In anticipation of United’s season opener versus Brighton, this article will highlight some tactical elements they have employed during pre-season–focusing on the budding dynamics down the team’s right flank.
For the past few years, Manchester United have been heavily left-side dominant. Most of our best players played or preferred playing there, and there had been some consistency in pairings that eventually developed solid partnerships there. For these reasons, amongst many others, dynamics down the right flank have been largely underdeveloped. However, during Erik Ten Hag’s brief spell as manager, we are already seeing the buds of some partnerships down the right-hand side, with Dalot, Sancho, and McTominay at the forefront of it.
State of play
Throughout the preseason, United have utilised a narrow 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3) out of possession. A key feature of this has been the nominal attacking midfielder (Bruno) man-marking the opposition’s deepest midfielder.
In possession, they have utilised a formation a 4-3-3 (which usually ends up as a fluid 2-3-5) with Bruno Fernandes primarily occupying the left half-space and the right centre-midfielder (RCM) in the right half-space.
Among the plethora of changes we have seen this pre-season is a seemingly permanent change to McTominay and Fred’s role. In the first match of pre-season, the former was the deepest midfielder in possession and was tasked with conducting a considerable portion of the side’s build-up–a role which did not suit him. But in subsequent games, Fred has taken up that role–where United’s highly-sought midfielder will presumably fit in.
Fred spoke about it briefly:
“Last season, I played a bit further forward under Ralf [Rangnick], he gave me a bit more freedom to get in the box to score and assist,” Fred told us in Australia. “We’ll see what Erik asks of me now, he may want me more in the build-up of play.MUTV
It is important to note that while this United side occupies the aforementioned positions instantaneously, they are by no means rigid. You will notice the forwards and their near-side full-back and midfielder interchanging as the ball moves up the pitch. Like Ten Hag’s 18/19 side, this team is very fluid in possession. Despite the alterations, some critical features of the side before the ball gets to the final third are touchline-wingers and inverted full-backs.
Switches to the left-hand side (from the right)
In his first press conferences of the pre-season tour, Erik Ten Hag announced that Harry Maguire would remain captain for the upcoming season, implying that England international will play a significant role in his plans moving forward. Since then, Maguire has been deployed almost exclusively as the right centre-back; perhaps, in preparation for the arrival of the side’s multi-million-pound signing, Lisandro Martinez (aka the Butcher). Playing on his strong side favours his natural angles and alleviates his hesitancy and clumsiness when using his left foot.
Another important upside to this move is that Maguire’s diagonals (switches) to the left flank are now more potent. Diagonals across the pitch to a far side winger are valuable because they afford the recipient more space to isolate the defending full-back and allow the rest of the team to exploit gaps left from the opponent shifting across.
Here is an example of how Maguire’s switches play out when used as a means of progression:
Frame of Maguire indicating for Rashford to go wide.
Observe Fernandes in the first clip. Before the switch is initiated, he will make a run into the channel to lure the palace defenders deeper–since they will be expecting a ball in behind–while Rashford can receive the ball under less pressure.
Frame of Fernandes making the run.
Frame after the ball has been played
In this instance, the ball was slightly short, and the defending full-back had adequate time to cover and set himself. Nevertheless, these wide isolations are situations where Rashford can thrive: using his pace to beat his man and getting a shot or cross off. It is a situation that the team has tried to create throughout the preseason.
Here’s another instance where United manufactured a wide isolation for Rashford, this time while Palace had settled into their block.
Once again, observe Dalot and Sancho. As I indicated earlier, with Maguire motioning to Rashford, it is a good sign of cohesion when the players are aware of the pass/move to follow.
Everyone on the pitch holds their position to lure the Palace block and ensure that when the ball is eventually played to Rashford, they will have to cover significantly more ground to consolidate their shape.
Switches like this are particularly effective because they give the recipient ample time and space to decide the next course of action and create gaps and penetrations points in the opponent’s block. Look at how much space Rashford receives the ball in.
By the time the ball comes into the box, United have five players in and around the box. Because of the speed of the switch, the defenders are caught on napping, and the highlighted defending centre-back has two active opponents to mark. He chooses to mark Bruno–who makes the front post dart–so Martial is unmarked at the back post and almost taps the ball in.
Over the past few seasons, a common issue in the squad has been a hesitancy to attack space and crosses in the box. Last season, United, among other European clubs, had some of the lowest players in the box when crosses came in. It seems like something that United have already begun to remedy in pre-season.
