It‘s all about the money, we hear. Well, actually, it’s not! Solskjaer’s Man Utd, and by the way Moyes’, Van Gaal’s and Mourinho’s, didn’t/don’t lack money. It’s common to hear that as the red devils keep struggling with maintaining class of 92 standards and as Chelsea (not so much now) and Man City are spending fortunes to reach the same standards that Sir Alex reached while in command of Manchester United. It is a fact that United is lagging behind on the bank account – we will not hide it and we will address that it is an important thing to bear in mind – but, what Manchester United needs to do first it’s not robbing a bank. This because parallelly to the money evolution in football, there was another quiet (r)evolution happening in the past ten years or so. And Man Utd, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired – and even on his last years – could not keep on with the dramatic changes on the tactical field of the game.
Seeing the red devils play has a time machine effect. Offensively and defensively Moyes’ ideas, Van Gaal’s ideas and Mourinho’s ideas could not keep up with what was happening in Europe since Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was born. And we are not saying that everybody has to strive to be a replica of the most incredible football mind in Europe for the past ten years. We are saying that with the emergence of Pep’s game, there was a need to defend better and better. As the other coaches tried to pick some of his offensive ideas, there was also a need to improve defensive organization. And that change happened quietly. So quietly that seemed like no one, at the Theater of Dreams, have heard of that.
Yes, nowadays the teams defend better and better as the man-marking is disappearing from elite football. Zonal marking is taking place and the advantage of that approach makes it harder to find spaces that previously were easy to find – as the defenders were dragged by the attackers. So, zonal makes it easier because it is focused on two spaces: central and wings. On the other hand, man-marking is focused on – as the name states – men. It is not focused on closing the spaces that lead to conceded goals, but to bother the opponents individually. And Pep Guardiola’s ideas completely destroyed that philosophy, to the point that in today’s game a zonal approach is nuclear.
But what we have at Man Utd is not a completely well defined zone. It is a zone until a certain point. But when the heat is coming, the players react like it is man-marking. And that behavior, apart from other things as well, is conditioning Ole’s results. If we look at West Ham’s last weekend first goal we see a clear picture of what we are talking about here. There are some zonal behaviours, but Young’s man-to-man approach will lead to a conceded goal that most teams in Portugal or in Italy would have stopped easily. The left back is dragged and West Ham takes really good advantage of the space that emerges, to the point that Yarmolenko (who seems out of the play for most of the time) could score a beautiful goal that would make Pep Guardiola proud.
This is certainly the difference between the original and the copies. On the offensive side everybody (well, not everybody but certainly too many) tried to copy and paste Guardiola’s ideas. But when things go south players kind of refuse to take the risk that Xavi and Iniesta would take gladly: playing between lines in rush hour. The vast majority of players will avoid that space and pass the ball, endlessly, outside of the opponent’s block. Which makes it easier to keep the ball, and make a tiki-taka’s impression (sort of) but avoid the areas that make the Pep-Team so great. On the other side, defensively, it is the same. The managers have heard of zonal-marking as the antidote to possession football and tried to copy-paste it to their teams. But, as we know, the original its always better, and when the heat takes command of the game, managers and players do not follow the principles that they tried to copy. At some point that is what is happening with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. Yes the lack of money is a thing, but the bad investments are considered bad investments because the organization and ideas are archaic, or, at least, not the very best. And United needs/wants the very best.
Meanwhile, on a completely different hemisphere:
This is what a raw-zonal marking looks like. It is focused on two spaces (one wing and the central space, leaving the other wing unoccupied) to make it impossible to play between lines and at the same time creating an advantage between the number of defenders and the number of attackers. As we said, it concentrates itself on one wing and in the middle, and if the opponent switches sides (with a long pass) the defense has time to cover the other side doing exactly the same that we see in the pic above. This is a Jorge Jesus’ masterpiece. The Portuguese tactician, 65, holds now the major office on the Brazilian football revolution that promises to put the samba football back where it belongs: on the top. Since Jesus arrived, Flamengo, whom was lagging behind on the League, is now on top, playing the most exciting football, defensively and offensively, that Brazil has seen this century. His defensive approach has been nuclear on this (along with some top offensive ideas) and the Portuguese manager is now ranked as the number 1 contender for the job of leading Brazil’s national squad to the hexa (the sixth World Cup). But why not consider Jesus to be at the wheel in the Theater of the Dreams instead? It is not a question of CV (as the three national titles with Benfica along with two Europa League finals plus great Champions League experience and a fantastic work in Brazil) but a question of picking the best ideas and expertise for a club who wants the best but doesn’t seem to know nowadays what the best is.