Whilst watching Monday night’s fiery encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool, it was hard not to feel that we have overcomplicated football in the world of advanced data and tactical analysis.
United’s win was best encapsulated in the dying moments when a flurry of red shirts swarmed around Andy Robertson, winning the ball back by sheer persistence and will. There was nothing advanced or complex to grasp about why United were better than Liverpool.
United were a complete shambles against Brentford but organised and inspired a week later. Ten Hag has inherited a lot of issues at Old Trafford, one result does not fix all of them. And it would not be a shock to see them revert to type in the coming weeks when the stakes are not as high.
But this performance was based on Ten Hag making logical decisions over personnel and positioning. Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Cristiano Ronaldo made way for Raphael Varane, Tyrell Malacia and Anthony Elanga. The complete antithesis to recent United displays, players’ flaws were masked whilst their best attributes were elevated.
The changes made sense and players like Rashford, Elanga and Malacia all suited the tactical plan needed against an under-par Liverpool side who left defensive space to exploit.
In comparison to Chelsea on Sunday at Leeds, the cruel reverse was the case. Not only did individual mistakes undermine plans, but the growing frustration over Thomas Tuchel’s use of certain players also seems to be limiting the Blues’ ability to progress.
Reece James’ creative threat is hamstrung as a centre-back, Conor Gallagher’s marauding runs forward as an attacking midfielder restrained in a pretty cautious double six that was swarmed upon by a ferocious Leeds press. Mason Mount is still being used as an inside forward when he might be better served in sitting a little deeper. Or Raheem Sterling, maybe having the licence to start from a wider position where he has looked so dangerous for Manchester City.
Tuchel needs a response on Saturday at Stamford Bridge against a struggling Leicester City side with major transfers still to resolve before deadline day next Thursday. Some of his recent decision-making has confused supporters, particularly against opposition Chelsea are expected to beat.
Tuchel not only needs positive results after dropped points in the early weeks of the season, but also to showcase signs of attacking improvement as questions still loom over where consistent goals are going to stem from.
Solving all of those issues before Saturday might seem steep, but the German can gain more sympathy by putting his best players in more influential positions. James as a wingback, Gallagher more advanced if he remains in the team, and getting more bodies forward to unsettle an already leaky Leicester backline.
We are only three games in, but should Ten Hag now gain more consistent results at Old Trafford, Chelsea may find themselves with more competition across the season to retain their Champions League spot.