It’s chaotic but United play fast and direct – and beat Liverpool at their own game – The Athletic

By Mark Critchley4h ago

There were moments during that period of extra time before Amad’s winner, as the atmosphere inside Old Trafford sparked and crackled like it rarely has in recent years, when it was not entirely clear what formation Manchester United were supposed to be playing.

There was no recognised centre-forward, for starters. Only two United players would call themselves defenders. A right-winger was playing at left-back. Bruno Fernandes was limping around at centre-half.

Erik ten Hag has been regularly criticised this season for lacking a defined style of play and now, United did not even appear to be playing a coherent system.

But rather than focusing only on those final, desperate and thrilling minutes of extra time, take this extraordinary FA Cup quarter-final as a whole and it might be the best example yet of exactly what Ten Hag is trying to achieve.

What is United’s style of play? This is United’s style of play. It is fast, it is direct, it is supposed to be full of intensity. At its worst, it can be so chaotic as to be calamitous. At its best, it has all the most exhilarating qualities associated with English football and is capable of producing an instant classic.

And curiously, it is not all that different from Liverpool’s. No team in the Premier League has made more direct attacks than United’s 72 this season. Their closest challengers? Liverpool, with 71. When United go forward, they fly up the pitch at 1.92 metres per second, only a shade quicker than Liverpool’s 1.89.


Chart the speed of United’s attacks against the number of passes they play in each sequence of possession, then compare across the whole of the top flight, and Ten Hag’s side come out almost right in line with Liverpool. A little less intricate, but just as direct.

All of which is a slightly convoluted way of demonstrating something which is not obvious to the naked eye, but that not one of the 74,000-plus inside Old Trafford could deny after 124 minutes of play: that United are capable of playing Liverpool at their own game. Capable of beating them at it, too.

Not that they are perfect, nor even remotely close to being equal to Jurgen Klopp’s title challengers on a consistent basis. Largely because, despite the similarities in how they attack, United still have much to improve when it comes to defending.

Ten Hag recently took exception to Jamie Carragher’s “subjective” Monday Night Football analysis of the gaps in United’s midfield in the defeat to Fulham last month. Yet after McTominay’s opener and right up until Antony’s equaliser, United only served to reinforce Carragher’s point.

Vast expanses of space opened up in Ten Hag’s midfield, just as they had on the touchscreen in the Sky Sports studio.

Whereas Liverpool have perfected the art of counter-pressing, United’s ambitious attempts to win the ball high up the pitch that had largely worked early on began to flounder, leaving a front six high and dry and a back four scrambling in retreat.

Klopp’s side were expertly able to exploit these gaps — literal and metaphorical gulfs between these two sides — to put themselves back in front.

But what would happen if United simply sat deep and closed those spaces off? We had the answer to that a fortnight ago at the Etihad when a team camped in and around their own penalty box tried to make the most of the few opportunities that came their way but, by and large, were outclassed.


So, how do you play fast, direct and exciting football while still maintaining control? It is a balance Liverpool have largely perfected during Klopp’s eight-and-a-half years in charge and one that Ten Hag has failed to strike over the past 18 months.

Maybe, in the meantime, the only way to emerge from the chaos is to embrace it. And so rather than sitting deep and being dominated as in the Manchester derby, United took risks, they pushed high, they committed players forward.

Liverpool are fully capable of controlling games, but they do not quite snuff the life out of an opponent in the same way as City. They will give you a chance, often more than one. Ten Hag’s bet was that when those chances came, United would take them.

In his post-match press conference, Ten Hag spoke glowingly of the game as a whole, which he said was “really fun to be part of”, but he also referenced both the opening 35 minutes and the final stages specifically.

The first 35 minutes was a spell that, in his opinion, represented the best of his United, proving “the future of this team is very bright”. “We have seen in the first 35 minutes how we wanted to win — how we played from the back, attract the opponent, find the half-spaces,” he said.

Then at the end, when many sides would have settled for a penalty shootout, he revealed he instructed his defence to go one-on-one with Liverpool’s attack, allowing others to push further up the pitch. That maybe explains the slightly confused, makeshift formation. But why do it?

“I saw we are physically and mentally strong,” he said. “I had to force (the players) to go forward, force the team to go one on one, then they are forced to help each other… From that moment, we got the initiative and had many chances.”


Ten Hag has made his fair share of questionable tactical decisions during his time in charge but, with a few notable exceptions, they have typically been brave ones. That was another courageous call and it paid off.

The question for Ten Hag is whether he will be given the time to keep taking such gambles. As we have seen this season, United often play too fast for their own good, too direct to maintain any level of control, and with an intensity that cannot always be maintained.

But United’s style of play is not a million miles away from one successfully adopted a few miles down the East Lancs Road. And when it works, it works brilliantly.

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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Mark Critchley is a football writer for The Athletic, covering Manchester United and Manchester City. Mark joined after five years as The Independent’s northern football correspondent. Follow Mark on Twitter @mjcritchley