Erik ten Hag’s impressive 70% of wins as Manchester United coach apparently gave Michael Cox of The Athletic very little reason to write about this season, but the defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium finally gave him a reason to once again discuss Premier League tactics.
In his article, he laments United’s poor organization due to possession, with United defending with four defenders and using Scott McTominay, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes ahead of them.
While Arsenal certainly had a lot of room in front of the Red Devils’ outfield defenders as a result of the extremely high positioning of Marcus Rashford and Anthony, there is very little reason to say that Eric ten Haag’s strategy “always ended badly,” as Cox claims.
It is clear that United were setting up counterattacks against Emirates, as teams often crack down on league leaders, and Ten Hag placed his wingers in such a way as to facilitate quick transitions.
In Peoples Person’s own pre-match tactical review, it was even predicted that United would most likely use the flanks as the main exit, and Michael Cox’s repeated comments about Rashford’s lack of “determination” to help his defense are somewhat strange, given the obvious advantages that this gave. Ten Hag’s side is on break.
In several shots of United in a protective form, the striker is “nowhere to be seen” precisely because he was not ordered to be part of the specified protective form. And the reward was a series of counterattacking situations that – on another day – would have led to fantastic moments.
A striking example was the breakaway with the transfer of Anthony against Rashford. The Brazilian makes the pass a little hard and wide, while Rashford’s run gets a little away from the ball. Beautiful fields, but they decide whether Michael Cox decides to put pen to paper.
This is a kind of chance that is not displayed in the “Expected Goals” metric, but it is very similar to the opportunity that the teams playing on the counter intended to create.
While Arsenal had more of the ball, it would be curious to insist that it was a “big win” due to Arsenal completely beating United. The late winner was a late winner precisely because up to that point the Gunners had not managed to score more goals than their opponents, and although technically each of the 25 shots could be considered a chance, there were not as many quality moments as Cox claims.
In fact, Arteta’s team managed to land only five of those shots on goal, often due to pressure or poor shooting positions. United were not far behind with four shots on target.
Arsenal deserved their victory by playing well enough throughout the Premier League season to be top of the table, and are doing it again here. But United’s defensive structure was not a problem during the game.
After a great header by Lisandro Martinez, who equalized the score, the Red Devils dropped to their third and showed no real signs that they would ever come out. The outfield forwards went deeper – in fact, more in line with where Cox thought they should have started the game – and thereby negated the counter-attacking threat that United had posed up to that point.
Ten Hag could be seen telling his team to do push-ups, but it was to no avail. The earlier introduction of Alejandro Garnacho could well have turned the situation around and given United a way out at that time, but the substitution occurred after the damage had already been done.
The coach’s initial game plan was risky, but he abandoned it to defend in an amount that ultimately cost United.