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Defending Set Pieces Remains Manchester United’s Achilles Heel

Manchester United’s stirring 3-2 comeback victory at the Etihad against city rivals Manchester City will live long in the memory. City will still end the season as deserved winners and were a class apart for most of the season, but this result will give United great confidence they can push on and truly challenge next season.

Still, an incredible result that brought back memories of the halcyon days under Sir Alex Ferguson should not blind Jose Mourinho from issues which still prevent United from achieving its full potential on the pitch consistently. The first half was a disorganized mess, particularly in the 20 minutes after Vincent Kompany’s opener. In fact, that goal itself laid bare one of United’s major bugaboos this season; a glaring weakness at defending set pieces.

United have conceded nine goals from set pieces this year, the tenth most in the league. This is worse than all of their top-six competitors. Even much-maligned Arsenal and Liverpool have conceded just five and six times from set pieces respectively. These issues have, on several occasions, proved costly for United.

While they were played off the park by City in their 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford earlier this season, both goals didn’t result from their opponents cutting through them with intricate passing patterns. For all their possession, Pep Guardiola’s men never truly carved United open in that encounter. Both goals were the result of shoddy defending on set pieces, Romelu Lukaku the culprit in both instances.

Prior to that in September at Stoke City, United conceded off of a corner with Phil Jones caught in no man’s land. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting equalized, costing the Red Devils two more points. 

The second goal scored by Sevilla, in United’s now infamous Champions League exit to the Spanish visitors, came off yet more lax defending on a corner, this time Eric Bailly the culprit.

There have been times where United have been lucky to escape punishment as they did against Arsenal when David De Gea’s quick reflexes saved Lukaku even more blushes.

The list is long and highlights United’s all too often poor organization in these situations. Yesterday was no exception and they were lucky for it not to cost them a famous result. Kompany’s towering header where he left Chris Smalling for dead stands out, but United were nearly undone in the final minutes again on a set piece.

Clinging on to a 3-2 lead in the dying minutes, United conceded a series of corners, failing to cleanly clear the ball from danger. On the third time of asking, Nicolas Otamendi was able to wriggle free from Bailly to meet the cross. The Argentine directed the ball towards United’s goal and may have had David De Gea beat, only for Raheem Sterling to redirect the shot off the post, capping off his own hat-trick of unbelievable misses on the day.

For as much height and power as United possess the Achilles heel their set piece defending has been remains a rather confounding problem. For a manager who prides himself so much on the ability to organize his teams defensively Mourinho surely can’t be happy. He even referenced his disappointment with conceding off a set piece to their city rival for a third time this season in his post match press conference. 

Perhaps most puzzling is that as poor as United have been in defending against set pieces, they’ve been equally good in capitalizing on their own opportunities with 13 goals themselves, good for second best in the league. So what is preventing them from extending this prowess to defending their own area?

It’s hard to say. Certainly the constant shuffling of center back pairings due to injury has not helped the cause. Then there’s the issue that aside from Smalling, who himself is prone to lapses in concentration like yesterday’s, none of their central defenders are particularly dominant in the air. 

Whatever the issue it is one that has created many problems for United this season and cost them points and results. Much attention has been paid to the team’s shortcomings in various areas such as attacking play and its dependence on aging fullbacks. However, the team’s shockingly poor defensive performance against set pieces has escaped such scrutiny. If United are to realize their ambitions of reclaiming the Premier League crown, it’s an area which must be addressed moving forward.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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