There are 13 days until Manchester United’s next game against Brighton at Old Trafford.
13 days to make the necessary adjustments to remedy a poor start. 13 days to implement tactical changes which will improve the team’s performance. 13 days to regain and rally the spirit which was carefully cultivated last season.
13 days to fix United’s season essentially.
Over the next 13 days, The Peoples Person will be looking at 13 areas United can look to improve upon before their next Premier League fixture. An article a day until Erik ten Hag’s issues have drifted away.
From Maguire to Martínez
Upon his appointment as manager last summer, Ten Hag had already concluded from his prepatory analysis that the left-hand side of United’s defence was an area of particular weakness. Old Trafford officials moved quickly to remedy this.
Tyrell Malacia was the Dutchman’s first signing of the window. The fullback, acquired at the behest of Ten Hag from Feyenoord, was tasked with providing genuine competition to Luke Shaw, given the quality (or lack thereof) of the existing alternatives at the club.
Shaw began the season as the starting left-back but was dropped from the first eleven in favour of Malacia following two abysmal displays. The Dutchman maintained this position for the next five league games, with United winning four in a row.
Shaw was then reinstated as the left-back against Everton, having been shown his role as a starter was far from certain. The result?
The rebirth of Shawberto Carlos.
Shaw returned reinvigorated, quickly regaining, and maintaining, the form which saw him considered the best fullback in the Premier League under previous manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The old adage of competition breeding success held true, even if a back-up fullback wasn’t the bravest of purchases. The bolder choice to improve United’s defence came centrally.
Ten Hag made the decision early in the window to target a left-sided centre back. A choice which would relegate United’s captain – Harry Maguire – to the bench, having permanently occupied this position for the previous three seasons.
This was of little concern to the Dutch manager however. As has become crystal clear during the Dutchman’s tenure at Old Trafford, he is unafraid to make big, and decisive, calls. Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pau Torres was the United scouting department’s long-term target at LCB. A move for the Villarreal man was discussed but quickly dismissed by Ten Hag, who implored his new employers to raid his former ones in order to secure the services of Martínez.
The Argentinian centre-back had excelled under Ten Hag at Ajax and the Dutchman was keen to continue this alliance in Manchester.
Despite his diminutive stature, Martínez is an imposing figure for forwards to reckon with. Aggressive and proactive in equal measure, the centre half was nicknamed ‘El Carnicero’ (the butcher) in Amsterdam, such was the ferociousness with which he defended his goal and attacked the opposition’s attack. His anticipation and intelligence also enables him to consistently win duels against taller and stronger opponents.
Most noticeable, however, is Martínez’s ability on the ball; not off it.
The Argentine is world-class at playing out from the back, often more technically gifted than the midfielders ahead of him. His ability to progress the ball, through incisive passing or smart dribbling, make him an integral part of Ten Hag’s system.
Martínez proved an almost instantaneous upgrade on the much-maligned Maguire.
Though United’s defence capitulated at times, conceding four against Brentford, six against Manchester City and even seven against bitter rivals Liverpool, these games were almost the exception to a new rule; one of improved defensive solidity.
Ten Hag’s side finished the season with the most clean-sheets in the league and the joint third fewest goals conceded. The previous year’s defence, by comparison, clocked in with the eleventh most clean-sheets and the thirteenth fewest goals conceded.
The contrast is stark.
Martínez’s Metatarsal Malady
Martínez became one of United’s most consistent and capable performers following his baptism by fire away to Brentford, making Jamie Carragher eat a large slice of humble pie. Maguire became a mainstay on the bench.
This exemplary was season was suddenly cut short, however, in worrying fashion against Sevilla in the Europa League. The defender crumpled to the floor unchallenged, holding his right leg with an ominous grimace on his face.
Initially, there were fears it was an issue with his achilles – the type of injury which can prove career-altering, let alone season-ending. These were quickly assuaged following further tests, with a diagnosis of a fractured metatarsal revealed a few days later.
It would rule Martínez out of the remainder of the season with the centre-half requiring surgery.
Ten Hag’s side were able to endure without their talismanic Argentine but his absence was undoubtedly a factor in United’s lack of cup success. Two disappointing performances – against Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-final and Manchester City in the FA Cup final – ensured United did not add to their Carabao Cup win.
In both games the team were in desperate need of leadership and technical ability; qualities Martínez possesses in abundance.
The centre-back would eventually return to first-team training during United’s pre-season tour, immediately demonstrating his butcher-esque approach in a ‘friendly’ against Arsenal in New York.
Martínez has begun this season in poor form however. He’s not been his usual imperious self in United’s opening four games, and his side have suffering for it.
Defensively Martínez has been suspect, even scoring an own-goal against Tottenham to put the game beyond his team’s reach. On the ball he has been uncharacteristically ineffective as well. It’s a worrying combination for his manager.
It is crucial, therefore, Ten Hag helps his defensive jewel regain the dominant form that was central to United’s improvements last season.
Reinstating The Butcher
Injuries have plagued United’s start to the season.
Long-term injuries to Luke Shaw and Tyell Malacia forced the club into hastily agreeing a loan deal for Sergio Reguilon. Raphael Varane has suffered a similar fate, while Victor Lindelof was seen limping after the game against Arsenal on the weekend, having been withdrawn in the final part of the game.
New signings haven’t been immune either.
Rasmus Højlund missed the opening three games with a back problem while Mason Mount was ruled out for an extended period with a hamstring injury. Squad players such as Tom Heaton, Kobbie Mainoo and Amad Diallo have all been ruled out since picking up injuries in pre-season.
Even Martínez endured an injury scare.
The Argetine was substituted during the Arsenal game with pain in his right foot – the same area he suffered the injury last season. It was a precautionary move and further tests have revealed no injury, aside from some pain.
It is imperative Martínez remains fit and does not overextend himself. It’s probable the defender is still slowly getting back to full speed following his debilitating metatarsal injury.
Ten Hag should, therefore, have forbidden the defender from joining up with the Argentinian squad, instead instructing him to concentrate on rest and recuperation at Carrington. This has to be the priority when the Argentine returns next week.
Step one towards Martínez returning as El Carnicero is getting him fighting fit.
Step two is demanding more from the 25-year old.
Martínez has been too passive when United are in possession this season; too tentative in taking ownership of the ball. Ten Hag must challenge the centre-back to rediscover the bravery the displayed so often last season, both in and out of possession.
If this involves simple instruction it will be easy. If it involves tactical tweaks it will be more challenging, but necessary.
Martínez could be encouraged to step into midfield when United are in possession, helping to buttress what has been an area of weakness. It would provide additional support to a beleagured Casemiro while offering Martínez more opportunities to affect proceedings with the ball.
Conversely, Andre Onana could be told to focus on the left-hand side of the defence when playing out from the back. Neither Varane nor Lindelof offer the distribution Martínez does, while Rashford is a different level of threat compared to Antony. Playing down the left more often may be the right thing for Ten Hag’s men to do.
If United need to become temporarily lopsided in order to establish more permanent balance, it’s a price worth paying.
CONCLUSION – Get Martínez fit, then get him firing.