Manchester United come unstuck trying to play football – here’s the data that proves it

Andre Onana distributes the ball against Manchester City
Andre Onana's distribution changed after half-time in the Manchester derby - Ash Allen/Shutterstock

Erik ten Hag spoke before Sunday’s derby about his set-up causing “confusion” for Manchester City, and confusion was an apt word when it came to evaluating Manchester United’s performance at the Etihad.

In one respect, United’s approach kept the contest vaguely competitive while Marcus Rashford’s outstanding goal brought a sense of jeopardy to City’s afternoon. In other respects – territorial, statistical and technical – City’s superiority was demonstrated starkly.

This reflected pre-match expectations, and United were missing key players such as Rasmus Hojlund, Mason Mount, Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez. Ten Hag had to turn to a threadbare bench in the second half, although the hapless Antony and Sofyan Amrabat were signed on his watch. Rashford’s wondergoal also came in the eighth minute, conditioning an attack vs defence scenario which is important context when assessing the game’s data.

United’s teamsheet suggested they might deploy a narrow midfield diamond of Kobbie Mainoo, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay behind a front two of Garnacho and Rashford. United had only used this system once before this season, and it was quickly figured out by Brighton in their 3-1 victory last September.

Ten Hag decided against the diamond, perhaps wisely given how wide City make the pitch when they build play. Instead, United resembled a 4-4-2 on the occasions they tentatively pressed higher up the pitch, with Fernandes and McTominay more advanced than Rashford and Garnacho who were stationed deeper in wide midfield. When City had settled possession higher up the pitch, McTominay would drop to bolster United’s midfield in a defensive 4-5-1.

Despite United defending in numbers, City amassed penalty-box touches in the first half

Man City's penalty box touches against Man Utd
Man City's penalty box touches against Man Utd

Ten Hag revealed as much in his pre-match interview when he said United would use “opposite movements”, which is coaching-speak for one player dropping deep and another moving forward in tandem.

“Sometimes you want to overload that midfield by dropping players, by opposite movement to create a little bit of confusion there and to get an extra player there that we can use for overloads, and also runs behind,” Ten Hag said.

For Rashford’s goal, it was Fernandes who challenged Ruben Dias for André Onana’s long kick forward, before setting the ball back for Rashford to arrive late and shoot. A reversal of their expected roles. Shortly afterwards, McTominay was free after spotting a gap in the City defence and Rashford missed a decent opportunity on the volley. Rashford also stumbled when he looked to be clean through from the halfway line, in another promising early attack for United.

Two problems emerged though: an inability to move up the pitch, and City working the ball into dangerous positions despite the number of red shirts behind the ball. Ten Hag’s use of Rashford and Garnacho was a factor in both, with United’s fastest attackers unable to spring from the demanding roles asked of them. Their defensive deficiencies also allowed City to make passes from outside United’s shape to the inside. Erling Haaland’s missed sitter came from Rodri finding space in Garnacho’s shadow.

United were compact from front to back but not from right to left

Rodri movement before Erling Haaland chance
Rodri movement before Erling Haaland chance

After half-time, United did at least try to keep the ball and work their way up the pitch rather than kick it away. Onana’s pass selection demonstrated this change in approach after the break, showing far more of a willingness to pass short and generally to his left. One pass through to Casemiro in the 52nd minute started United’s longest spell of possession.

When United did break through City’s press, their forwards failed to make the ball stick against City’s defence. Rashford was brushed aside easily on a couple of occasions as moves fizzled out. With Onana’s passing to the left, the absence of Shaw and Martinez was keenly felt. Jonny Evans and makeshift left-back Victor Lindelof were unable to open up and play down the line towards Rashford, as Shaw and Martinez may have done. Haaland’s goal which made the game safe came from Amrabat being caught receiving the ball on the edge of his box, a symptom of his technical limitations.

These are meagre rewards, but Onana’s short distribution was at least one layer of the philosophy United thought Ten Hag would bring to Old Trafford. The next links in the chain remain absent for United, though. If only every player wanted the ball as much as their goalkeeper.