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Football Manager 2023: Glorious Devils – Early success and tactical development at Old Trafford

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This article was previously on manunitedanalysis.com

Two weeks ago, I embarked on a journey to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford. In the first article of our FM23 Manchester United series, we looked at how preseason went ahead of our first season in charge. The introduction served not only to outline our expectations and objectives with the Reds but also to provide a comprehensive look into how we will be running things. From my tactical vision to our transfer activity, we got everything in order before kicking off our road back to the top.

In this second article, we will cover what the first few months of the season have been like as we head into the World Cup break – in the game, of course. A lot has changed since preseason, especially tactically. We will begin with the results, though. After going through the matches we have played and how we are performing in our competitions, we will transition into a data hub-led analysis. The aim of this analysis is to go beyond the results and analyse how we have been actually performing. Finally, in the last section, we will go through all the tactical changes, player performances, and team selection.

Results and competitions

It is time to end the suspense. Our season has got off to… an unbelievable start! Aside from a loss to Liverpool, a draw with Man City, and a loss to Aston Villa, we have won every game. Granted our Europa League group is far from complicated, but domestically, we have taken care of business week in and week out.

Although our results were already quite good, in the first two months of the season, I was still quite unhappy with our performances. We scraped a win on multiple occasions, and as we will see later, we got extremely lucky when xG is factored in. Throughout this time period, tactical changes were slowly being made and our system was constantly changing. After a frustrating loss to Villa, I made a few more radical changes.

These changes proved to be more than effective in October. In an extremely busy month, we were able to win all of our nine matches, with some impressive results in the process. We flew by our opponents in the Europa League and took care of business against inferior teams in the Prem. Against Arsenal, we overcame the Gunners with a solid 3-1 victory at home.

As we approached November, I was not quite happy with our performances on the defensive end. Although we often controlled possession, we still conceded far too many expected goals. We got lucky in a few instances, but if I wanted a solid foundation to build on, I needed more ‘bulletproof’ results.

After a couple of experiments, I began to like our performances with a mid-block instead of a high block. Our pressing was still very intense, just not as advanced. I found us to be more compact and essentially more secure defensively. We were still able to dominate possession, which was something I wanted to maintain. This improvement was confirmed by a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace and a 5-0 win over Brighton right before the break.

It is no surprise we are challenging for the league with these results. It is also no surprise, however, that Man City and Liverpool are right behind us. It will be difficult to keep up with them, as dropping any points at this rate will prove extremely costly. Additionally, our overperformance in the xG department is not letting me get ahead of myself. As long as we somewhat keep up with them, we should easily guarantee a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

In Europe, we had a perfect performance in the group stage, winning all of our six matches. Our group was fairly easy, and even with a rotated side, we comfortably beat all of our opponents. Unlike the Prem, I am looking to actually win the Europa League. It is a great opportunity to start getting silverware back to Old Trafford and raise our expectations for next season.

Our journey with the Reds has gotten off to an incredible start. In the second half of the season, we will be looking to solidify our performances and maintain this consistency. Nonetheless, we are simply doing what a club the size of Manchester United should be doing – taking care of business against smaller clubs and challenging the top ones.

Data hub analysis

As mentioned, there is a little uncertainty in our performances. On the surface, we could not be doing better. However, the xG table tells a completely different story. This overperformance represents the uncertainty which slowly grew stronger within me despite our wins. According to the expected points model, we are meant to be in third place rather than first. We are overperforming our xPTS by a concerning 12 points. Similarly, our xG and xGA follow a similar trend.

Our general performance pie chart provides a further look behind the results. We are scoring 2.50 goals per game, with an xG per game of 1.92. Our high pass completion rate and high volume of shots further emphasise our effective attacking performance. On the other hand, there is a difference of 0.77 between our xGA per game and our actual goals conceded per game.

While there is some refining to do defensively, our attack has been on fire. Cristiano Ronaldo leads the line with an incredible 16 goals in 16 matches. In addition to the Portuguese, Jadon Sancho has been playing a significant role in the attack. The 22-year-old scored 10 goals and assisted another six so far this season.