Those familiar with Ten Hag’s Ajax side from last season would know that he primarily used Antony, a right winger, as the isolation-winger. The early signs suggest that the dynamic has been switched at United–with Rashford taking up a similar role on the opposite wing.
Dynamism down the Right-Hand side
The plays and dynamism down the team’s right-hand side in the final third have centred around creating optimal situations for Sancho to make an impact. Throughout the pre-season, there has been a prominence of selfless ‘channel-running’–similar to the one we saw Bruno do earlier in this piece to create space for Rashford.
Channel runs refer to forward runs made between the defending full-back and centre-back.
While in some situations, they may be the same as half-space runs, channel runs are fundamentally different–as articulated by Russ below.
These runs aim to create progressive options behind the backline, create space for the player on the ball, or facilitate third-man runs. I will briefly outline examples of each of these below.
To create progressive options behind the backline
There are two sets on runs in this clip: the first from McTominay, who retains well, and then the follow-up from Sancho and Dalot, who penetrate the box with sharp, direct movements.
To facilitate third-man plays
The timing and execution for this third-man run from Dalot could be better, but the idea remains intact.
Dummy runs create space for the ball carrier (usually Sancho)
Here the run by Dalot and the counter-movement from McTominay help create an isle for Sancho to drive in. If he were a left-footer, this could have been a shooting opportunity.
These runs can leave the side susceptible to getting countered if the ball is lost. United have begun incorporating counter-movements (opposite movements made to consolidate the team’s structure when forward runs are made).
Notice McTominay’s simultaneous movements in all these clips whenever Dalot makes those runs from deep. This allows United to maintain some rigidity during the attacking phase and acts as insurance against counterattacks–more on this later in the ‘Transitions, Pressing, and McTominay’ sub-section.
In the few minutes Donny Van De Beek has been on the pitch (at RCM in place of McTominay) with the rest of the ‘starting team’, the dynamics down the right-hand side were slightly different. VDB nominally assumes and remains in a higher position closer to the opposition centre-backs while the team is in the final third and uses his sublime instincts to get into good positions in the box, as seen below:
One from transition that ends up in a goal:
Another one while the game was settled. Notice Dalot’s deeper positioning throughout.
Van De Beek has a propensity to remain against the backline and make runs behind it when the ball gets to the attacking third. These tendencies mean he does not make the same countermovements as McTominay offers, so Dalot tends to remain in a deeper central position to accommodate. Van De Beek offers a more significant box threat, but his presence takes away some dynamism and unpredictability present with the Sancho-McTominay-Dalot combination. I am yet to decide whether the trade-off is worth it–you can append your thoughts in the comment section, via DMs or as a subtweet. Crucially, it is part of why his impact seemed to fade when possession was contested this pre-season.
Dalot’s new lease down the right hand-side
The Portuguese international’s adventurousness has stood out throughout the preseason. As suggested by the earlier clips, he has been a prominent force down United’s right-hand side. I already highlighted how his running capacity has been crucial to making the side more dynamic and affording Sancho more space and options on the ball. In addition, he’s been a key cog to the side’s build-up play from deep.
We’ve seen many situations like this: Dalot tucks in deeper to receive the ball in the first phase, and McTominay rotates to suit. From the deeper positions, Dalot has progressed the ball using his adept ball striking.
Transitions, Pressing, and McTominay
Few United players have contributed more to United’s pressing and counter-pressing moments than McTominay this pre-season. Besides his selfless running and movement to accommodate the ball-dominant players, McTominay has proven invaluable out-of-possession.
Earlier, I asked you to pay attention to his countermovements when players made runs behind the backline or in the channels. His tenacity and discipline in possession have rendered him crucial to United maintaining pressure on the opponent. Here are some examples below.
In counter-pressing moments after possession has been lost:
He uses his long legs and pokes the ball before Ayew can gain control of the ball.
In deeper positions to start transitions:
He anticipates the play, intercepts the ball, and holds off a challenge before springing a counter-attack.
From the initial pressing sequences:
Most of our pressing sequences have geared towards forcing the ball wide or centrally (on the right-hand side), where he would win crucial duels to regain possession for the side.
This United side will undoubtedly undergo more changes as the season goes on. I will keep track of them and publish thought pieces like this across the season. Endeavour to subscribe below if you are interested!
Featured image: Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag during the pre-season friendly match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday July 31, 2022. (Photo by Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)
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