Manchester United’s start to the 2020/21 season has been a difficult watch.
United have only one win from three matches, with the other two games ending in defeats.
Both losses came at home, which makes the results even worse, and the one win – was a very lucky one courtesy of an injury time penalty winner.
What made the defeats so hard to take, was the defensive ineptness on display.
United conceded three goals against Palace, two at Brighton, and then six against Tottenham.
You cannot even put the six against Tottenham down as a freak result, because United defended so badly in the previous two games.
Against Brighton, United conceded two, but it could have been seven, with the Seagulls hitting the woodwork seven times.
Good progress undone
United’s defensive record has fluctuated in recent years. Jose Mourinho managed the team to concede only 40 league goals.
A bad start the next season and he was fired within months, and United conceded 54.
Fixing the defence became a priority for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He signed Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and improvements followed. United conceded only 36 times in the Premier League 2019/20.
So it is alarming that United have conceded 11 goals in three matches already.
This is 30 per cent of the Premier League goals conceded by United last season already, through just three games.
Last season United conceded an average of 0.94 goals per game.
This season United are conceding 3.5 goals per game on average.
Simply to equal last season’s record now, United would have to improve defensively to a rate vastly above last season, to concede 0.68 goals per game.
Already that looks unrealistic. United have left too much to do to even equal last season’s figures.
Figure it out
What is so alarming about this, is that there have been no players taken out of the defence through injury, or being sold.
United were without Aaron Wan-Bissaka for the opening game, before taking out Victor Lindelof after two, to change it up.
But there is no obvious reason for such an alarming collapse in defensive quality. Instead it appears to be down to a multitude of factors.
Mental and physical fatigue is playing a part. United’s players got little to no rest in the summer, and Harry Maguire’s short break was more stressful than he could have imagined.
Tiredness is playing a part in individual mistakes, with Maguire and Lindelof particularly culpable so far in the home defeats.
There is also a worry teams have figured United out. Southampton’s press against United in July caused serious problems, and this will not have gone unnoticed by opposing managers.
Jose Mourinho in particular took advantage, instructing his players to push forward to challenge United’s defenders in possession high up the pitch.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been instructing his players to pass the ball out of defence, but in the face of a high press, this becomes more risky.
Add in mental and physical tiredness, and you have a recipe for disaster against teams who are sharper.
So at least temporarily it is time for United to mix it up, in terms of style, and be more direct.
In terms of personnel, United have a couple of fresh options, with new signing Alex Telles, and returning defender Axel Tuanzebe.
Solskjaer could experiment, chop and change, to find his best combination, but he will quickly need to settle on one to try and generate some consistency.
It is worth noting too, that the midfield should not be absolved of blame.
The pivot of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba has not been as effective as it was late last season, while a Pogba-McTominay partnership did not work against Palace.
United did keep two clean sheets in the Carabao Cup, against Luton and a rotated Brighton side. Dean Henderson was in goal for these games, and bringing in the confident England international might be a consideration to shake up a backline which is in need of new inspiration.
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