Manchester United’s ill-fitting midfield has left Christian Eriksen as the odd man out


Few expected Christian Eriksen to be integral to Erik ten Hag’s first season in charge of Manchester United.

Fewer still expected the Denmark international to do so from a deeper central midfield role rather than his usual No 10 position.

Yet Eriksen’s first season in a United shirt was a minor revelation, making 44 appearances for the club in all competitions, totalling 3,079 minutes — the most football he had played in a season since 2018-19, his final full year with Tottenham Hotspur.

He’d surely have played even more than that, too, if not for an ankle injury keeping him out between late January and early April, and he offered a calm and composed presence next to the combative Casemiro. Both were in their thirties and had their limitations, but manager Ten Hag seemingly created a “win now” midfield that — along with Bruno Fernandes — could serve United in their most important games.

However, Eriksen’s influence has waned a season later.

The now 32-year-old’s back-to-back starts against Sheffield United and Burnley in United’s two most recent matches were his first in the Premier League since a 2-2 draw against Tottenham in the middle of January. Eriksen is approaching a new juncture in his career, something he spent the March international break outlining to media in his homeland.

“I’ve said in the past that I’m not happy with not playing, but it’s not something I lose sleep over,” Eriksen told Danish outlet Tipsbladet. “The team performs and then I have to respect the role you have in the side.

“For me, it’s been working hard and focusing on being fresh for every game, and I am. It’s easier now to accept my role than it was before.”

What exactly is Eriksen’s role, as 2023-24 comes to an end? He has understandably been a different player since returning to football in early 2022 after suffering a cardiac arrest on the pitch playing for his country at the European Championship the previous summer.

Eriksen’s time at Brentford in that first season and with United since has seen him focus more on his progressive passing per game than any other asset (defined as balls that take the team concerned at least 25 per cent closer to the centre of the opposition goal).

This season has seen a decrease in his output compared to 2022-23.

eriksen scatter progressivepassing1

Injuries to several key team-mates have contributed to his decreasing effectiveness.

Lisandro Martinez’s absence for the majority of the season (the Argentina international centre-back has made 11 appearances for United, nine of them starts) has changed the areas of the pitch where Eriksen receives the ball. As United’s remaining defenders find it hard to pass through opposition teams and into midfield, he isn’t dropping deep to collect the ball with the same frequency as last season.

Take a look at this visualisation of Eriksen’s touches from last season’s Premier League…

christian eriksen all open play touches in the premier league 2022 23 halfspace touchmap

… then compare it to the one from this season.

christian eriksen all open play touches in the premier league 2023 24 halfspace touchmap

Instead of dropping deep to collect passes from Martinez, Eriksen is now taking up more advanced positions on the pitch, looking to collect long goal kicks from United’s new goalkeeper Andre Onana. (Something of an imperfect work-around given the Dane’s so-so heading ability.)

Eriksen is also taking fewer touches of the ball in wide areas on the left flank due to Luke Shaw’s limited availability (15 United appearances so far this season) thanks to a series of injury issues.

Marcus Rashford’s downturn in form has had a knock-on effect, too. The England forward is being stationed wider and farther away from the goal this season than in the previous one. Instead of attempting through balls behind opposition defences for a confident Rashford to run onto, Eriksen is passing to a more static version of him.

Aside from Fernandes, most of Eriksen’s favoured team-mates to pass to have either been injured or inconsistent in form this season. Where he used to pass like a boxer building up to their right hook with a string of left jabs, we’ve seen him struggle to string together the sort of combinations that had been so dangerous in his debut year.

“I think a few decisions that could be better and put my team-mates or myself in a better position around the pitch,” Eriksen said to United’s club media after the 1-1 draw at home against Burnley on Saturday.

“But then, obviously, I’m trying to do my best and, like you (the interviewer) said, there hasn’t been much game time. But when you’re on it (the pitch), you have to do your best and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Ten Hag’s tactical approach for this season, which prioritises generating attacking transitions over settled possession, has exacerbated things. Like Casemiro, Eriksen is asked to play football at a pace that’s beyond him when he has the ball. He’s also challenged to defend too much space in midfield when working without it.

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United’s 3-1 away defeat against Arsenal in early September gave a glimpse into some of Eriksen’s defensive weaknesses.

The midfielder (No 14) is unaware of Martin Odegaard’s presence on the edge of the penalty area as the home side attack down their left flank.

MO 2

Eriksen’s inability to pick up Odegaard’s late run into the penalty area means the Arsenal captain has far too much time and space to receive the ball from a Gabriel Martinelli cutback, and he scores his side’s equaliser with a first-time shot.

MO 3

When looking at his defensive metrics, Eriksen is attempting to stick a boot in with greater regularity, but coming away with the ball less often.

He is making more true tackle attempts (6.3) per 1,000 opposition touches than he did last season (3.5). However, his true-tackle win percentage is down this season (to 37.8 per cent from 44.9 per cent). He’s also losing more challenges (1.8) per game this season compared to 2022-23 (1.0).

The 128-cap Dane can ‘do a job’ when serving as a member of a well-functioning pressing and counter-pressing unit. However, United’s current out-of-possession tactics lack the structure or intensity for them to regain the ball as one of those.

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Ten Hag’s tactical approach often sees his midfielders man-mark a certain player when defending. Eriksen — never the most defensively-minded — is one of several players struggling to win their one-v-one duels in a high enough volume to stop opposition teams from passing either through or around United’s press. This season has seen far too many teams dropping deep to drag Eriksen and others out of a settled defensive space, so creating further space in behind.

Take the below instance, from that draw with Spurs in January, where Rodrigo Bentancur drops deep to collect the ball from goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, bringing Eriksen with him. A simple passing move between Bentancur and centre-back Cristian Romero, who then goes wide to right-back Pedro Porro, sees Eriksen and fellow midfielder Kobbie Mainoo having to double back to defend.

eriksen2

The confusion around what each individual in the United midfield is meant to do when pressing the ball often leads to moments of indecision, furthering the chance for mistakes. Eriksen’s tendency to tire in the second half of matches also complicates things. His sometimes-patchy tackling ability decreases rapidly when he has to play for longer than an hour and United become looser in midfield as a result.

As such, Eriksen finds himself in a difficult spot in the first-team picture at Old Trafford: while talented enough to offer something in possession in limited spurts, he lacks the defensive capabilities to be a true starting option as the box-to-box figure behind Fernandes and next to one of United’s defensive midfield options.

Now competing with Mainoo and finally-fit summer 2023 signing Mason Mount, he finds himself the odd man out, with Ten Hag admitting the former’s emergence from academy football this season has affected Eriksen’s game time.

“I think that (Mainoo’s progress) is the main reason,” said the United manager. “He (Kobbie) was so important for us. He is playing in that No 6/No 8 role, (to) bring creation to the team, bring composure in our possession game to the team. I think that is the main reason Christian has less minutes than last season.”

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A good midfield multiplies Eriksen’s capabilities. An ill-fitting one diminishes them.

As the summer transfer window approaches and with his contract due to expire in June 2025, Eriksen and United will have to decide whether he is happy contributing to United’s midfield in a reduced capacity or if, at age 32, he would rather secure greater playing time elsewhere.

Eriksen’s playing style means he’ll be best served as part of a side with athletic, ball-winning midfielders, though his shortcomings suggest he’s now going to be more impactful coming off the bench.

Ten Hag spent last season creating a ‘win now’ midfield at United. In the coming months, he, Eriksen, and others will have to work out what combination of midfielders helps the club win more in future.

Additional reporting: Thom Harris

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)





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