David de Gea’s suitability to Erik ten Hag’s ultimate vision has been called into question again, with the emergence of some interesting data on Manchester United’s defensive habits.
@Utd_Analytics recently made the following tweet:
“United have one of the deepest defensive lines in the league. If you think De Gea doesn’t hold us back then you’re naive or lack football understanding.
“United won’t be able to “step up” as long as De Gea is in net. Proactive Gk’s supports high line – graphs supports it.”
United have one of the deepest defensive lines in the league. If you think De Gea doesn't hold us back then you're naive or lack football understanding. United won't be able to "step up" as long as De Gea is in net. Proactive Gk's supports high line – graphs supports it.#MUFC pic.twitter.com/lSh9QOGuj8
— ManUtd Analytics ⚽ (@Utd_Analytics) September 19, 2022
The accompanying graph shows the Red Devils to have had the lowest defensive line in the Premier League, with only middling numbers for pressing intensity, measured in Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA).
That is a far cry from the early signs on display during United’s preseason tour, in which the level of intensity in pressing high up the pitch and dominating matches promised a swift change to a proactive, modern style of football.
De Gea is well-known for his passive style of goalkeeping, which is put forward as the reason for United’s grim position on the above graph.
In truth, there is a bit more to it than that. For one thing, United have only played six matches this season, making it a rather short sample size.
Notably four of those matches have come against the four teams playing the highest defensive lines in the league during its early stages. Playing against a high line often necessitates the dropping of your own to escape pressure and find space in behind, so that somewhat mitigates the depth of United’s own line over those games.
There is also a strong possibility that the profile of Manchester United’s attackers – as much as its goalkeeper – have influenced Ten Hag’s tactical setup.
“I have tried because of the speed of Martial and Rashford to provoke space by not pressing immediately but to come a little back, not parking the bus, but to the middle line and then the defenders halfway in our own half.”
Those quotes are not taken from Ten Hag, but from a former Dutch manager at United: Louis van Gaal. He realised that, lacking supreme technical quality, it was more prudent for his side to “provoke space” in order to get the most out of his pacey attackers.
The current manager has likely made the same realisation – he has the same players after all.
None of that is to say that there is no merit to suggestions that De Gea will need replacing at some point. United currently avoid the Spaniard at all costs when building play and they do so with good reason. A goalkeeper who could contribute on the ball would certainly be a boon.
But more relevant to United’s defensive line, a number one who excelled at shot-prevention – claiming crossing and sweeping outside his penalty area – would give United the option to push their defence up the pitch.
That would be a positive step towards bringing the preseason pressing game into the ‘real world’ of competitive football, but it is important to note that Ten Hag will need several more attackers capable of producing quality in tight spaces if that is the end game.
As of now, he has Jadon Sancho and new signing Antony. Over the course of a long season, that is unlikely to be enough.
For now, the height of United’s defensive line is likely to shift according to needs of the attackers as much as the limitations of the goalkeeper.