5 things we have learnt in the 2022/23 season

The 2022/23 season has had just about everything. What started off in appalling fashion took a complete 180-degree turn, and has turned out to be quite a pleasant season for the Red Devils. Every good game and every bad game has had some lessons to it. As the curtains close on the season, here are some lessons we can take from it in its entirety:

We are still miles behind City this season

Over the past couple of seasons, our noisy neighbours have admittedly been the blueprint for English football. Other than Pep being a football genius, Sheikh Mansour’s investment in the club is the reason the Citizens have been so incredibly dominant. Liverpool had kept them honest for 2, 3 seasons, but their mojo eventually ran out. Arsenal had a good go this season for 30 games, but they too met the same fate.

A project like City’s needs years to build but more importantly, money, a lot of money. A perfect example of my point is the Mancunian’s side last 1–0 win against Chelsea. They won the game with Haaland, De Bruyne, Ederson, Rodri, Dias, Stones, Bernardo Silva, and captain Gündoğan all on the bench. Scoreline notwithstanding, a bench like that is terrifying to say the least. Our squad in comparison is extremely fickle. It is impossible to take out 5,6 starting 11 players and still get a result, leave alone a decent performance. As a matter of fact, take out Casemiro, and it all crumbles.

We already have our own tactical genius in Erik ten Hag, all we need is investment. It is no secret the Glazers are never too eager to spend a dime, and this is and remains to be a massive barrier if we ever want to dominate England like Man City has. Over the past couple of months, there has been talks over the sale of the club and this cannot materialise faster for the fans. A free-spending owner combined with Erik’s tactical mastery would make United a force to be reckoned with all over Europe.

What do we need to improve further?

On matters positions, what we need is a ball-playing GK, another decent CB, a technically sound box-to-box mid, a backup CDM and a striker. Of these all, an out-and-out striker is what we crave most. As it stands, there are two clear frontrunners to secure the club: Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim. United fans, myself included, are desperately hoping the Sheikh comes out trumps eventually, judging on how freely the Qataris invest in their clubs. The lack of a proper 9 has been the bane of United’s season, rendering us unable to kill off teams. I cannot count the number of times ten Hag has coached a 5–0 and the games only ended 1–0, 2–0.

A true testament to this is that wretched Sevilla game at Old Trafford, where we should have been at least 4–0 up at half-time, only for us to completely collapse and bottle it in the last 10 minutes. Bruno Fernandes has suffered most, recording only 8 assists in the league from an astonishing 32 big chances created. An elite chance creator like our magnifico would easily register twenty assists a season with a lethal 9 like Kane. A Qatari take over gives me hope of Kane spraying his trademark through-balls to Antony and Rashy on the wings — but that’s all it is, a dream.

We are only a few good signings away from being proper challengers, and the first step is a
major takeover.

Erik ten Hag has shown this season that he is the right man to return us to glory

The Dutchman has overcome all sorts of obstacles in his first year in the hottest seat in world football. From that Ronaldo debacle to that mess at Brentford, he has been nothing short of exceptional, bar some questionable substitutions. His extraordinary man-management has been the building block of what has been an excellent season. He took charge of the squad and took charge indeed, letting all the players know it was either his way or the highway. Not many managers on the planet would handle a bitter break-up with one of the greatest players who ever lived as effectively as he did.

Erik brought a clear possession-based style of play, and the players executed it perfectly most of the time. That in itself is not as impressive enough as his tactical flexibility in games. One perfect example of this is our 3–0 win against Leicester.

In the first half, Leicester were by far the better side, and we were lucky to be 1 up at half-time. Harvey Barnes and Iheanacho had forced De Gea into two astonishing saves just before United capitalised on a Wout Faes mistake to go 1–0 ahead. Leicester’s aggressive pressing pinned us back, and we struggled to play out from the back. Weghorst especially struggled in the #10 on account of his technical inefficiency. The Dutch tactician brought on Sancho in the number 10 role at half-time, with Rashford moving back to his preferred LW role. We absolutely blew Leicester away in the second half, benefitting from Sancho’s technical quality and ability to retain possession. The English winger was involved in 6 shots, creating 3 and taking 3 himself. He completed 93% of is passes and got himself a goal to go with.

Showing tactical nous on the biggest of days:

The EFL Carabao Cup final is another testament to Erik’s tactical flexibility. Newcastle’s biggest strength is their 4–3–3 high press, and the former Ajax tactician recognised this and went against his own possession-based football philosophy to counter this. Manchester United played long to Weghorst whenever they had possession in lieu of playing it from the back. This bypassed the usually effective Newcastle press, effectively limiting Newcastle’s chances. It is also worth mentioning how effective Wan-Bissaka was after being brought on by ten Hag at half-time. The right back used his telescopic legs to completely shut down Allan Saint-Maximin. The twinkle-toed French winger was having a stormer in the first half, toying with Diogo Dalot every chance he got. Like most PL wingers, he ran out of ideas after
facing Wan-Bissaka in the second half.

