Manchester United were dealt with their most devastating loss so far this season as Arsenal pulled off, what one may call, a classic Fergie-era United comeback in injury time, to put away the Red Devils 3-1 at the Emirates.
Perhaps it could be credited to a case of momentum shifting in the last minute, or decisions not going United’s way. Like how Ten Hag exclaimed on Jonny Evans being fouled on the Declan Rice goal, or Garnacho’s composed finish being ruled offside.
🗣️ “Foul on Højlund in the penalty area, then the disallowed goal from Garnacho, wrong angle – I think it’s onside then the final goal. They allow that goal – it’s a clear foul on Jonny Evans.”Erik ten Hag feels Manchester United were hard done by at the Emirates. 💭 pic.twitter.com/78TbAXmdjJ
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) September 4, 2023
But despite Erik ten Hag’s seemingly unfaltering belief and post-match remarks on the improvements of the squad, one cannot hide from the eye test, which clearly exposes a glaring issue with United: scoring goals.
Manchester United currently possess the worst goal differential amongst the so-called ‘Big Six’. And their loss yesterday epitomized United’s attacking style so far this season.
The team’s reliance on the occasional long ball to create chances for their attackers on to score on the counter-attack is not a strategy set to last for long. Especially when it seems like Erik ten Hag is struggling to find a way to activate his midfielders and provide them with the space to let their creativity flourish.
And this exactly has been the choice of attack for most clubs who have faced United so far this season: overload and nullify both Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen, whilst allowing the Red Devils to push up through the wings and take their chances.
What comes across as baffling for the United faithful in the midst of it all is the fact that Ten Hag continues to fall back on the same strategy although being completely aware of the lack of attacking and creative crossing options in United’s flanks, which just add to their misery.
Take for example their recent fixture against Arsenal itself. Antony’s one-footed nature and Wan Bissaka’s erratic positioning coupled with his lack of composure encouraged Arsenal to exploit the very same.
The Gunners overloaded the midfield, as did United, and ensured that the duo of Bruno Fernandes and Eriksen had minimal influence on the game at all times. It took a moment of counter-attacking genius and veteran experience from Eriksen to set up Marcus Rashford for his sublime goal.
But apart from that moment of brilliance from the Dane, and another for the chance that set up Garnacho’s offside goal, Arsenal dominated the middle of the field and enticed United to attack their flanks as much as they pleased, for therein lies yet another issue: the lack of a proper number 9.
Long story short, Martial just could not do much last night. His technical ability, whilst impressive at times, is not enough to overshadow his downfalls. The inability to find oneself in goalscoring positions inside the opponent’s penalty box, the lack of aerial ability and the striker’s instinct for goal are ever-present.
But, the buck does not stop there for United. A good part of the club’s inability to be aggressive in front of goal also lies on the fact that Fernandes and Eriksen seemed to have no clear impact for the majority of the game.
When provided with the space and time, both midfielders have proven just what they could bring to the table. For proof, look no further than United’s fixture against Spurs this season.
The Red Devils stayed in the game for the first half due to the fact that Bruno Fernandes had the freedom and space to create chances and threaten the opposition with menacing passes that cut through Spurs’ midfield.
But once Spurs clamped down on him and overwhelmed the midfield, United’s attacking momentum dropped drastically and eventually, they ended up losing the game as Maddison, for the other side, started to roam freely and play his natural game.
The reason as to why teams such as Tottenham and Arsenal let United push through the wings till their hearts are content is two-fold: one is the lack of quality delivery of crosses into the opposition’s box. But, the second and more baffling reason is that the Red Devils just do not possess a goal-scoring threat inside the box at all.
United’s lack of attackers who can control and draw in the opposition’s central defenders and be a looming threat has been a major setback for the club. Simply put, there just seems to be no clear central striker who can score goals for them.
Marcus Rashford, who has been the side’s saving grace on a regular basis, is a sensational attacking talent. But, that doesn’t mean that the Englishman does not have his deficiencies.
Rashford’s innate itch to set off long shots from outside the box and his ability to cut in from the wings to create his own chances make him a fascinating winger, but not an ideal centre-forward.
A hugely disappointing attribute of Rashford is his inability to be an aerial threat. In all honesty, this doesn’t just apply to him only, but to all the forwards and attackers that are present in the club.
There exists a dire need for an out-and-out classic number 9 to take up the central position and establish themselves as a multi-level scoring threat for the opposition, whilst being a physically dominating presence as well.
And as of now, United will be placing all their eggs in one basket as they count on their premier signing of this summer Rasmus Hojlund to provide the very same.
Gary Neville gives his review of Rasmus Højlund’s Premier League debut 👊Watch the full Gary Neville Podcast over on our YouTube channel now 👇
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) September 3, 2023
Despite having played for just around half an hour, Hojlund did show promise in his debut for United as the Danish striker’s menacing pace and strength to hold off and compete with the likes of Gabriel was ever-present.
Hojlund brought in a jolt of physicality, size and pace in an attack that needs it desperately. Whilst he could not capitalize off much, one can rest assure that he is a welcome sight to the sore eyes of the United faithful.
United fans will be hoping for more of the same to continue as Hojlund finds his groove in the Premier League. But, time is truly of the essence for all.
But when all is said and done, at the end of the day, the key to unlocking United’s attacking potential all lies in Erik ten Hag figuring out the best way to free up his creative midfielders in order to allow them to play through the middle of the field and make the most of their abilities.