Manchester United have had the most amount of injuries, and had the most number of games missed due to injuries this season by a big margin. We have had 5 or more first team players out injured for every single game this season. While Newcastle in recent weeks and Spurs for a little longer have had some bad injuries. Both have had numerous games this season where they have had an entire clean bill of health with no one out injured.
While it can be argued that injuries to our key players is probably more impactful due to the poor squad we have assembled over the past decade. When we have a key player like Martinez out injured for example, we have to change how we play, as there isn’t anyone else in the squad who has a similar skillset to play out from the back. Likewise when Casemiro is out, we only have Mainoo who can do a similar shielding job in front of the defence. That’s an 18 year old academy player who himself has missed most of the season so far due to injury.
While we’ve had several players out for long spells (Shaw, Martinez, Casemiro, Mount, Malacia, Amad and Mainoo), we’ve also had a revolving door of niggly little injuries that stop players settling and getting any consistency or momentum before they go out injured again. Heaton, Bayindir, AWB, Dalot, Reguilon, Lindelof, Varane, Evans, Maguire, Eriksen, Donny, Amrabat, Hannibal, Martial and Hojlund have all suffered two or more separate injuries keeping them out of 2 or more games each time with as many as 7 games in total being missed by some of them.
The problem with those player injuries is they invariably take a game or two to get back to match fitness, so it’s not just the games they miss, but the fact that there are other games where they aren’t going to be back 100% fit and ready. Games where they might be able to start, but only play 60 minutes, or only fit enough for the bench and the final 30 minutes.
So that’s 7 players out injured for the majority of the season so far. As well as another 15 players who have missed between 4 and 7 games each over several injuries. Twenty-two of our first team squad have suffered injuries that have kept them out of between 15-90% of the season so far.
While the injuries to 22 different members of our first team squad don’t include Greenwood being unavailable due to being sent out on loan at the last minute. Sancho due to his disciplinary issues or the 5 games Antony missed due to being in Brazil dealing with his personal life.
How on earth are we supposed to gain any sort of consistency when Onana, Kambwala, McTominay, Bruno, Pellistri, Rashford and Garnacho are the only members of our first team squad to miss less than 2 games this season due to injury (McTominay, Pellistri, Rashford and Garnacho have all missed 1 game due to injury).
So this season, no other Premier League team has had anything close to the sort of injury problems we have had to contend with, or had players missing due to personal issues or indiscipline.
As to what the manager is doing tactically, it has changed many times this season, out of necessity to mitigate our own limitations rather than to try and gain some kind of advantage over the opposition.
Ignore the 4321, it’s a massive over simplification designed to give fans a rough idea about where players will be playing on the pitch. Those sort of formations in the press were originally designed so that people listening on the radio would have a better idea about what is happening during the commentary. Other than during kick off no side will be in the formation that is stated.
Typically you have two game state formations, one with the ball and one without the ball. More tactically astute managers might have 3 or 4 or maybe more that they may want their players to use during different stages of the game. Some managers for example might have a shape they want their team to be in when they first lose the ball, in an attempt to try and win it back through counter pressing. With another shape adopted if they don’t win it back within a specified amount of time. Yet effectively you have what shape you look to build attacks in, and what shape you drop back into when you lose the ball (defensive shape).
From watching us this season, it seems that we are trying to stick to a limited number of shapes, yet how we play in them are the tactical variations. We look to build play with a 3-1 type shape from the base, with one fullback forming a defacto back three and the other pushing forward, with a single player in the pivot in midfield. While there seems to be a bit more variation in how he’s set up the 6 players in attack. This has often depended on who he has available for fullback, as well as who can play in those positions.
When we lose the ball, we drop back into a 3241 shape, ideally the plan here seems to be to block up the middle of the pitch forcing play down the wings where we can use the touchline to press the opposition and win the ball back. However, the problems we have seen this season is we lose the ball centrally too often, and we don’t transition into our defensive shape quickly enough. This has left the middle of the pitch too open and teams have been able to play right through the middle often too quickly for our player to drop back into the midfield position creating a double pivot.
That has meant teams have broken on us centrally with just one midfielder covering the space in front of the defence. Which is too easy play through and has lead to us conceding many goals either directly through the counter or from an ensuing set piece conceded by someone having to commit a foul to stop the break. The other defensive issues tend to come from poor defending of set-pieces and in particular individual mistakes (again often from set-plays).
The only way to solve these issues is through using better players who don’t make those mistakes and who can follow the tactical instructions better. Or to slightly adjust the shape to a 3-2 base formation giving a little more solidity. But that will come at a cost in attack. While changing that shape won’t stop individual errors.
Our issues in attack this season likely stem from the constant changing of the tactics due to who is available. One week our wide left player will need to stay wide to keep width due to not having an overlapping fullback available, only to change the following week when one is. With them able to come inside more. This has probably led to Antony playing more often than not as he does his role of staying wide and stretching the play well and consistently, which limits the amount of changing in tactics needed elsewhere.
The other issue impacting our ability to score is that with Martinez and Shaw out we lost any ability to progress the ball from defence. While Eriksen is the only player who can consistently progress the ball through midfield and he’s had niggling injuries all season, as well as not having a combative defensively sound player alongside him more often than not due to Casemiro and Mainoo’s injuries.
Our defensive shape has mostly stayed the same probably to try and gain some consistency and to try and keep it as simple as possible. The shape further forward has changed on a game by game basis though. Which probably isn’t something EtH will have wanted to do but has been forced due to the injuries and who he has available for that game.
As for having a plan A starting the game and a plan B or C from the bench, it’s going to be hard enough to work out what plan A is based on who is available, while plan B or C from the bench is probably more than likely injured. They certainly aren’t likely to be a better or more viable option than plan A or we would have likely started with them.
Having a consistent way to influence games from the bench comes from having a strong squad and a consistent selection. That gives you time to work on other ideas or plans in training to a level where they might actually work when you need to change things up. Other than that you are left to hail Mary’s, chucking some guy on and hoping he does something different rather than having a clear and well drilled plan on how to change things.
I think we’ve been brought up on this idea of “Fergie time”. A manager who can always change something and win the game from the bench. Sadly we don’t have Yorke and Cole up front with Sheringham and Solskjaer on the bench any more.
Looking at our bench during games is there a clear and obvious answer? Or is there just some kid who is untested and might be able to do something? When have we finished a game having lost and you look at who was still on the bench and think why on earth didn’t EtH bring him on?
If we are lucky we have a 20 year old kid starting up front and maybe Amad or Pellsitri on the bench to change things. There isn’t a lot of options on the bench and in truth none of them are any better than who’s on the pitch.
It’s tough to watch, but what’s actually making it harder for fans is clinging to that hope that the manager will come up with some master plan, or he’ll get sacked and the new guy will fix everything.
The reality is the insane injuries that have ruthlessly exposed a very weak and disjointed squad that needs a massive rebuild both to protect us from injuries that has massively impacted our season and to have a squad capable of seriously challenging on multiple fronts.
With all our players fit and on form, we are a match for most sides. But if we lose either fitness or form then we are a sitting duck, there for the taking and even very average sides can beat us.
We have had neither fitness or any chance to build form this season. Until we get our best players back regularly and into form, we will struggle no matter who is sitting the dugout. A manager is only as good as the players he has available, our manager has had very few of his players available this season.
Written by Shappy January 02 2024 19:26:04