In the Premier League, we have the second-highest average possession with 59%, only behind Chelsea’s 60%. This dominance displayed week in and week out is what essentially allows us to create with such volume, as seen below. Another metric worth highlighting is the dribbles per 90, as we have one of the fewest averages in the league. This is a direct result of our possession-based tactical system that prioritises patient and collective football.

The graphics in the data hub are extremely helpful in providing a simple and straightforward look into your team’s performance. In this case, we can use it to illustrate a little bit more of our attacking style. The passing dynamic graphic is able to illustrate how much control teams have over possession by comparing two different metrics. In this map, we are toward the bottom right corner, which means fewer passes are allowed against and lots of passes are completed. Next to Chelsea, we are one of the most dominant teams in the country.

Finally, our passing efficiency is also worth a shout. In a similar graph, we compare the volume of passes with their success rate. Once again, we fall towards the optimal corner with high figures in both metrics.

Our performances in and out of possession have been very contrasting. As seen through the multiple graphics above, we are able to consistently dominate possession and create a high volume of chances while still maintaining efficiency. This has certainly translated into goals and some satisfying results. Defensively, however, the situation is not the same. The opposition naturally does not have many chances, but they have been able to create great danger regardless. Refining our defensive system will be a key factor as we head into the second half of the season.

Tactics

It is finally time to look at how we have developed tactically. In the preseason article, we used pass maps as a guiding reference to our tactical development. The possession-heavy style was non-negotiable, and to do so, I wanted the team to be structured in a certain manner. As the season has developed and tactical tweaks have been made, it is looking much more like I want it to. This idealistic model is essentially a centrally focused structure with the fullbacks maintaining width. Most importantly, however, I want my players to have positional freedom. I want our pass maps to be natural and asymmetric, similar to Fernando Diniz at Fluminense.

The pass map above is from our last match before the break, against Brighton. If you recall our pass maps in the preseason, this one has a few significant changes. The wing-backs are still maintaining width, but now with much more depth. Centrally, it is nowhere near as structured and symmetric as it was in the preseason. Rules were slowly lifted from our tactical system, and now, the players are much more expressive in their positional nature.

Donny Van de Beek, for instance, has assumed the number eight role alongside Casemiro. The former Ajax midfielder plays with captivating freedom as he roams forward and creates chances. Bruno has also been much more of a second striker, often playing alongside and interacting with Ronaldo despite starting as a 10. Sancho is significantly more central, despite starting as a left winger. On the other side, Nicolás González stays further wide.

Our tactical system has become very free, without as many positional restrictions. We are still able to dominate possession, however, which is something I wanted to prioritise. The tactical development has been extremely satisfying for me, and we are now playing a style of football I really enjoy watching.

In the image below, we are able to see what this tactical system looks like as well as how the players have been performing. The 4-2-3-1 still looks the same, but there are many fewer instructions on the left. As mentioned, I have slowly removed restrictions and instructions throughout the season. The passing directness is still much shorter while the tempo is now much higher. The mentality has also changed from positive to attacking. Some things have been maintained, however, such as working the ball into the box and remaining extremely narrow.

Defensively, I made some noticeable tweaks towards November. We are now starting from a mid-block, no longer looking to prevent short goalkeeper distribution. The press is still extremely intense, just not as advanced.

On the right, we are able to see how players have been performing. The starting XI above has been my go-to selection, but in Europa League matches, I have rotated all 10 outfield players. This has obviously resulted in some bench players having a much higher average rating as they play weaker opposition.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw have guaranteed themselves as first-choice fullbacks, with the former really improving my perspective of him. Donny Van de Beek has broken into the midfield, and González has replaced Antony on the right wing. Antony has perhaps been the most disappointing player, with the Brazilian rarely making an impact. On the left, Sancho has become indispensable and sent Rashford to the bench.

Conclusion

I am really enjoying early life at Manchester United, with some great foundations being laid out in this first season. As we look to finish off the season with a similar form, we will also start looking ahead to the summer. Loads of contracts will expire and some drastic changes will be made in the squad, so a smooth transition into the next season will be crucial. Stay tuned as we will be wrapping up our first season with the Reds very soon!

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