Man United’s defending must improve to keep season on track

The debate around Manchester United and the way they defend was best summed up in the postmatch news conferences following Everton‘s 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford on Saturday.

“I’ve never had that many chances away here,” said Everton boss Sean Dyche, insisting that his team had not deserved to be on the end of an “unjust” result, before Erik ten Hag countered with: “They are low-quality chances.” It was manager speak for “let’s agree to disagree.”

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Ten Hag wanted to focus on a victory that eased the pressure on his job following back-to-back Premier League defeats to Fulham and Manchester City. Dyche, meanwhile, was looking for positives after an 11th straight league game without a win, pointing to Everton’s 23 shots as evidence they had “done everything right” except found the net.

Everton don’t score goals — they’re the third-lowest scorers in the division — but United do, usually, concede a lot of shots. So far this season, they’ve faced 468 shots on goal, a number topped only by bottom side Sheffield United, who have conceded 503. It’s been a theme since the start of the campaign, when Wolves had 23 shots at Old Trafford on the opening weekend.

In United’s past 10 league games, their opponents have had a combined 185 shots; for comparison, Arsenal and Manchester City have faced only 232 in the Premier League all season. Even Newport County, 13th in League Two, managed 17 shots in their FA Cup tie with United in January.

Last season, Ten Hag’s first at the club, United faced 482 shots in 38 Premier League matches at a rate of 12.6 per game. This season, it’s jumped to 16.7 shots per game, and in 10 games (against Manchester City twice, Everton twice, Wolves, Newcastle, Liverpool West Ham, Aston Villa and Luton) they’ve faced 20 or more.

Ten Hag has said consistently that part of the problem is injuries, particularly to the defenders in his squad. He has had to chop and change his back four far more than he did last season, affecting what he calls defensive “routines,” which become second nature for defenders who play together regularly.

United have used 11 different centre-back combinations in their 39 games this season, with Jonny Evans and Raphaël Varane (seven times) paired together most often. It’s in stark contrast to last season, when Ten Hag settled on Varane and Lisandro Martínez as his preferred partnership, using them together 22 times. Martinez has barely played this season because of injury, starting only five games alongside Varane.

The left side of defence has been a particular problem because of injuries to regular left-backs Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia. Shaw has been restricted to just 15 appearances, while Malacia is likely to miss the entire campaign; in their place, Ten Hag has been forced to use Victor Lindelöf, Sofyan Amrabat and Diogo Dalot out of position. Sergio Reguilón, signed on loan from Tottenham as emergency cover last summer, was allowed to leave in January. (Ten Hag was frustrated about the situation when it came to Reguilón’s exit. “In December, I had the talks internally, with the medical and performance [staff], and they assured me they [Shaw and Malacia] will both be fit in January.”)

The situation isn’t going to improve anytime soon, either, with Shaw unlikely to return until May.

Ten Hag accepts United haven’t defended as well as they did last season when they registered 17 clean sheets in the Premier League — three more than any other team — but their defensive numbers are relatively similar. United have conceded 39 goals in 28 league games this season, compared to 37 goals at the same stage of the previous campaign.

The Man United manager will also argue that it doesn’t matter how many shots opposition teams have as long as the ball doesn’t end up in the net. United’s 3-0 home win over West Ham in February was relatively comfortable despite the visitors having 23 shots, while Everton had 24 at Goodison Park in November and still lost 3-0.

The way Ten Hag has set his team up defensively for much of the season — determined in part by the players he’s had available — has invited opponents to shoot on goal. After the win over Everton on Saturday, Ten Hag said he had players “who feel comfortable to defend low” and so suited a differing approach to Manchester City and Arsenal, who like to defend high up the pitch.

Teams who play with a high defensive line need pace at the back, and Ten Hag has spent the majority of the season playing with Evans, Lindelof and Harry Maguire. Evans has been one of United’s better performers in an otherwise disappointing campaign, but at 36 years old, speed is not his best asset.

Ten Hag’s approach between now and the end of the season is unlikely to change, which means facing more shots on goal while also trying to restrict teams to difficult chances, getting lots of defenders in and around the penalty area to get in the way. United’s outfield players have blocked 145 shots this season, more than any other team, while only four goalkeepers have made more saves than André Onana‘s 104. Onana is slowly looking more at home after a difficult start to his United career.

The question, though, is whether it’s sustainable to allow opponents to shoot so often.

Liverpool arrive at Old Trafford for their FA Cup quarterfinal on Sunday — stream LIVE, 11:20 a.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S. only) — having had more shots in the Premier League than any other team this season, and only once have they failed to score, which was against United at Anfield in December. That day, Liverpool had 34 shots without scoring, and afterward, Jurgen Klopp praised United’s “clean and passionate” defending.

Ten Hag will need more of the same this weekend to keep them out again.