Sooooooo, this happened ..
To say that I was distraught at this worse defeat of the save and OUR whole history to our greatest rivals just a mile away from these hallowed terraces of New Bank Street is of course an understatement. I was absolutely raging with myself.
These are the same terraces that were founded on a deep hatred of City stemming back to their successful sabotage of our attempts to build a new stadium in 1976 on a site called old Trafford on the other side of this great city (one wonders what would have happened if we had moved there). Frankly, It was one of those moments when it that final second I would have happily accepted a crash dump to save myself from the shame and deep sadness it evoked.
But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and none more so than us, the mighty Heathens, forged in the fireboxes of a thousand steam trains and risen like the smoke of their chimneys into the grey clouds above this beautiful industrial heart of the North West. Dirty Old Town is in our DNA. It is our anthem and our pride, while City have Blue Moon.
Yes, there have been precedents and we have recovered from many challenges like this before which were much more important than a single game lost. For example, in the same year that City blocked our move, the stifling summer of 1976, we started our global Heathens project with the purchase of our first club, Penarol Paganos in Uruguay. Since then our 21 affiliates are key teams in world football and producing players for many of their national teams, thereby proving that success can indeed rise from the ashes of adversity.
But that is the wider world, which will receive attention another time. Back to matters of the present, how did this debacle happen and why? More to the point, how do we recover?
Let’s start by taking a look at the state of play at this point on the 4th December 2024, when we are 4th in the league but it is fair to say very much a home team with disastrous recent away form:
Barring Fleetwood, which was a lower league walkover from our B-team, we’ve lost all our away games in the last 2 months, which was a pattern that had started with the odd loss and draw back in September. At the time I wasn’t too bothered and just rode it, thinking that we would eventually pull it back, no worries. However as you can see it quickly got worse.
The main problem was a mix of hubris and complacency, that sense of excessive pride and confidence I had from smashing teams at home with an aggressive tactic and thinking it will work just as good away so, apart from maybe the odd defensive tweak, why change anything? I had two 6 nil wins ffs before the City game! As you can see though, that didn’t work out too well for me.
This pattern also continued in the next game after the City defeat, with a coasted 3-1 home battering of Spurs, where we changed nothing from the City game but totally dominated once again with our 4222 with attacking WBs as shown in this data analyst’s view from the Clayton Road End, with Kimmich and Miranda on the left and right supporting Werner and Arp up front (click to enlarge):
But again, this was at home and was to be expected. The big challenge is of course a long overdue reevaluation of our away tactic, firstly with an analysis of what went wrong in the City game.
The City game: what went wrong?
First off, let me show this graphic again to show you the goal times, in particular the first 3 City goals:
As you can see, our backs were up against the wall immediately with a 17 second Mbappe special straight from the kick off, which was soon supplemented with a 2nd from Militao on 6 minutes and a fumbled OG from Pickford on 17 to make it 3 (bloody) nil after 17 minutes. This therefore completely nullified all my pre-game analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
I then delved into the analysis, went more positive (I had sat deeper on cautious to start the game), marked up their main passer Kevin De Bruyne plus a few other tweaks and this brought us back into it to 4-3 on 52 minutes, all well and good. What happened next though was soul destroying, with City making three 60 minute subs to completely dominate. To give you an idea of the impact it had, they had 29 shots overall, with 19 of them coming in the last 30 minutes 😦 . There was no real panic from me, I knew there wasn’t a lot I could do as their goals were worldies so just rode it out.
But this was City at home, a team who are completely dominant in the game and have been right through the save. What about the other defeats such as those against RB Leipzig, who we easily beat 2 nil at home and Leicester, who were 12th in the PL? I won’t bore you with all the analysis but here’s a stat snapshot of the Leicester game, which I think sums up our problems well) and my observations. For this I had used my regular home tactic but just dialled back a little from attacking to balanced along with a couple of more defensive/support role tweaks:
The first thing that strikes me as it did during the game was that we were losing possession far too easily. This is also shown in our passes completed, especially in defence where that possession was often lost. Our SoT rate is also poor with just a quarter hitting home at 4 from 16, though tbf they did result in 4 half chances (though no CCCs, which is quite telling). Now compare this to our 3-1 home win against Spurs:
As you can see, our shot rate is much higher, as is our SoT at 11 from 29, which is over a third compared to the quarter of the Leicester game. Possession is slightly better and though passes in defence are still low, during the actual game I noticed we weren’t losing it all the time as per the Leicester game when of course they were at home so were much more pressing anyway. In general, most other aspects were better too.
