At the start of the 2019/20 season, United’s first back in the Premier League, a host of new rules were implemented in the top flight. The main and most controversial one since was the introduction of VAR, but there were also cards for coaches, a short break in fixtures in February and also the ability for goalkeepers to play goal-kicks to defenders inside their own box.
Previously, the ball had to leave the penalty area to be considered “live” and it’s fair to say that United were not quick adapters of the new approach. In fact, Dean Henderson didn’t play a single goal-kick to a teammate inside his own box in the entirety of last season – which worked well, as United finished ninth and had one of the best defensive records in the league.
Aaron Ramsdale Henderson’s successor between the posts at United, continued in the same vein for the first half of his first season back in United colours, before a couple of short backpasses in games against Bristol City and Leicester City broke the habit.
In his last five games for club and country, Ramsdale has passed 15 times to defenders inside his own box, and more goal-kicks have been played short outside the area. It began with five played inside the area away at Leicester – United’s first game under Paul Heckingbottom, after Wilder’s departure less than 24 hours earlier – and continued in England U21s’ games against Switzerland and Portugal, and United’s defeat at Leeds on Saturday.
“We’ve worked on it,” admitted Ben Osborn after that game.
“They [Leeds] are probably one of the best pressing teams in the league. But we had a plan, and maybe we need to be braver when we do do it at times. Ultimately, it’s decision making.
“We have options, we don’t have to play out but we got a grip of it and when we did, the game became a bit more even.”
The advantages are obvious – if you get it right. Too many times in England’s game against Switzerland in particular, Ramsdale played the ball short and then, seconds later, it was lost by one of his teammates. Do that too often and the ball comes back at you often, and in a dangerous area.
But done right, it can help a team play through the press and gain momentum in midfield, with big spaces left behind the strikers who have pushed up. It is a definite shift in approach for the Blades, to go from a total of four short goal-kicks in a season and a half to an average of three per game in Ramsdale’s last four outings.
“I thought Aaron’s decisions were good,” Heckingbottom added after the Leeds defeat. “He kicked long when he needed to and played out when it was four against two.”
For United, at least, it’s a relatively new tactic to keep an eye on for the rest of the season and beyond, perhaps – starting on Sunday, when the Blades face Arsenal at Bramall Lane.