Manchester United’s big change under Erik ten Hag was clear against Nottingham Forest
There has been a quiet transformation at Manchester United this season that should give them great hope for the future. After they shipped four goals away against Brentford in their second match of the season, it felt like United were on course for another shambolic season at the back.
Eight months later, they are now a completely different beast in defence and have been quietly racking up clean sheets at an extraordinary rate.
The most recent of those was perhaps their most satisfying, with a comfortable win over Nottingham Forest at the weekend showcasing just how much progress they have made.
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Alarm bells were ringing following the news last week of Lisandro Martinez’s season-ending injury and that Raphael Varane would also be sidelined for ‘a few weeks’.
They are a world-class defensive pairing and have played a key role in United’s resurgence this season, proving to be just as good as any other centre-back partnership in the Premier League.
In their absence, Ten Hag had to resort to the much maligned duo of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, two players who have had more lows than highs during their time at the club.
This is a different United though. They kept a clean sheet, helped by the prominent presence of Casemiro ahead of them, as Ten Hag’s side earned another comfortable away win to enhance their chances of qualifying for the Champions League.
There were a couple of shaky moments that could have been punished, but there have been in many matches this season. Forest were misfiring, and United never looked like dropping points.
David de Gea now leads the race for the Premier League golden glove award and holds the joint third most clean sheets out of any goalkeeper in Europe’s top-five leagues. He is level with Napoli shot-stopper Alex Meret and only behind Lazio’s Ivan Provedel and Barcelona ‘keeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
Another key contributor to the clean sheet was the fact that United’s approach smothered their opponents into submission and rarely gave them any chance to launch many meanignful attacks of their own.
It is true that attack is the best form of defence, and in basic terms, United won’t have to worry about conceding goals so long as they have the ball in their possession.
Their defensive transformation is also due to the fact that Ten Hag has demanded all of his players buy into the approach. It is default to judge clean sheets on the quality of the defence and goalkeeper, but the truth is that it is a team effort that starts with those in attack .
Ten Hag still has some work to do in order to get a front three of players who all press as intensely as he wants, but it is an area in which they have certainly made massive strides already.
There is still one key area of concern, though.
The team with the best defensive record has won the Premier League title in four of the previous five seasons, and despite United’s clean sheet record, they are still only 7th in that regard.
While there have been plenty of times when they have shut out opponents, this campaign will be remembered just as much for the four goals conceded at Brentford, six at Man City and the seven at Liverpool. It means that even the likes of Chelsea and Brighton have conceded fewer goals than Ten Hag’s side this season.
It is tempting to label these as freak results, but to have recorded three in one season means that they can’t be brushed aside as anomalies.
What it does tell us, though, is that if United manage to eradicate their defensive capitulations and build upon the string of clean sheets, then they will be halfway to reaching the standards required to launch a genuine title bid.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but they are at least on the right track.
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