premier League matches, they have experienced a lackluster start.
Despite surpassing expectations last season by securing a third-place finish and clinching the EFL Cup, Ten Hag’s achievements seemed more rooted in charisma, squad development, and a cultural shift rather than substantial tactical advancements.
Following a successful summer transfer window, the 2023/24 season was expected to mark Ten Hag’s transition away from the more individualistic style he inherited, moving toward the complex tactical approach anticipated in the previous season.
That transition has indeed occurred, but it appears that the players are not yet fully prepared for it. The changes, particularly a higher pressing game and more direct attacking, have exposed certain personnel weaknesses, potentially hindering the Dutchman’s progress.
However, it’s important not to overstate Manchester United’s slow start. Four matches constitute a small sample size, and not only have they won both of their home games, but they also came close to winning the two challenging away fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
The attacking statistics remain relatively stable for United, despite facing tough opponents on the road. Furthermore, Rasmus Hojlund, who showed promise as a substitute against Arsenal, was sidelined due to injury.
Nonetheless, there is a critical issue that Ten Hag must address. His central midfield appears disjointed, potentially due to his instructions to press higher up the pitch this season. This was noticeable in the opening fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers when United struggled to secure a 1-0 win.
United’s pressing intensity has increased, but it has led to vulnerabilities through the lines, leaving them exposed to counter-attacks. They have faced more attempted dribbles and successful dribbles than any other Premier League team this season, signaling a porous defense.
One explanation for this ineffective pressing is Casemiro’s struggle to adapt to a high-pressing role, a departure from his usual responsibilities at Real Madrid. Additionally, Mason Mount’s adaptation to a new club and Christian Eriksen’s lack of pace and agility contribute to the midfield’s struggles.
The arrival of Sofyan Amrabat from Fiorentina could address some of these issues. However, Ten Hag’s tactical approach, which combines high pressing with rapid attacking through direct runners, may also need refinement.
Manchester United currently ranks third in the league for direct attacks this season, a shift from their dominance in this metric last season. Unlike teams like Manchester City, United does not maintain prolonged possession to suffocate opponents and set up effective counter-pressing.
Despite the early-season challenges, Ten Hag’s tenure is still in its infancy. United displayed improved defensive stability against Arsenal by adopting a mid-block approach. With better finishing and a better grasp of their roles, United could have secured more favorable results.
The margins are thin, and it is reasonable to expect that Ten Hag’s new midfield will require time to acclimate to their roles. While there is room for improvement, there have been promising aspects to United’s performances.
Ten Hag acknowledged this, stating, “Our performance was very good. I will not say it was perfect, definitely room for improvement, but if we see compactness, pressing, moving with the ball, make the counters, in possession very calm, we never give Arsenal the opportunity to press us. There were a lot of positives, it is logical at this stage of the season there is room for improvement.”
While expectations were high for a more cohesive and high-intensity start to the season, supporters may need to be patient, especially regarding the adaptation of Eriksen and Casemiro to a high-pressing system. Despite the challenges, progress is expected over time.
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