Breaking down Manchester United’s horrific performance against Brentford: Tactical Analysis

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it can. Manchester United hit rock bottom on Saturday as they were thrashed 4-0 by Brentford. After the opening weekend humiliation against Brighton, United did not learn their lessons, and they were exploited throughout 90 minutes by Brentford as United remained winless in the Premier League.

New manager Erik Ten Hag broke a 101-year-long record as he became the only United boss to lose his first two games since 1921; as a result, United sit at the bottom of the premier league table.

Fingers were pointed in all directions from the hierarchy to the players and even the new boss who pleaded with the board to sign some more players after the loss against Brentford. Ten Hag does not have the tools to architect the style of football he wants to at United but is not doing the best with what has been thrown at his disposal.

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United tend to play out from the back but lacks a press-resistant midfielder in their squad, nor do any of the back four have an excellent technical ability on the ball, along with the goalkeeper David De Gea who is substandard with the ball at his feet. This has been the way at United for several seasons now. In the January transfer window last season, the Reds identified that they needed to strengthen their midfield and attacking options moving forward. However, here we are, almost eight months later, and United have not addressed any of those positions.

Brentford did their homework adroitly and targeted United’s new recruit Lisandro Martinez, just like Brighton. Former Ajax centre-back Martinez stands at 5ft 9inches and is the shortest in his position in the premier league. Attacking from set-pieces was already a strength for Brentford as they managed 15 goals from set-pieces last season just behind Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City. What the home team did well was target Martinez from long balls by the keeper.

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Brentford manager Thomas Frank when asked if he was targeting Martinez, he said: “We knew we’d more likely either win it or the second ball around it. Of course, we looked at what Brighton did well against them, and Brighton is also like us in the way they want to play. Normally Brighton always builds from the goalkeeper, but they went along every single time so of course, we looked at that. We knew we had that weapon so that’s why we did it.”

Let us take a look at how Brentford exploited Manchester United tactically and why Ten Hag cannot play his style of football with the current set of players he has at the club.

United in possession

Man United played out from the back with the centre-backs close to the keeper and the fullbacks wide. Fred gave away the ball in dangerous situations against Brighton when he was put under pressure and due to his lack of technical ability to retain the ball amidst a press he was moved up the pitch, and Christian Eriksen dropped the deepest from the midfield to collect the ball.

Brentford was aggressive with their pressing. Both their forwards, Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo were ready to press the centre-backs whilst Mathias Jensen hunted down Eriksen as he dropped deep to collect the ball. Similar to Brighton, Brentford’s wingbacks moved high up the pitch to press United fullbacks. Technically, United had a 3v2 advantage deep in their half as Brentford pressed with both their forwards but given De Gea’s inability with the ball at his feet, United was unable to make the most out of that situation.

This also led to Brentford’s second goal of the game. De Gea is not a ball-playing keeper, so his decision-making isn’t great either. De Gea passes the ball to Eriksen who is under tremendous pressure from Jensen and gets dispossessed, leading to a goal by Jensen. The first goal came from a similar scenario where United was pressed high and failed to control the ball but somehow managed to win a throw-in deep in their half. From the subsequent throw-in, Cristiano Ronaldo got dispossessed and a tame shot by Josh Dasilva found its way in the back of the net after a goalkeeping howler by De Gea leading to the opening goal of the game.

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The Spaniard admitted he cost his team three points in the post-match interview. He said: “I think I cost my team three points today. It was a poor performance for me. After the first mistake and then the second, it was very tough to be playing and it was a horrible day. Of course, we should react better but the moment we are living now is tough, every time we concede a goal. I should’ve saved the first shot and probably the result would be different.”

United was tentative playing from the back and made a few tweaks to their system throughout the game. Left-back Luke Shaw was moved high up the pitch while Diogo Dalot formed a back three with Harry Maguire and Martinez. United now always had an outlet towards Dalot to play the ball when Brentford pressed with both the forwards. Brentford wingback Rico Henry was reluctant to press Dalot centrally as it would leave a lot of space behind him and Ben Mee could have potentially ended up in a 1v1 situation against Jadon Sancho.

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Ten Hag also likes to move the fullbacks in the midfield which creates another option for a pass when playing out from the back, which Shaw did with little success. Jansen is already marking Eriksen and now the Brentford wingback moves in the midfield to press Luke Shaw which leaves Marcus Rashford in a 1v1 situation with a defender. However, just like last week, United’s wingers were wasteful and didn’t threaten the opposition goal as they failed to beat their man and move into a dangerous area of the pitch to potentially affect the game.

United disrupted Brentford’s midfield line whenever Bruno Fernandes dropped deep alongside Eriksen to move the ball forward. This did mean United’s most forward midfielder was Fred, who failed to capitalise on these situations.

Brentford adjusted really well and their forwards were willing to sit deep to help the team which left very little space between the lines for United to exploit. United then moved their centre-backs even further up the pitch to free up space for players like Eriksen and Fernandes to make a telling pass in the final third, but this left a lot of space behind the centre-backs to exploit for Brentford. Whenever Brentford won the ball back in their half, they did not look to play out from the back but instead launched the ball in the space behind asking their forwards to chase. This led to Brentford’s fourth goal of the game as they booted the ball forward from their penalty box which Toney chased and played a perfect ball to Mbeumo who dispatched the ball in the back of the net.

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Brentford’s third came from a corner and again De Gea looked absolutely clueless moving across the line like a nine-year-old and eventually is in no man’s land and Martinez struggles to contain Ben Mee who heads the ball in the back of the net.

United out of possession

Ten Hag’s teams like to press and set up to do so, but Brentford showed little interest in trying to play out from the back but instead booted the ball long towards their forwards targeting Lisandro Martinez. Brentford’s manager made it very clear that they planned to play the long ball as they knew they would either win that or the second ball. This was evident as their keeper Raya Martin attempted the most passes in their team, 39 and 36 out of those were long balls.

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United was not only outclassed by Brentford but also outrun by them. Brentford players covered a whopping 109.4kms during the game, whereas United players only covered 95.6kms. United players had a day off from training on Sunday, 14th August, but manager Erik Ten Hag called the players for extra training as he wanted to make his players run 13.8kms, precisely the same distance they ran less than Brentford players as reported by Sky.

August is going to be a massive month for Manchester United in the course of deciding where they will end the season in May, as the board have just a touch over two weeks before the transfer window closes. New Manchester boss Erik Ten Hag might be in the news again for the wrong reasons, and it looks more seemingly that he will have to wait further long for his first victory in the premier league as United boss as they take on arch-rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford on 22nd August.

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