Solving Manchester United’s defensive concerns

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It’s no secret. Manchester United are struggling defensively right now, despite having very capable players all over the pitch. In David De Gea, they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world. In Lindelof and Maguire, the Red Devils have a defensive pairing that spearheaded one of the league’s sturdiest defensive structures last season, and led a Europa League charge. Ahead of them, they have two defensive warriors in Fred and McTominay, who will never be world beaters, but are very competent in what they offer. Despite that, Ralf Rangnick’s team have conceded 10 goals in their last 5 games, floundering under the German’s style of play. So what’s amiss? The balance in the team. The lack of style vs. personnel fit. The way in which the players are working to bring out the weaknesses in one another within Ralf Rangnick’s style, rather than their strengths – as genuinely seen more regularly under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. So with that, we asked you: How would you solve Manchester United’s defensive concerns? Here are your answers, intermixed with our solution as to how Manchester United can achieve equilibrium in their defensive structures.

PLAY 3-4-1-2

It’s clear as day that Manchester United’s line are struggling to cope with pace in behind, particularly without Wan-Bissaka and Shaw in the team. This is compounded by the fact that David De Gea does not venture away from his goal to sweep in behind, not to mention Harry Maguire’s poor scanning of the field as he steps out of line. Having an additional centre-back would decrease the burden on United’s centre-backs, and provide an extra number to sweep up the mess. Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Luke Shaw could enter the frame as that third centre-back to provide more rapidity, or Raphael Varane could come back into the fold to offer his experience with greater weapons alongside him.

We wrote about all the benefits of this shape in depth a few months ago in ‘Why Manchester United should play 3-4-1-2.’ But interestingly enough, it again became a topic of discussion as we asked this question.

Joe Quigley of the Football Fun Factory omitted Fred from his team and included Sancho as a wing-back (blasphemy), but agreed that this shape would allow greater defensive solidity. As a quick fix, this would easily allow the team to acclaim more solidity within the strengths Maguire and Lindelof possess. As an indication of the Red Devils’ potential in a 3-4-1-2, look no further than the match that cost Nuno Espirito Santo his job at Spurs – Tottenham 0-3 Manchester United – Tactical Analysis – Ole’s New Formation.

sign a sweeper in the summer

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For the past few seasons, the attention on Manchester United’s transfer business has surrounded their inability to sign a world class defensive midfielder. However, with United floundering under Ralf Rangnick’s style of play, greater defensive concerns have been illuminated in the past few months. Harry Maguire’s taken the brunt of the blame for United’s lackluster performances, but greater issues are evidently at hand. Ahead of the 2022-23 season, a new centre-back becomes an imperative investment – perhaps even more so than a new manager. But rather than just going out and buying the best centre-back in the world (although that would help), United need to identify a player…perhaps even two…that work together as a tandem duo and bring out the best in one another.

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For Harry Maguire’s purposes, that player needs to be someone who can cover ground in behind, and make up for the gaps he creates as he steps out of line, from both a physical and tactical perspective. To balance out Victor Lindelof, who is an excellent progressor and long passing guru, United need someone who possesses rapid speed in behind, while potentially having the same sort of leadership and organizational qualities that Maguire possesses – perhaps even being blessed with Maguire’s aerial presence and dominance. Essentially, Manchester United need a sweeper. If they’re going to persist with a style of play that doesn’t suit any of their current centre-backs or their goalkeeper, they need a man who can offer something completely different – an injection of pace in behind.

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We analyzed and assessed the various candidates in ‘Assessing Manchester United’s future centre-back options‘, ultimately landing on Manuel Akanji as our top target. For anyone that’s not watched enough of Dortmund this season, Manuel Akanji is basically the only thing from stopping Dortmund from becoming a complete farce at the back – single-handedly sweeping all the messes away with a near 50% pressure success (this is outrageous). But in addition to speed, tackling ability, and fitting the personality United most desperately need, he’s also an excellent ball-carrying defender that would suit a possession-based Erik Ten Hag system. It’s true, the man most often linked with the job in Jurriën Timber would also be a standout ball progressor and offer pace and power in behind. But Manuel Akanji is closer to his peak, and would be ready to fit in right away, without needing any time to adjust.

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If United want to go for both, then that’s amazing. But they need at least one new centre-back that offers genuine pace, rather than another man in the Raphael Varane mold. If not Akanji, because let’s face it, Manchester United are not amazing with their recruitment, they should turn their eye toward one of the host of other candidates we presented. Marc Guehi anyone?

“I would be excited about the prospect of Jurrien Timber at United. But like you, I also worry about the lack of experience United may go for in signing a player like Timber or Guehi. I agree that a player like Tomori or Akanji would give United what they need right away. I’ve seen other fans link United to Nico Schlotterbeck, which ignores the fact that Maguire is not a problem, but a problem within the current style of play. Schlotterbeck offers essentially what Maguire can already provide. So I think United are right in turning their noses up at a player like that, and going for someone speedier instead.”

