A look into how United's defence became one of Europe's best


World Football Index
Manchester United's defensive issues in recent years have been no secret to anyone. They have in a way become the Achilles heel of all managers in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

We can speculate over many potential reasons behind United's leakiness at the back. The lack of stability and expendable personnel to name just a few. But the difference over the last 18 months has been that shoring up those holes became Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's priority.

The United legend came in as the new boss and addressed those glaring problems in his first summer in charge with the acquisitions of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka — two of the best English players in their positions.

There were growing pains in the beginning. The new additions needed to mesh with the team, learn each others habits and how to be interdependent. But then, all of a sudden, it clicked. United were finally able to put together a consistent back four and let them develop together. And so, it should come as no surprise that now, the back line is one of the more assured areas on the pitch.

A quick glance at the stats from what we've seen of this Premier League season and the last tells the whole story, in spite the current campaign having been stopped just past the half way mark.

Firstly, United only managed to keep eight clean sheets all last season, while currently, the Reds are already sitting on eight with nine games to go. In addition, the side from before the calendar turned conceded 54 goals, while the current team boasts one of the best goals against records in Europe's top five leagues with 30.

Right off the bat, the progress is quite significant. But numbers aside, there has been a different kind of swagger about United at the back, particularly in the second half of this season. The last 11 games before the break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the Reds winning eight of them (drawn three times) while keeping clean sheets in nine. As mentioned previously, things have clicked.

It's hard to look back at the last seven or eight years and name a United team with a stable back four. We just didn't get to see that after the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Be it because of injuries or the players available simply not being good enough, none of the managers that succeeded Fergie were able to build a reliable back line — until Solskjaer.

The introduction of Wan-Bissaka — who brought in 5.5 ball recoveries, 6.7 duels won and a tackling rate of 67% per game — and Harry Maguire — who's contributed with 6.6 ball recoveries, 6.5 duels won and a passing completion rate of 85% — have given United a tremendous boost. With those two, United got not only stability but also solidity.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka via SportsAdda
The pair have missed three Premier League games between them (Maguire 0, AWB 3) and as a result immediately became significant layers in the foundation of United's spine.

Wan-Bissaka has been a man possessed defensively. At times, the young Englishman has looked like he simply would not be beaten 1 v 1. His timing and reading of the game have been exceptional, making the right hand side of United's defence a nightmare for opposition wingers to attack.

Maguire has brought in a much needed cool head and a ton of leadership into the back line, hence why he is now the club captain despite only being at the club for a few months. That speaks volumes of the kind of player and character United's No. 5 is; excellent on the ball and near unbeatable in aerial duels, he is a calming force and an outlet for all of his teammates.

Adding those two into the mix with an already solid and proven Victor Lindelof and a resurgent Luke Shaw, David De Gea once again got himself a bit of a wall on the periphery of his box.

The Red Devils defence really became a formidable unit once they gelled together as can be seen by the fruits of their labor from the last 11 games. The opposition United were playing very quickly became irrelevant as chances were that the back line would stay solid and leave the fate of the game up to the forwards.

So much so that Solskjaer's side emerged as the second best defence in Europe's top five leagues in all competitions with 17 total clean sheets.

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It was as recently as last season that fans would be trembling at the thought of a Pep Guardiola side ripping United's defense to shreds or a stubborn bottom half of the table side getting the better of the Reds via aerial duels caused by persistent long balls. But it no longer feels that way.

The back line is once again reliable by fan consensus. It was a very important piece of the puzzle that is this rebuild. Solidity at the back allows for the club to focus on the building blocks further forward and for the players responsible for the creation to be calmer about what's going on behind them. 

Winning sides are often built from the back and whether you like Solskjaer or not, credit to him for prioritising that area of the pitch when it was most needed. Now, it feels like United have very close to what could be a strong back line for years to come already in place.



*All stats as per the Premier League website and WhoScored.com.

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