Home » Manchester United’s defence must be a collective – The Athletic

Manchester United’s defence must be a collective – The Athletic

by David O'Neill


In the last eleven years, Manchester United have invested £200m in their central defensive unit only to see their defensive performances suffer a dramatic decline.

Writing for The Athletic, Carl Anka and Mark Carey highlighted United’s historically poor defensive performance last season, as the side shipped 57 goals in the Premier League – four more than relegated Burnley.

The Red Devils could not call themselves unfortunate, nor point to goalkeeping errors, with an expected goals against figure of 60.4 suggesting that they were lucky not to concede more.

That discrepancy is perhaps owed to David De Gea’s performances last season, and it is not the first occasion on which five-time player of the year winner could make that claim.

Unless Manchester United go to market for another centre back, Erik ten Hag will begin his first campaign in England with Rapahel Varane, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Axel Tunazebe – £200m worth of central defenders, according to their transfer fees.

Tuanzebe, of course, is an academy graduate and while he has shown promise in the past (for example, in locking down Kylian Mbappe at Parc des Princes under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer), he has never cemented a place in the side.

The merits of those players on an individual level has been discussed previously by The Peoples Person in detail here.

United’s young players will also be looking to impress the new boss, with several close to staking a claim.

For the other players mentioned, a smorgasbord of injury trouble, poor form and fundamental deficiencies have affected their performances to the side’s detriment.

The side did appear to find defensive solidity during the 2020-21 season, with Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka – two players capable in one-v-one defensive situations – joining Solskjaer’s counter attacking side.

However, that did not last and a stylistic change in Ole’s final campaign from a counter-attacking setup to a more possession-focused approach led to more situation in which winning one-v-one duels was not enough.

When playing a more expansive game, it is important for defenders to be adept at covering spaces and remaining vigilant against fast transitions and quick overloads – an importance that The Peoples Person looked into in our hunt for a centre-back series.

But United should have known that – after all, they spent the majority of Solskjaer’s tenure exploiting that very fact.

However, as Anka points out, “Solskjaer’s approach of buying better defenders to do the same job was somewhat effective but when he attempted to change that job of the players in front of his back five, several previously competent-looking defenders floundered.”

What awaits Ten Hag, then, is the task of creating a collective unit, one in which all outfield players do jobs that help their teammates, rather than hinder them.

If United are to get the most of their money, simply buying better players around them won’t be enough on its own – they need to become a holistically capable side.

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