In FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Leicester City, Manchester United offered up a compilation show in which they displayed all of their main weaknesses at once.
This is, it must be said, a United side who had only recently returned from a mid-week trip to Italy where they achieved an impressive Europa League win at AC Milan’s San Siro.
Nevertheless, United fans will be rightly concerned by the repeat of mistakes that have held them back this season and prevented them from fully capitalising on their rivals’ poor campaigns.
Team selection: Excessive rotation and imbalanced midfield
No manager should feel so desperate as to make four subs at once but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did. It was a situation partly of his own making. After months in which opportunities to rotate have been passed up on, the Norwegian rested United’s two best players of 2021: Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw. Both unsurprisingly were called upon after an hour but couldn’t rescue United from a first away defeat in England in over a year.
More important than that, though, was the midfield selection. The contrast was stark between the energetic and well-balanced Leicester pair of Wilfried Ndidi and Youri Tielemans and the flailing, lunging, possession-conceding Nemanja Matic and Fred.
United would be delighted to take both Tielemans, the creator, or Ndidi, the composed destroyer (as we wrote back in December). Fred is consistently a stand-out player for United but the reasons behind that swing wildly from week to week. On occasions, his bustling and harrying rightly earns him credit. Equally often, though, is a performance of this calibre.
Appearing next to Matic makes matters worse. The Serbian is United’s only defensive midfielder but looks increasingly limited using his right foot, increasingly loose in possession and often resembles a lumbering giant trying to run through toffee.
Injuries and tiredness play a part, of course. Fans can’t forget that Solskjaer was unsure on Pogba’s ability to play more than a half (the Frenchman managed just over an hour) and that Van de Beek was also just back from injury. They are reasonable explanations but don’t do enough to explain the length of time it took for changes to be made.
The truth is that defeat to Leicester is probably not evidence of a massive problem with regards to mentality. It is, though, evidence that United can’t beat one of England’s best teams without the drive of their best players: Shaw, Fernandes and Rashford, as well as Cavani and McTominay.
Midfield far too loose in possession
To state the obvious, United gave away the ball too much. Fred will be seen as the primary culprit in that regard. His loose pass back to Dean Henderson allowed Kelechi Iheanacho to score and put Leicester City ahead. In reality, though, the initial pass from Maguire put Fred under unnecessary pressure and wasn’t ideal to control. Furthermore, Matic was a greater offender than Fred. For a holding midfielder to end the game with a pass completion rate of 74% is unacceptable. Matic will be fully aware of that. He normally scores near the 90% mark on that particular statistic. It was an off day, but a bad one.
Possession was conceded far too often in areas that left United unable to regain their defensive shape quick enough to suffocate the space for Leicester.
If you are making errors in defence, the only way to progress in a knockout competition is by excelling in attack. United did not do that. Breaking forward, their work in possession was just as poor. All over the pitch, but particularly from Fred and Matic, United’s passes were too far behind or in front of their targets. A team’s 6 and 8 cannot gift possession away so cheaply so often. It prevents any kind of building of attacks.
Manchester United are missing a coherent defensive structure
“In big games against good players and good teams, we lose that bit of focus,” Solskjaer told reporters after United were knocked out of the EFL Cup by Manchester City in January.
“It’s a big part of football — so many goals are conceded from set plays. We do have a good record of winning the first ball but when we don’t, it seems like it goes in every time.
“It’s something that we have addressed, that we need to do better at; we seem to suffer from this. When we don’t get the first contact we have been punished quite severely and more often than anyone else.”
Those quotes could have come from this defeat, two months later, to Leicester.
Crosses that are not cleared at the near post cause United serious problems. How often have we seen Wan-Bissaka and Lindelof struggle to head clear when a cross floats above the near-post marker? How often have we seen opponents score from set pieces because the cross has gone above the near-post defender (Bednarek for Southampton is an obvious case study, but there are many more)?
United are bad at tracking runs and maintaining focus. It shows in this set-piece weakness but many other areas on the pitch.
Peculiarly, in United’s best performances, the team excel in this regard. In the recent 2-0 league victory against City, McTominay and Fred received praise for their ability to prevent the prolific Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne from running into space and pulling the defence apart. It was a crucial role that helped United to victory.
To contrast, though, is this game at the King Power, or the 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United in which Oliver Burke roamed freely in United’s box for half a minute before scoring.
Leicester’s third goal saw McTominay mistime his header and Kelechi Iheanacho scored. A similar theme existed all throughout. This is a trend that extends across the pitch for United. In the first half, Harry Maguire was booked for a tackle on Kelechi Iheanacho, made in part because he had too little cover from Alex Telles.
After the break, Tielemans scored Leicester’s second. Matic and Fred made pathetic late attempts to close the Belgian down. It was poor, but the issues began further up the pitch where Martial had stopped tracking Tielemans prematurely. That forced Matic to step out and press. Once Tielemans had got past him, it was too late and United could not recover.
These are the issues that define United’s bad performances. This was one of them. It came after the side impressively navigated a European tie abroad and that fact is an important one to point out. But these are problems that appear too often.
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