Home » Erik ten Hag has already shown how he will solve Man United’s defensive crisis

Erik ten Hag has already shown how he will solve Man United’s defensive crisis

by David O'Neill

Two things happened in Manchester United’s match against Sevilla that threaten to derail Erik ten Hag’s first season in charge at Old Trafford and neither of them were own goals.

Injuries to Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane – the former definitely out for the season and the latter only probably so – have given the manager a headache to end all headaches to deal with in the coming weeks as he looks to finish the campaign as well as possible.

Ten Hag has been forced to find solutions throughout the last eight months, having only recently dealt with an availability crisis in midfield. With this fresh issue, however, the stakes are higher and the resolution less clear.

He may well opt for the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer combo of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. That seems the most obvious answer, given they are the only natural centre backs available in the squad.

But Ten Hag has at times preferred to play a player out of position rather than field either. In December, Casemiro was preferred to Maguire as a right-sided centre back one week, before the United captain was overlooked in favour of Luke Shaw on the left side the next.

The left back may not be available against Nottingham Forest today, but it is difficult to imagine that he will not be asked to play at the heart of United’s defence in the coming weeks. The manager certainly does favour his defenders playing on the same side as their stronger foot – which really makes Shaw the only tenable option in the squad.

That raises the question of who partners him. Lindelof is perhaps the more trusted of the Solskjaer pairing under the new boss, but it is unclear if that would hold true were he partnered with a fullback in central defence.

The Swede has never been a dominant defender aerially and has been exposed physically throughout his time at the club.

In a period where Man United will go up against the likes of Harry Kane and Aleksander Mitrovic in the Premier League alone, someone will have to win the ball in the air from time to time.

That will likely give Maguire a window into a regular starting spot over the next month, but he is not the only option Ten Hag has.

As mentioned earlier, Casemiro had deputised in defence under the Dutchman, and he may well be asked to do so again. The Brazil star is arguably even better than Maguire in the air, winning 2.81 Aerial duels per 90 minutes compared to the Englishman’s 2.44, as per Fbref.

His proactive ball winning could actually make him an ideal partner for Shaw at the back, with the latter’s ability to cover spaces allowing Casemiro to impose himself on attackers. As a partnership, one would also expect that they would be excellent in helping United play out from the back.

So, incredibly, while Ten Hag may have two fit centre backs to choose from, he will probably have a better defence if he picks neither.

Of course that will create another problem: who plays in midfield?

Scott McTominay – just like Shaw – is unlikely to be available against Nottingham Forest today, but he would be the go-to option should Ten Hag take the ‘Option: none of the above’ approach suggested above. It would be up to the academy graduate to play out of his skin to provide the Man United midfield the same level of quality Casemiro does, but he has done well on occasion this season.

It would be a gamble, but so is every option available to Erik ten Hag.

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