Louis van Gaal is still searching for his first competitive victory as Manchester United manager after taking just one point from his opening two league games.
The Capital One Cup second-round match between United and MK Dons represents the perfect chance to buck the trend, so we check in on what the Reds have been doing wrong so far.
Disconnect Between the Lines
Two games is a small sample size and Manchester United have been bogged down by injury issues along the way, but the 3-4-1-2 system Van Gaal has in place is not looking fantastic so far.
No matter the system or structure, a team should always space out equally between the lines—that is, the gaps between defence, midfield and attack should largely be equal—and if it doesn't, it hinders progression.
United spread width-ways superbly despite playing a wrong-footed wing-back in Ashley Young, but most importantly the vertical balance is off.
Wayne Rooney and partner have been isolated so far, stranded atop the formation. Rooney often dashes back to find the ball, but he enters a clogged zone in which Juan Mata is already struggling to find space.
We saw it with the Dutch at the FIFA World Cup 2014 too, with Arjen Robben's excellence, pace and drive the only thing truly linking Daley Blind's section of the formation to Robin van Persie.
There's a focus on possession football here, with United averaging 57.3 percent of the ball over two games (per WhoScored.com), but this formation and setup found glory—despite its gaps—as a counterattacking unit in Brazil.
The three centre-backs don't look particularly comfortable on the ball in a three-man set, spreading into what they may feel is "unnatural" areas to play football (in the channels). They're also not communicating as to who plays the stopper against loose balls, with two sometimes entering the same zone to clear the same ball.
The loss of Jonny Evans has been central to their struggles, with young Tyler Blackett filling in adequately and passing calmly, but looking a little weak in the defensive phase.
Tyler Blackett has completed more passes (120) than any other Man United player in the Premier League this season. pic.twitter.com/z3mfOQB0iI— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 25, 2014
Phil Jones has been the driving force from deep, stepping out in possession and moving the football. For that to be the case, it means no one else is taking on the responsibility—and ideally it should be the outside centre-backs (Blackett and Chris Smalling), not the central one, in order to open passing lanes and drag midfields out of position.
The loss of Luke Shaw for a month prior to the season was a concern, but not a big, big blow in many supporters' eyes.
Unfortunately, with no other left-wing-back around to carry the load, one of the central figures in Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 dropped out and missed the first few important weeks of settling and gelling.
Ahead of the season we previewed Shaw's role, looking at how his hard running and physical style on the ground is key to moving United up the field and into crossing range.
With no wingers in the formation it's hard to find advanced width without a proper wing-back, but it's also hard to gain ground too. United, right now, are one-dimensional; they move the ball centrally through the (disjointed) lines and try to find Rooney's feet.
Mata is marked, Rooney is followed and the other striker gets attended to too. This is opening up the wide areas in advanced zones, but they have no one to shuttle forward and breach the space.
Shaw is perfect, he's a real hustler and aggressor surging forward, but Young is a) right-footed playing on the left and b) exceptionally weak on the ball. The former Southampton man cannot return quick enough.
A Word on MK Dons...
MK Dons are in a good place right now, having beefed up their squad with quality and quantity ahead of an expected promotion push.
Along with Bristol City, Doncaster, Peterborough, Sheffield United and Preston North End, they are one of the strongest sides in League One and have a chunk of exciting attacking talent at their disposal.
Dele Alli is a phenomenal midfield talent to watch for, while Samir Carruthers and Benik Afobe have also been landed this summer.
If the Dons can release runners in behind United's midfield two, the Red Devils will have their work cut out to stop an athletic side.