Another painful draw for Manchester United, another example of how poor finishing cost the Red Devils two points and another embarrassing display of naïve defending by Ralf Rangnick’s men.
Rangnick’s post-match comment that with an expected goals ratio of 2.53 vs. 0.71, United should have won the game is not without merit, but his pre-match defence of Harry Maguire’s recent performances do not stand up so well to scrutiny.
Whilst Southampton’s goal admittedly came from the right side of United’s defence, where Raphael Varane lunged in for a tackle and Diogo Dalot was caught out of position, in truth the home team’s back line was once again cut to shreds in transitional situations.
Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl put it simply after the game (via The Athletic):
‘It is no big secret that when they lose the ball their reverse gear is not always the best from everybody,’ he explained.
‘The longer the game was going, the more you are chipping them in the first line and then you can play over this first line and then you have space.
‘You then have the chance to create something and this is what we did.’
United fans have seen this all too frequently. Fixing it would not seem like rocket science.
There is one glaringly obvious flaw in United’s defensive organisation, and that is, if you push up with a high line – as United generally do – then you need at least one of two things.
First, fast defenders are needed, who can recover quickly when possession is lost and the opponent ‘plays over this first line’ as Hasenhuttl put it. They need to be able to turn quickly, accelerate quickly and run quickly.
As many are keen to point out, Harry Maguire possesses none of the above attributes.
The alternative, although ideally you would have both, is for the keeper to be alert to the counter attack and operate as a sweeper keeper.
Despite being a world-class shot stopper, David de Gea is not and never will be that type of keeper.
A look at some stats from sofascore.com highlights this point. This season, De Gea has completed three sweeper actions, the lowest of all first choice keepers in the league. Compare this to the likes of Sa, Lloris, Alisson and Mendy, with 21, 17,16 and 15 each. That is an extra 12-18 times this season that their teams’ defensive lines were penetrated without consequence.
This is the maths: a keeper who stays on his line + a high back line + slow defenders = easy goals for the opposition.
So what is the solution?
Despite the fact that De Gea’s understudy, Dean Henderson, is a very adept sweeper-keeper, dropping the Spaniard just for that reason when he is in such scintillating form is clearly not an option.
Dropping Maguire is an option. His logical replacement, Victor Lindelof, is quicker but is hardly Usain Bolt either, though, so it might only be a partial solution to the problem.
A slightly lower line may also be needed.
There are also disciplinary issues along the line that make matters worse. Maguire likes to step forward out of the line both in possession, to drive the ball forward, and sometimes out of possession, in aggressive attempts to cut off an attack at its source. Both expose the rest of the line if unsuccessful.
This is where Lindelof is a better option because he has an excellent passing range from deep and does not need to take the ball forward himself to progress the attack. Shape and that compact line should therefore be easier to maintain.
Ralf Rangnick must be aware of these basic issues and presumably has given the team instructions to resolve them without recourse to any of these basic fixes. His players, clearly, have been unable to implement whatever those instructions were.
This would seem to leave the manager with little option but to sacrifice Maguire, at least until a restructuring can take place to find a more permanent solution to the problem.