All that said, it is easy to conclude (doh) that away games are just, well, harder, which of course is a fact of both FM and real football. In our particular case though I think it stems from a weakness in our tactic that is exploited as soon as teams get the confidence of their home ground, which can basically be summed up in one sentence – we do NOT like it when teams run at us. Not only does it create an attacking threat that we’re struggling to deal with, but it give us less shots on the whole as they retain possession and push forward. Now that I know that as a base, let’s see how I’m going to deal with it.
So this (home) beast is our base tactic. As you can see it is very aggressive, designed to win the ball in that central, solid core and distribute it forward via the attacking WBs and the creative midfielders to our twin German strike-force of Timo Werner and Fiete Arp (we have a lot of Germans). It is direct, expressive and won us the Champions League last year against Porto:
In defence, at home the core is solid, which has been shown is almost certainly to do with the reduced amount of attacks, while away it often crumbles, even when we drop deeper and dial back to balanced or cautious.
All this said then, while I still don’t want to change a lot and lose our expressive, free-passing style, it needs a review in order to deal with the away threat and these are my aims:
- defend better (doh)
- gain more possession from confident higher-pressing home teams
- get more shots and therefore SoT and CCCs
- defend a lead
These then are the changes I have made:
- drop to balanced, as suggested by @cleon81 (from the brilliant teaandbusquets.com of course) – will change this per match when required. I also highly recommend his blog about standard vs attacking mentality.
- move to standard (from direct) passing = more possession
- GK to distribute to playmaker = to help with the counter
- lower defensive line (from standard) = as above
- much higher line of engagement = stop them building attacks
So in the end it looks like this, with a HB also thrown in (instead of an Anchor man – I used it with good success before in my cheeky HB blog) as a trial which I will revert if it’s not working. I have also changed the WBs to support with less risky passes to retain possession, though I feel this may negate their role as key providers:
Now let’s see how it plays with two away games against Middlesborough, who are 18th in the PL and Porto, who are 2nd in our Champions League group (and are a good marker as we beat them 0-0p in the Champions League final):
The proof of the pudding, from Middlesborough to Porto
First off, the Middlesbrough game, which was good to start with due to their status (in other words if it went completely tits up I might be able to save it). My first reaction was, Jesus Christ this is dull!!!!! We won it 1 nil though so all good as that was the aim. It wasn’t pretty but we did it so hey ho. Here are the stats:
First thing that strikes me is that we are still misfiring up front with low SoT, which from watching the match was more to do with the strikers missing than the full team. CCCs are still non existent but all else is looking better. Possession has increased as has our passes, but more importantly our passes in defence, which has helped with that possession stat no doubt. With more players behind the ball, tackles are also excellent so very pleased as shown here in the final minutes when often we would have conceeded:
In addition, the deeper player analysis is looking good with generally an overall improvement so we might be onto something here even if it does look shit in game. Now on to Porto, which will be the real test.
Obviously I can’t just dive in to the game without looking at the scouting report. This shows they possess ‘threats from wide areas’ with high stamina and good strength. This is a perfect test then as they’ll be pressing hard and hitting us wide, which are our two main weaknesses. As per the final, Francisco Trincão is the main threat so I do the usual marking up and slight tweaks but nothing major before pressing continue. Also with a couple of personnel changes due to tiredness.
The result was much, much better and it certainly wasn’t dull, with a Timo Werner hat trick for a nice 2-3 win:
More importantly though there was a big rise in key stats, with 7 from 11 on target, 58% possession and good all round passing 🙂 The two goals were a worry though as they both came from corners so that is something I definitely need to address:
So to sum up, all well and good. I think we have created a good base to build on and more tweaks will of course follow. I am still undecided about the HB as Ndidi was absolute bobbins at it in the Porto game, leaving us exposed a few times, so that might revert back.
Oh and PS, I went back to a previous save date as an ‘experiment’ and replayed the City game with it.
Now if only I was cheating bastard, I’d just delete this blog and start again from there. Of course, the blogs still here, so go figure 🙂
Hope you enjoyed that, bye for now and thanks for reading.
Daz aka @FMheathen