Manchester United short on the intensity the modern game demands | Manchester United

IT is a sign of what a painful environment has become Manchester United, a place of mournful noises, clanking chains, screams through the wall, that the only idea to have met with almost unanimous approval in recent months was to bulldozing perspective. Old Trafford on the ground is starting again.

There are at least some comfort notes ahead of the Premier League meeting with Liverpool on Tuesday night. First, the game is at Anfield, where United players who are teased by the crowd represent a return to normal everyday life. And secondly, there was some consolation late in the public statements of Ralf Rangnick, whose time as interim manager has evolved into a kind of soft foot trauma therapy.

It was always unlikely to imagine that Rangnick could impose a mid-season reboot in this mix-and-match team. Instead of being the only adult in the room, the best answer is a kind of priestly way to bed, like the kind platoon sergeant holding your hand on the battlefield stretcher and it tells you that you are fine, even as a medical computer immerses 18 vials of morphine in your thigh.

The meeting with Liverpool piqued Rangnick’s curiosity in other ways. There is a lot of danger right here. United have a chance to make a dent in Liverpool’s chances of winning the league. Liverpool may put a stake at the heart of United’s hopes of taking fourth place, cueing another stasis season.

But the most significant subplot is the sense of contrast, and of mimesis. Liverpool are in many ways where United hope to be. The likely hiring of Erik ten Hag is an attempt to follow model Jürgen Klopp to success. Six years ago, Klopp had achieved a similar level of success at a similar club. He had the same sense of established methods and reasonable recruitment needs. Ten Hag is an attempt to follow that path. It makes sense, or at least – and this is a low bar – as much sense as something United has tried to do in recent memory.

The hope is that Erik ten Hag will have the kind of success at United that Jürgen Klopp has had at Liverpool. Photo: BSR / Getty Images Agency

Beyond that, there is the question of style, and especially of “physics”, an area where Liverpool has been the market leader in recent years. This has been a common theme in Rangnick’s public meditations. “We were the second best in terms of physicality,” he said after the draw in Leicester this month. “You can’t just win games technically, you also have to show physicality,” was his verdict on the draw with Southampton in February. “It wasn’t a training issue, but an energy and intensity issue,” he announced in December following a draw with Newcastle.

What does Rangnick mean by this? The most obvious take, Roy Keane’s dynamic, is to see a lack of physical pressure like cowardice in the trenches, character flaws, hairstyle obsession, Instagram debauchery. Towards the end of the Premier League defeats between Liverpool and Manchester City, there was a kangaroo-court element on the punditry TV panels of the former United players, a kind of sensual pleasure in saying here is a team that can only be saved by simple acts. of effort, violence, morally redeeming fouling.

There’s a reason Rangnick talks about this in a more considerate way. That “physics” is also a tactical thing, tied to the changing nature of elite football. At clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City, physical reluctance has become a necessity, an element in recruitment decisions, and a non-negotiable baseline with all the technical qualities.

The idea that football has become less physical is based on that fixation with bangs and booms and crashes. In a Klopp or Pep Guardiola team, physicality also refers to the type of punched pass and the movement that exhausts and degrades an opponent. Pressing, moving, passing, pressing some more: all these are acts of violence. What was exposed in those United defeats was not a moral decay, but an inability to sustain that intensity, physically and tactically.

Perhaps the best way to record this altered physicality is via the change in what it means to deal with it, even the strongest measure of Guardiola’s influence. Twenty years ago the best teams made the most tackles. The top two tacklers in the league were Arsenal and Manchester United. Fast forward to Guardiola’s first season at City and that was always the case: five of the top six also finished in the top 10 tacklers.

The next year this trend was simply blown out of existence. City gained 100 points and won the league by one kilometer, while also finishing 18th in the tackle table. Now it’s a total reversal: the better site the less tackles you make. Currently City, Liverpool, Arsenal, West Ham and Chelsea are the top five in tackles. Liverpool are 88th for tackles in the top five European leagues. The city, spectacularly, is 98th (i.e., last).

This is modern physics: holding the ball, stealing the ball, pushing the ball, constantly moving “What tackles it?”, The famous Guardiola asked. The tackles are how you know you lose, that control has been lost, that you leave room for the push against.

Collisions and duels are always vital. Liverpool pressed hard from the front as their elders at Wembley on Saturday. But really the idea is to work and run together, and it’s in these united qualities that United lacks as well. Here we have a goalkeeper who stays on his line, associated with a slow and low central defense, creating a familiar stodge in deep areas. Central midfield is poor to move forward, a disastrous block on a team where attack (which stops upfield) is your true strength. As for the high blood pressure, well, we have this guy who is very good at finishing …

In contrast, the fit between the Liverpool style and the staff provides warmth and not friction. A high line of defense works when you have speed and positional brilliance in central defense. Leave the defenders in a rage: we have powerful workaholic midfielders. And at least two of those three fronts have to be ready to push hard the whole game.

That’s not to say that United don’t lack the quality to stretch opponents who have a lot more horsepower in this game. This will be Liverpool’s sixth game in 17 days, two more than United, with the journey and the adrenaline rush of a great match unleashed. But as Rangnick himself suggested, such is the difference now in base intensity, just to push that throttle for quite a long time could. make a difference.

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