Manchester United’s derby day loss to Man City has raised questions over the team’s belief and attitude from the likes of Roy Keane and Gary Neville, but Erik ten Hag may well regret elements of his tactical set-up.
A first half drubbing that saw the Red Devils head to the dressing room 4-0 down had travelling fans leaving early.
And winning the second half will have done little to impress the United faithful, with the game well and truly over well before Antony’s sensational strike.
Ten Hag aimed for continuity in his team selection, in terms of personnel, shape, and intention.
A fluid 4-2-3-1 aiming to hit on the break served him well in matches against Arsenal and Liverpool, but against a team so possession hungry as City, United were unable to press in midfield or find themselves breaking up the pitch in any meaningful way.
The result was United going so long without getting near the ball that their midfielders seemed to panic on every occasion they found themselves in possession.
Soaking up pressure and hitting on the break is a perfectly valid strategy, but the simple fact is that against a team like City, it is impossible to use the ball without having a plan to win it first.
United seemed to lack that altogether, with acres of space afforded to the Sky Blues all over the pitch.
The interesting thing about all of this is that Ten Hag has experience in playing as the underdog against teams that set up to dominate possession in a 4-3-3.
As pointed out prior to kick-off, the Dutchman often opted for a 4-4-2 diamond during his time at Utrecht, earning good results against Eredivisie giants Ajax and PSV Eindhoven in the process.
By congesting the centre of the pitch and having his two forwards press the opposition centre backs out to in to cut out passing lanes to the fullbacks, his team could stop superior sides from playing out from the back with any comfort.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps puzzling that he did not apply this solution against Pep Guardiola’s side, given his successes over similar systems in the past.
One could argue that Ten Hag may not believe that he has the players capable of pressing a team of City’s quality in such a way.
But given the damage that unfolded from giving the Citizens the freedom of the pitch, it is difficult to imagine a midfield featuring Casemiro at its base, with McTominay, Eriksen and Fernandes ahead, doing a worse job at limiting Erling Haaland’s supply.
All four should have the energy to keep tight to their opponents. United’s defence should be able to play higher up the pitch. And two of United’s attackers should be able to harass a pair of centre backs in a smart manner.
In any case, the manager’s preference for continuity over his own tried-and-tested solutions does not seem to have done Manchester United any favours in this match.