Nobody knows what to make of Manchester United in 2022, when seemingly every week presents a new extreme high or low outlook. Club legend Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the team last year and scored a respectable 24 goals, but was unable to inspire the team to greater heights. They limped into the summer, without enough points to qualify for this year’s Champions League tournament, their captain Harry Maguire derided by supporters, Ronaldo eventually (and unsuccessfully) asking to be sold, and with a new manager inheriting a team in complete disarray, from fans to front office. But one thing has become strikingly clear in the early stages of the 2022-23 season: Christian Eriksen is still a phenomenal soccer player, and his intelligent movement is re-shaping the way United approach their attacks.
Take a look at the buildup to their first goal vs Arsenal over the weekend:
This is a buildup that includes several potential non-goals. Among them, Eriksen’s instinct to stretch Arsenal’s defense away from the throw-in location (relish in his waving exhortation to Tyrell Malacia, asking him to push the ball forward around the 9-second mark); his pass out wide that allows the rest of his team to push forward as Arsenal attempts to collect themselves; his ability to keep a straight face as Antony engages in ridiculous toe-tapping foot thrusts on the wing; his 50-yard retreat to position himself as a deep-lying playmaker; and finally his piercing split pass that turns the Arsenal defense into a rickety Jenga structure just a block or two away from collapse.
What sets Eriksen apart from other midfielders in this non-goal is his effortless movement and re-positioning, always looking for the right place to apply his unique blend of skills. His constant movement also requires constant adaptation. As he moves further forward, he’s looking to link up with strikers and wingers in the box with short one-touch passes; when he drops back to the rear of the midfield, he’s looking to pivot play and find gaps in the defense large enough to sling a perfectly-timed long pass through. He’s one of the few midfielders in England capable of changing his game so often, in just a matter of seconds.
Eriksen's midfield journey
60 seconds is about the length of this passage of play that leads to United’s first goal, and it begins deep in their own half from a throw-in. A good throw to the feet of Bruno Fernandes allows him to turn and play the ball up and wide and as United find space they begin to move diagonally away from the Arsenal defense. Eriksen receives the ball at the center circle and continues to stretch Arsenal even wider with a pass out to Jadon Sancho on the flank. Once Arsenal catches up, United patiently pivots to the opposite side of the field and Eriksen continues to support the strong side—making himself an option for Antony who is very wide, almost touching the sideline. After Antony cycles through an almost embarrassing set of chicken struts without the ball (Arsenal fans mockingly cheer) he passes backward and the center backs look to switch again, back to the original side of attack. At this point Eriksen knows he'll be more useful further back so he moves all the way back toward mid-field. And as the ball is played toward United's keeper (again the Arsenal fans cheer, thinking they've got United figured out), Eriksen is back, 65 yards from Arsenal's goal, ready to begin another move forward. But this time things happen much more quickly. Arsenal is caught between pressing and sitting back, and there's a huge gap in the center of their defense. In the blink of an eye, Eriksen passes through both Arsenal's attacking and midfield players, finding an unguarded Burno Fernandes just past the halfway point. This comes as a surprise to Arsenal: the attackers thought the midfield had it covered, and the midfielders weren't expecting such an incisive pass from Eriksen so deep in his own half. Bruno turns to go against the grain of the pass, moving north-east into the space Rashford vacates with his south-westerly run relative to the TV screen. Arsenal's Gabriel tries to foul Fernandes but Bruno is able to get the ball to Sancho as he tumbles to the turf. Sancho moves diagonally toward the center of the field and Rashford, after sprinting into the box to pull his defender with him, now holds his run for a second and asks for the ball. Sancho plays it to Rashford, who knows instinctively that Zinchenko will temporarily leave the winger Antony and try to tackle him from behind. Rashford pulls the ball back momentarily to freeze Zinchenko then expertly plays the ball forward into space for Antony. A side-footed strike puts the ball into the goal. A well-taken goal for sure, but as so often happens, the real magic took place a long while before Antony struck the ball with his left foot. Eriksen’s movement into the most opportune space available gave his team the best chance of getting a shot on goal and created a delightful series of non-goals along the way.
The 22-23 season is still young, with the dust just settling after the transfer window shut last week. Will United be able to maintain this level of play? Can the new pieces fall into place consistently, and can new manager Erik ten Hag continue to rely on 90 minutes of excellence from Eriksen? There are lots of questions yet to be answered, but if United consistently create non-goals like this one, they’ll be a highly entertaining team to watch this year.