It’s a testament to the supporters of Manchester United that after a near-decade of frustrating underperformance, they continually encourage their team to push on and compete at every moment. Even with all the money injected into transfer moves and having more buck than brain, having the fans chant and cheer even amidst defeat is a great baseline that you’re doing something right. For United, after losing to Wolves at Old Trafford for the first time in 41 years, there is little solace found in the binary realm of league standings, expected goals ratios, sloppy defending, and a board in desperate need of reconfiguration, so knowing the fans will always clamor in impassioned support is a small solace.
Although level-headed fans are in the stands, that doesn’t excuse the shambolic shenanigans happening on the pitch. Ralf Ragnick, United’s manager revered for being a scholarly tactician and a Guardiola-esque seeker of perfection, saw his team picked apart by Wolves; a side who’ve crept up to eighth place mostly thanks to being one of the Premier League’s most determined defensive units. Bruno Lage’s squad rank second for goals conceded per match (0.7), bettered only by league leaders Man City, and have earned eight clean sheets from 19 games. Comparatively, Man United have maintained a weaker defence, despite bringing in decorated centre-back Raphael Varane for over £40mn, having conceded 13 more times than Wolves.
If you’re wondering why these stats matter, it’s because football is a game where the defensive side is crucial for aspiring contenders. Defending is best when unnoticed. An invisible art that prefers being shadowed by talks of title races and blazes of attacking-oriented popcorn entertainment. Just look at the top three Premier League teams: Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, all of whom have conceded less than 20 goals each. When you add those figures together, they highlight the importance of being watertight at the back. Defence has been a big reason why teams like Newcastle and Norwich are struggling. In theory, Man United should be following the top three by example with a back line that has Premier League experience, has won multiple major trophies, and have played in systems that prioritize defence. Is it any wonder that the Red Devil’s are commonly criticized for being disorganized and inconsistent not only in general, but particularly defensively. You don’t see many murmurs about Liverpool’s defence or even City’s, as all their praise is attributed to the attackers, and in the case of stars such as Anfield legend-in-the-making Mo Salah, it’s deserved. For Manchester United, there are no such plaudits.
Again, defending is an invisible art, therefore making United’s problems out as blindingly obvious – they can’t defend. But we know this, anyone paying attention knows this, yet the stem of fans’ frustrations is a lack of change. They’ve been poor defensively for many years. No consideration from the board or coaching staff to rethink or readjust when the game plan inevitably goes wrong. This was less apparent when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge, as his managerial reign was defined by a gung-ho style that let more gifted players shine exceptionally well, hence why Bruno Fernandes’s first year at Old Trafford was stellar, as Solskjaer gave the Portuguese international freedom to roam and improvise as a No. 10. Tactically, current coach Ralf Ragnick couldn’t be more different.
The 63-year old United boss has a reputation in his native Germany, where he’s cited as the “Godfather of modern German football”, a title especially apt towards his managerial style. Where his predecessor encouraged makeshift moments of magic, enough to keep himself employed for three long years in the dugout, Ragnick is more precise and acts as a puppeteer with how he wants his teams to play. Ragnick is also called upon as the modernist popularization of the Gegenpress tactic, whereby a team will instantly press their opponents after losing the ball to rush the tempo and force mistakes, and when it works, the gegenpressing ultimately gives you control even when out of possession. That is the essence of Ragnick’s philosophy. There are two great YouTube videos by analytical football fan Statman Dave that detail Ragnick’s tactics and how he’d change Man United when he landed the job in late November, albeit on an interim basis, and then a further video on how Ragnick’s changes has actually affected the squad. Despite that and the clear knowledge he brings in as a coach and general shepherd to the players, there are still elements of Man United’s play style that are exploited by their opponents time and time again, something unchanged from Solskjaer having the reigns to Ragnick. Against Wolves, these gaps in skill (which really shouldn’t exist given the talent and funding put into this team), were sawed through to make the home fans squirm. Don’t get it mistaken, Man United were comprehensively outclassed by. When they did grind Wolves down for moments of respite or even their own opportunities, they lashed away any hope of a lead after uncharacteristic misses from Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo tormented them to a night of inevitable defeat.
If being disciplined and attentive against your opponent is a fundamental step to challenging for honors, then Manchester United will need to strip back to the basics and sharpen up quickly, otherwise the 2021/22 campaign will be yet another one to forget for England’s biggest fallen giant.