Draw cannot hide incompetence behind Man United’s shocking generosity in defence


Erik ten Hag likes to argue that it is more about the quality of shots than the quantity. Perhaps, then, he can seek solace in the numbers as he searches for a justification for his baffling style of play. In Jurgen Klopp’s valedictory season, Liverpool have had 87 shots against Manchester United and failed to beat them. In Klopp’s farewell to Old Trafford, United shared the spoils in a match where the half-time shot count stood at 15-0, and not in their favour.

Perhaps Ten Hag will prove a pioneer; there is a tradition for Dutch managers to coin theories that reshape the game. Rinus Michels fashioned total football and if, after a first half of Liverpool dominance, there was a temptation to suggest that Ten Hag was purveying total… well, something else, maybe it is the way forward. Perhaps Pep Guardiola will decide the surest way to ensure Manchester City prevail at the Bernabeu is for Real Madrid to have 30-odd attempts at goal.

As United scored the spectacular and conceded the set-pieces, Ten Hag’s flawed philosophy, as much as Klopp’s gegenpressing and focus on intensity, defined a messy epic. United mastered the magnificent and looked decidedly dodgy at much else. Bruno Fernandes scored from the centre circle, Kobbie Mainoo with inch-perfect precision: their goal-of-the-game contest brought two high-calibre entries.

But, as tends to be the case in United matches, there were more shots than on the average day at the Battle of the Somme. Brentford had 31, Chelsea 28, Liverpool a further 28: that is in eight days alone. United have allowed 162 shots in six matches, 300 in 14. Which, Ten Hag tries to pretend, is all part of the plan.

Yet there are teams constructed by design and sides fashioned by accident. Klopp’s chaos theory is underpinned by a winning habit; Liverpool create the chaos by actually being very well coached. Ten Hag works backwards and tries to argue chaos is essential to the strategy, rather than a consequence of the defects in his blueprint.

It isn’t a masterplan. It’s anarchy, incompetence; entertainment for the neutrals, risking embarrassment for United. They averted it against Liverpool, thanks to the profligacy of their visitors and two moments of individual inspiration. United scored with their first shot; it came after 50 minutes and from 50 yards, aided by an error from Jarell Quansah. Before then, they suffered from a systemic breakdown. At times, it was hard to believe they still had 11 men on the pitch. Liverpool outnumbered them everywhere, in part because they outran them.

There was space behind United’s centre-backs. But also space in front of them and to the side of them. Poor Willy Kambwala, parachuted in for his second start because four others were injured, could have been forgiven for wondering if another line of work was less stressful.

Andy Robertson had the freedom of the left flank; Alejandro Garnacho has an aversion to tracking back that many a recent United winger has shared. Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister, two men Klopp signed after Mason Mount preferred to go to Old Trafford, were invariably unchecked.

There wasn’t a United midfield, but there rarely is. There are just midfielders. In Casemiro’s case, a previously outstanding one. In Mainoo’s case, a potentially brilliant one. In Fernandes’ case, the best United player in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. But there is a gaping hole at the heart of the team.

Casemiro had another poor game in midfield (AFP via Getty Images)
Casemiro had another poor game in midfield (AFP via Getty Images)

It is why United’s games are more like basketball than football. It is why, too, such an open style is particularly ill-suited to a team with the immobile Casemiro. Doomed Sheffield United, perhaps destined to end up with the worst defensive record in Premier League history, showed more solidity against Liverpool this week than United managed, but they had midfielders behind the ball.

Two of Ten Hag’s midfielders scored special goals, but there was nothing resembling a unit, a collective. And yet the 2024 United, incoherent and inconsistent as they can be, have the wherewithal to somehow to change games. They were shambolic in the first half, spirited in the second. Antony might have won it in the 97th minute; but for a rash lunge by Aaron Wan-Bissaka at Harvey Elliott, they probably would have beaten Liverpool for the second time in three weeks.

They are, though, a farcical football team. They beat Liverpool in the FA Cup with Fernandes ending up at centre-back and Antony at left-back. It was great fun, but not great planning.

There is something illogical in that United’s results have been better in 2024, when opponents have had even more shots, than they were afforded in their awful autumn.

But Liverpool’s xG was 3.92, Chelsea’s 3.48, Brentford’s 3.16. Despite United’s many injuries, Ten Hag may be a lucky manager, fortunate his side have not been hammered three times in eight days. And it means none of this seems remotely sustainable: unless, that is, there somehow is a cunning plan in letting opponents shoot 25 or 30 times each game.