Erik ten Hag has utilised just how versatile his frontline is, with most of our attackers able to comfortably play in any of the front four positions. The Dutchman’s genius is reflected in United having the most goals scored by substitutes in all of Europe. Bruno Fernandes is the centrepiece. The Portuguese Magnifico has quietly had a brilliant season, only being let down by the lack of a proper 9 to benefit from his elite chance creation. Bruno played an incredible 59 games, only missing 3 — outrageous availability by all standards.

Midfield reformation

This season has been extra special for the midfield dynamo, benefitting from being partnered with equally brilliant football brains in Eriksen and Casemiro. He and the Danish maestro Eriksen have been playing like long-lost brothers, especially in games we have had the majority of possesion. The only flaw in this otherwise effective setup is it hasn’t worked in games we saw little of the ball. Eriksen does not have the legs to track runners and keep up with the press in games we don’t dominate possession. Fred, who is brilliant at this, lacks the technical quality to keep possession and/or release a killer pass once he wins possession back.

All this goes back to reiterate how desperately we need an 8 with both the engine and the quality to back it up. Even before the transfer window opens, there already are whispers of Mason Mount, who would be a good addition, coming in. Partnering Bruno with a box-to-box midfielder who can both attack and defend would do wonders to ten Hag’s system. Bruno recorded 14 goals and 15 assists, which is a decent output, especially considering he played without a proper striker.

Outside his exceptional footballing abilities, his leadership is something this squad thrives off of. Any United fan can attest to how disorganised the team looks whenever Bruno is not on the field. That horrendous night at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán is one night all United fans will want to quickly forget. With Bruno suspended for that ridiculous yellow card in the first leg, that fragile mentality we came to see and dread under Ole and Ralf Rangnick crept in and players started making mistakes for fun.

A new club captain on the horizon?

With rumours of club captain Harry Maguire leaving the club, it is highly likely Bruno will permanently take over the armband and lead us to a new era under Erik ten Hag. A few good signings can change everything. Many a fan, including myself, were sceptical of a revival under Erik after what we had to endure in the 2021/2022 season. The cautious optimism we had by virtue of Erik’s tactical genius was quickly and effectively put out by dismal, dismal performances against Brighton and Brentford. The following few weeks transcended my respect for the Dutch manager a hundred-fold on account of how he dealt with it all and got the squad to buy into his philosophy. The few signings he made, Casemiro and Lisandro Martínez in particular, were only beginning to be integrated into the squad and once it clicked, we looked a whole new team.

The two defensive stalwarts in particular glossed over all our defensive troubles — and they were plenty. Their mere presence unlocked our full attacking potential. Shaw in particular blossomed, showcasing his magnificent attacking output down the left flank. He previously had to often stay back and cover for an error-prone LCB Harry Maguire. A now technically-secure LCB in Licha allowed him to play his football with freedom, sometimes coming into midfield as an inverted full back. The impact the two signings have had on the overall team performance has been revolutionary to say the least. De Gea’s Golden Glove in the Premier League is testament to what an impact they have had. By contrast, we only kept 8 clean
sheets last season.

We can finally believe again

A wise man once said it’s the hope that kills, and lack thereof means less disappointments. It had got to a point where we had absolutely no hope and nothing to look forward to as a football club. I painfully recall countless times under Rangnick when, after enduring a painfully bleak 90 minutes with zero commitment and zero passion from the players, I felt nothing – no pain, no anger, no disappointment, just indifference.

Erik ten Hag has made us believe again. The Dutch tactician has done inexplicably well in his first season with not-nearly competent-enough a squad. When he was first appointed, I thought “good luck Erik, you’re gonna need it” and boy did he need it! Fast-forward ten months later, and he has justified his appointment and then some. What has truly stood out for me this season is he always has a plan, and he has made us and the players alike believe in his plan and completely trust him.

Not any manager can play a bulky, 6’6’’ technically dreadful, striker as a 10 in the Camp Nou and still get a result. Getting a result is nearly not as hard as getting the fans to trust you, and that he did. Erik ten Hag has fully rewarded our faith in him with a season we could only have dreamed of 9 months ago. 3rd place, Carabao Cup winners, Europa League quarter finalists and FA Cup finalists is not too shabby a season. Imagine what he can do when properly backed up financially with the signings he wants. The Dutch gaffer said he wants to build a squad to dominate England, then Europe, then the rest of the world.

Of this, I have no doubt he will.

Author: Macharia Mariga

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