Three keys to success for Manchester United in 22/23: Defence, midfield & tactical identity

Manchester United starting players pose for a team photo during the Pre-Season Friendly match against Aston Villa at Optus Stadium. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Manchester United starting players pose for a team photo during the Pre-Season Friendly match against Aston Villa at Optus Stadium. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images) /
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Harry Maguire Raphael Varane Cristiano Ronaldo Paul Pogba Manchester United
Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Nemanja Matic of Manchester United form a wall during the Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Improve the defence

  • 0-5 and 4-0 vs Liverpool
  • 0-2 and 4-1 vs Manchester City
  • 4-0 vs Brighton
  • 4-1 vs Watford
  • 3-1 vs Arsenal

57 goals conceded in 38 games.

These were a few among many other diabolical performances by Manchester United last season. Their tally of 57 goals in the Premier League was their worst defensive record in the competition to date. Therefore, a genius isn’t needed to figure out where Erik ten Hag needs to start in his quest for improving United.

Despite boasting international regulars like Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane, United were simply not up to the mark in defence. Add to that the struggles of Luke Shaw, the error-strewn Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. United’s defence was often dependent on their attack to bail them out on several occasions when they did win last season.

Tyrell Malacia the first defensive reinforcement

The club have proactively sought out potential targets to improve their defence. They signed young full-back Tyrell Malacia who shone at PSV last season and have also agreed to a deal in principle for Lisandro Martinez who was Ajax’s defensive stalwart under Erik ten Hag last season.

Ten Hag’s preference for brisk wing backs who contribute to the attack fits into Malacia’s role and intent. He would pose greater competition to the role of Luke Shaw as well. If the pre-season is anything to go by, Malacia has taken to Erik ten Hag’s methods and tactics like a duck to water. Solid on the attack, contributing more crosses to the team and also sturdy in defence and in following target men down United’s left flank.

He would face stern competition from the quality wingers in the Premier League, but at 22 years of age, Malacia has the fitness and the legs to match the speed and quality.

Erik ten Hag calls on past connections with Martinez signing

Despite his young age (23 years), Martinez poses an upgrade on all the existing defenders at United. Martinez was in the top 95 percentile for the following stats among centre-backs in the Eredivisie (Source: fbref)

  • Passes attempted (87 per game) – 99 percentile
  • Pass completion (93%) – 95 percentile
  • Progressive passes per game (7.88) – 99 percentile
  • Progressive carries per game (6.13) – 96 percentile
  • Tackles won per game (3.13) – 99 percentile

Add to these 10.5 pressures per game, 1.38 shot-creating actions per game and two aerial duels won per game (despite possessing a height of 5′ 9″).

These numbers show a player who possesses solid defensive numbers while also being astute on the ball. A perfect addition to Manchester United who fits perfectly in Erik ten Hag’s mould having played and won under him at Ajax. Martinez also possesses leadership acumen that would help United big time.

Manchester United would want to add another quality right-back to their roster. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s career at the club seems to be coming to an end and Diogo Dalot cannot be expected to carry the role and the physical toll of it under Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman looked to raid his former club for Jurrien Timber before the young Dutchman signed a new deal with Ten Hag’s former club Ajax.

Ten Hag seems to have seen a transformative effect in pre-season with his club. The backline has been better despite there being obvious errors. Only four goals were conceded in four games and United playing better from the back sets a good precedent for the future. It remains to be seen though whether they can carry on this form into and through the season.