Manchester United weakness into one of their biggest strengths..

January 1, 2023

Man United brought 2022 to a close with a 1-0 win at Wolves on New Year’s Eve, adding another clean sheet to their collection in the process.

If you had told any Manchester United supporter in the aftermath of the 4-0 defeat to Brentford back in August that the club would enter 2023 camped inside the top four you can guarantee that they would have snapped your hand off.

United, less than a week on from losing 2-1 to Brighton & Hove Albion on the opening day of the season in their first competitive fixture under Erik ten Hag, were beaten up and spat back out again by the Bees, leaving them bottom of the Premier League table. All of the optimism and excitement that had been generated by the Dutchman’s appointment and collection of new signings had been sucked back out again.

But after forcing his players, the following day, to cancel their day off, report to the club’s training ground and run 13.8km in sweltering heat, United and Ten Hag have not looked back. It was that moment that transformed their fortunes, even if there have still been one or two bumps in the road since then.

Saturday’s 1-0 win over Wolves at Molineux, which was sealed thanks to a late winner from the in-form Marcus Rashford, lifted United up into the top four for the first time this season. It was a performance that required a strict level of patience and a willingness to dig deep to secure the points.

It was far from pretty and flamboyant, but it was effective enough to get the job done, even if a sprinkling of Rashford magic was the difference. But while it is currently impossible to ignore the England international and his glittering form, a huge amount of credit must be sent in the direction of David de Gea and United’s defenders.

Victory at Molineux marked United’s seventh clean sheet in the Premier League this season, meaning they are now only one short of equalling their tally for the whole of last season already. United were a defensive mess last term, conceding 57 times in the league alone, marking their worst defensive season since the 1978-79 campaign, meaning they ended the season with a goal difference of exactly zero. That was unacceptable for a club of United’s size and stature.

But even though United’s goal difference this season, as they enter 2023, still isn’t something to write home about, currently standing at just +4, it is as a result of not being ruthless enough in front of goal, opposed to being inept defensively. United have been largely solid at the back this term, as highlighted by their ever-growing clean sheet tally.

They have conceded 20 goals in 16 league games thus far, but it is important to acknowledge that half of those goals were shipped in just two league games, conceding four at Brentford and six in the derby humiliation against Manchester City in October. In that respect, United have been transformed defensively under Ten Hag, perhaps even more so when you consider they have already played every team currently camped inside the top half of the table.

They have conceded the fewest goals at home in the league this season (four) and have only conceded twice at Old Trafford (against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup) since being beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad in the Europa League on the night Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8. They have become well-organised, hard to beat and defensively sound.

And all the more impressive, certainly recently, is that United have not been able to field their first-choice back-four since the season restarted after the World Cup break. Diogo Dalot has been sidelined with an injury, meaning Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has barely put a foot wrong, has had to cover at right-back after being poised to never play for the club again.

Lisandro Martinez has not yet featured since winning the World Cup with Argentina, meaning Luke Shaw has had to slide across into centre-back and cover, leaving Tyrell Malacia to fill his natural left-back void. Casemiro, too, has also had to cover in the heart of the defence since the restart.

But despite all of the defensive upheaval and patched-up back-fours Ten Hag has had to select recently, United have never once looked under severe threat of conceding or revisiting their past defensive haunts. They are a new beast under Ten Hag and their defensive record shows how he has shifted the mentality of the group; they are no longer a weak team who get regularly trampled on.

What was their biggest weakness last season has now been turned into one of their greatest strengths. If they can turn the heat up at the other end of the pitch, 2023 promises to bring success.