No prizes for guessing what Manchester United’s players will be working on in training for the next 10 days.
The Red Devils do not play again in the Premier League until January 15, when they travel to Aston Villa and in that time they can expect to be chasing around Carrington pressing anything that moves.
United’s interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, made his name by developing and refining the tactic, which has since been turned into an art form by Europe’s most successful managers, Jurgen Klopp being the principal exponent.
Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick is struggling to persuade his players to press
The Red Devils do not play again in the Premier League until January 15, against Aston Villa
So, it has been alarming to see that five games into his tenure at Old Trafford, Rangnick has struggled to persuade his new charges to pressurize their opponents and win the ball back high up the pitch.
While the United players responded to Rangnick’s desire to force the issue in the opposition half in the new man’s first two games, that intent has dissolved in the three matches that followed.
Eighteen minutes into the first half at home to Wolves on Monday it seemed the players had abandoned the approach altogether.
The away fans were chanting ‘ole’ as their gold-shirted players sprayed the ball all around the Theatre of Dreams, en-route to a comfortable victory.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
United struggled at home to Wolves and afterwards Rangnick admitted there was ‘no pressing’
‘High Turnovers’ are the number of sequences that start in open play and begin 40m or less from the opponent’s goal. ‘Pressed Sequences’ are the number of sequences where the opposition has three or fewer passes within 40m of their own goal. ‘Direct Attacks’ are where the ball is recovered just inside a team’s own half to launch an attack and the ‘Start Distance’ is the average metres from a team’s own goal that attacks begin. PPDA logs the number of passes a team allows the opponent to make before attempting to win the ball back. Source: Opta
‘We didn’t press at all,’ conceded a troubled Rangnick at full time. ‘We tried but we were not able to get into those pressing situations.’
Opta stats reveal that United have managed 12.6 pressed sequences per game under Rangnick, compared with 12.7 under former boss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
There has been little change in other pressing metrics too, including high turnovers, or high turnovers leading to shots, or attacks launched high up the pitch.
The key component of any successful press is team work: Willing runners up front trigger the defensive actions of their team mates behind them. It is hard work and needs an unwavering commitment to back each other up.
The German manager has made pressing a key part of his football philosophy before United
TIGHTENING UP THE DEFENCE
Despite some disappointing performances, Manchester United’s interim boss Ralf Rangnick has succeeded in tightening up the Red Devils’ defence.
The average number of goals per game has fallen from 1.8 to 0.6 under the German’s leadership. This is the result of improved defending and inspired goalkeeping from David De Gea, who is now the Premier League’s best-performing stopper.
Opta stats show the expected goals conceded is down from 1.6 to 1.0, but De Gea’s contribution means that the actual number of goals that go is even less.
However, so far, United have shown little improvement at the other end of the pitch.
United are trying to play forward more quickly, indicated by more long passes, but their passing accuracy has suffered and the team is giving the ball away more often, which will come as no surprise to anyone who watched them play in recent weeks.
The number crunchers have concluded that expected goals remain unchanged at 1.4 under both managers, but the actual number of goals scored is down from an average of 1.7 to 1.2 per game.
Hence, the absence of coherent pressing will only fuel concern over a divided dressing room, which has become the dominant narrative this week
The average figures over Rangnick’s five matches clearly do not tell the whole story.
They mask the more worrying trend that the players did press at first, but apparently haven’t bought into the idea after their matches against Crystal Palace and Norwich City.
Are the ‘coach killers’, who have already accounted for one manager in Solskjaer this season, at it again?
A metric that is often used to measure the intensity of a team’s pressing is opposition passes per defensive action (PPDA), which logs the number of passes a team allows the opponent to make before attempting to win the ball back.
The average PPDA for United actually shows an improvement from 14.4 passes under Solskjaer to 12.4 under Rangnick. However, it has dropped off dramatically.
In Rangnick’s first game in charge, Palace were on average allowed to make ten passes before being pressed by United, which may not put the Red Devils on the leader board of Europe’s ‘pressing monsters’, but it was demonstrably a good effort that impressed and surprised the boss.
However, the PPDA against Burnley last week was 20.6 and versus Wolves it was 16.
And other statistics support the downward trend. In the last three matches against Newcastle, Burnley and Wolves, United players put opponents under pressure in the opposition half on 22 occasions, on average.
This is well short of the 27 pressures they achieved in an average game across all of Solskjaer’s matches in charge this season.
On those numbers, United have gone backwards, literally and metaphorically. Ralf Rangnick has some work to do.
Wolves enjoyed considerable freedom at Old Trafford where they secured a 1-0 win
Even United’s players complained that their opponents were given too much time on the ball
THE GODFATHER OF PRESSING
Ralf Rangnick has been dubbed the godfather of pressing after perfecting the technique during his coaching career in Germany.
Manchester United’s interim manager realised the effectiveness of the tactic when he was a player. He played against Dynamo Kiev and was shocked by how little time they allowed him on the ball.
‘A few minutes in, when the ball had gone out for a throw, I had to stop and count the opposition players,’ Rangnick said.
Ralf Rangnick has perfected his pressing tactics in Germany
‘That was the first time I felt what it was like to come up against a team who systematically pressed the ball.
‘I had played against big professional teams before – and of course we lost those games as well – but they at least gave you a bit of breathing space, the chance to “put a foot on the ball”, as we used to say.’
The term ‘gegenpressing’, which mean counter-pressing in German, first emerged in the 1990s. Rangnick employed and refined the system at Schalke, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, with Jurgen Klopp, among others, adopting it, too.
Gegenpressing describes an intense approach to the game in which a team attempts to win the ball back high up the pitch as soon as they lose it. If done right, the system does not only protect a team from attacks, but also creates high-quality scoring opportunities.