– Thomas

Despite the vast array of links, rumours, candidates and selectees we may throw out there, Manchester United are still in a top four race, and desperately need fixing right now. With that, now might be the time more than ever to give a young gun a chance to shine, alongside one of the experienced players in Victor Lindelof or Harry Maguire. The current balance is not working, and persisting with the high-line and same personnel would be what Einstein famously described as “insanity.” They’ve loaned Axel Tuanzebe out to Napoli, but perhaps there’s another player waiting in the wind, desperately hoping for a chance to show his talent. Let’s remember United’s success in throwing unknown youngsters in at random moments in the past – from Marcus Rashford to Scott McTominay. Even Timothy Fosu-Mensah had a brilliant run of games under Louis Van Gaal by offering an injection of pace and sweeping ability in behind. Oh, and there’s a more recent example who we don’t want to mention because he’s an awful human being. But him too. Point is, Ralf Rangnick needs to sacrifice something if United are to finish in the top four. Either his style of play, or one of his slow centre-backs.


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Other than their issues at centre-half, the one major thing from stopping Manchester United from becoming a world beater again is their lack of a top quality midfield destroyer to operate in front of the back-line. Kalvin Phillips and Wilfred Ndidi would offer Manchester United a number of improvements, particularly their ability to single-handedly screen a back-four. But Manchester United need a more authoritative figure in their midfield all ends up – from ball carrying to long passing to tough tackling. This is why Declan Rice has to be the top priority for United on their summer hit list (not to mention for Chelsea, and whoever else wants to improve their title charge). Declan Rice is perfect for Manchester United. Even West Ham United fans recognize it…as much as they might hate to admit it.

As we discussed in that article, Rice is not only an exceptional ball carrier and long passing guru, but he hasn’t lost the defensive side of his game as he’s developed other areas. He remains top of the table for interceptions (87) in the Premier League this season, and sixth in tackles won (48). At 33.2%, his pressure success also outperforms Scott McTominay and Fred. Quite simply he’d offer every single attribute that McTominay and Fred fail to accomplish, while improving upon every single strength each of them offer. He’s the complete package, and United need to splash whatever cash West Ham want for the 23-year-old. Yes. Declan Rice is still only 23. And you wonder why people constantly rave about him…

“Declan Rice has to be the top priority this summer. Would love United to sign ANY defensive midfielder. Haidara, Laimer, Tchouameni, Bellingham, Ruiz, Tielemans, Adams, Phillips, Ndidi, whoever. I don’t even care. But if United want to transform their midfield, Declan Rice is the man.”

– Hamza

Long time reader Hamza threw out a host of names that could also fit the billing, but it’s undeniable who needs to be the top target. If United really want to go for the jugular and challenge for the title, signing Kalvin Phillips or Wilfred Ndidi alongside Rice would be an excellent move. Phillips would offer box to box mobility, whilst shuttling and screening excellently well in the defensive side of the game. Ndidi meanwhile is one of the best tacklers around, and would provide the only genuine upgrade on Fred that we 100% know would be a success in a possession-based Premier League outfit.

At 29 years old now, Fred will grow out of the side in a few years. But for now, he remains a competent player that could theoretically continue in Manchester United’s midfield alongside a more progressive player like Rice, or even McTominay. But the fact remains. If United want to challenge for the title, Declan Rice has to be the top target in the summer. When it comes to defensive solidity, he’ll offer so much more mobility in front of the back-line, in addition to his incredible reading of the game, leadership, and the confidence that Rangnick’s team so often lack.


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If Manchester United want to finish in the top four this season, something has to change. Crucially, Rangnick either has to sacrifice his style of play, his formation, or one of his slow centre-backs in favour of a change. As a short-term fix, operating in a back-three seems like the obvious solution. A 3-4-1-2 formation might not suit Jadon Sancho’s dynamism on the wing, but United have the players in place for the system to work to perfection otherwise. As long-term fixes, we suggest the Red Devils sign Manuel Akanji and Declan Rice in their pursuit for a trophy in 2022-23. Kalvin Phillips, Wilfred Ndidi, Marc Guehi and Jurriën Timber should be additional targets, but the Red Devils must first prioritize Declan Rice as the entire package to what they need in midfield, and Manuel Akanji as the entire package to what they need in defense. Somehow, both transfers feel unlikely. But hey, if the Red Devils are smart and want to amp up their recruitment, we’re open for freelance work.

So there it is! Thanks to everyone who submitted answers to this week’s Tactical Thinker, and thanks for reading our thoughts as to how to solve United’s defensive issues. Be sure to check out more on United, the Premier League, and our brand new Player Evaluation System. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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