Since the beginning of the 2020/21 season, Manchester United’s pressing has been largely inconsistent. Sometimes, United have displayed organised, aggressive and cohesive pressing from the front, in matches such as the 5-0 win vs RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League and the 0-2 win vs Manchester City in the Premier League. On the other hand, the pressing has sometimes been disjointed and unorganised, often lacking cohesion and a clear plan. This was evident in the second leg of United’s Europa League Last 16 tie against AC Milan, where problems were originating from the disjointed pressing. Mason Greenwood, who started up front on the night, was often reluctantly pressing AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. This often handed Milan the free man in midfield and usually between the lines as United attempted to compensate further up the field by pushing one of Scott McTominay or Fred further forward, which allowed Milan to progress the ball frequently. This ultimately manifested United’s issues when pressing this season, and since the arrival of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
There seem to be many factors behind the lack of cohesion in United’s pressing. Perhaps the most significant one could be a lack of tactical training, which is exacerbated by the ludicrous fixture congestion this season. Typically after a Europa League fixture on a Thursday evening, United’s following Premier League fixture will take place on the Sunday, which usually means the players are recovering for the majority of the time between matches, which can lead to a lack of tactical training in preparation for the match. This can naturally lead to disjointed units when pressing, which ultimately allows the opponent space to play forward.
Despite this, United’s pressing against Chelsea in late February proved successful and was certainly a platform to build on.
Firstly, Chelsea lined up in their 3421 formation, a common theme since Thomas Tuchel arrived at the club in December. United also lined up in familiar style, displaying the 4231 that we have seen for the majority of the season.
The aim of United’s pressing seemed to be to guide the ball towards the wide centre-backs, particularly Antonio Rüdiger on the left, to then either force Chelsea long or guide the ball into the wing-back where our full-back would apply aggressive pressure and trap the opponent. Pressing in to out, and forcing the opponent to play wide is common when defending high up because 1) wide space is closer to the touchline and therefore the defensive team can force the ball out of play via aggressive pressure, and 2) the player in possession only has 180 radius rather than 360 in a central area and thus it is easier to cover and block their passing options, forcing them into mistakes. In addition to these factors, United may have been guiding the ball towards Rüdiger because his position naturally encourages him to use his weaker left-foot, which was clearly seen as an opportunity to press aggressively and force a mistake.
The roles within the setup were dependent on the ball side. When the ball was on Chelsea’s right, i.e., with the right-centre back Cezar Azpilicueta, United’s ball sided winger Marcus Rashford engaged, trying to block central options and force wide. In turn, Bruno Fernandes moved onto Chelsea’s ball side midfielder, whilst Daniel James, United’s right winger, tucked inside onto Chelsea’s far side midfielder, which consequently provided good coverage of the ball side. Meanwhile, centre-forward Mason Greenwood remained in proximity, ready to apply pressure onto the central defender in the event of a horizontal pass.
The aggressiveness of United’s full-backs was vital in preventing Chelsea regular ball progression from deep. Aaron Wan-Bissaka (right) and Luke Shaw (left) were tasked with applying aggressive pressure onto the Chelsea wing-back on their flank when the ball was moved towards them in order to trap.
This was important because it prevented Chelsea from progressing through their wing-backs. The width that wing-backs naturally provide in possession can be difficult to deal with from a defensive perspective because it is hard to maintain compactness whilst also covering adequate space horizontally to deal and manage with the threat that they pose. Therefore, a man-oriented approach, i.e., full-backs push onto the wing-backs when they receive, is largely effective because it allows you to apply pressure when they receive possession whilst also remaining centrally compact. The full-backs did an excellent job of nullifying the threat of Chelsea’s wing-backs, often forcing high turnovers when pressuring them high up.
The trigger to shuttle across as a unit, from left to right, seemed to be when the ball was released towards Rüdiger. Initiating the press when the ball is released, rather than when the player receives possession, is an important aspect of pressing in general because it allows the team out of possession to remain on the front foot. Being able to apply immediate pressure onto an opponent can often cause panic, which therefore can force mistakes. If the player receiving possession is afforded space and time, they are more likely to progress the ball because they are able to evaluate their options upon receiving.
When shuttling across, the roles that were evident on the left were replicated on the right; Daniel James pressed the wide centre-back, Antonio Rüdiger, Fernandes drifted across to the ball side central-midfielder, and Rashford, our far side winger, moved inside to engage the far side central-midfielder. This again, provided excellent coverage of the ball side which facilitated aggressive pressing when the ball was played inside. Aaron Wan-Bissaka stepped forward, ready to press and trap the wing-back if the ball was moved there.
The cohesion of United’s pressing on these occasions was imperative to the overall success of the performance out of possession, which highlights the importance of pressing as a unit and in numbers. The player closest to possession can commit to ‘going in’ and being aggressive if they know their team-mates are ready to apply pressure onto potential passing options to cause difficult reception. This essentially eliminates the need for the player pressing to block passing lanes by sitting off the player in possession, and therefore frees them to challenge the opponent aggressively which reduces the time they have in possession and forces them into a decision.
In addition to a well organised collective effort, United’s pressing against Chelsea manifested the importance of Daniel James when pressing from the front. The sheer pace of James is vital to United’s pressing because it allows for greater commitment to the ball side on the opposite flank because his pace means we can react quickly to switches. His pace allows us to be compact on the ball side whilst also possessing good coverage horizontally in the event of a switch. This was important because he was the player who was tasked with initiating the press once the ball had been passed to Rudiger, and therefore, he was able to shuttle across quickly and apply pressure. He often forced Rüdiger to play long, where United were able to regain deep possession or challenge Chelsea forward Olivier Giroud aerially, where centre-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were dominant.
It is also important to note the roles that Scott McTominay and Fred played throughout the match. The man-oriented approach on Chelsea’s half-space attackers allowed for immediate pressure to be applied if the ball was progressed into them from deep. McTominay stayed close to Mason Mount, whilst Fred was tasked with keeping close tabs on Hakim Ziyech.
Their aggressiveness was important because although United were effective in pressing high up, the ball was sometimes circulated into the half-spaces. To prevent Chelsea’s attacking players from turning, McTominay and Fred anticipated balls into these areas well and won the majority of their duels; they are crucial to United’s pressing because they are duel specialists. The anticipation manifested the great levels of cohesion within United’s press.
Perhaps one limitation of United’s pressing against Chelsea was the risk of these individual duels. Given the aggressiveness of the full-backs and double pivot (McTominay and Fred), United left space in between their defensive and midfield lines. Therefore, a lost duel in midfield would have allowed Mount or Ziyech a lot of space to drive forward and gain territory against an underloaded defence.
However, there are always these types of risks when pressing in a man-oriented manner. It’s a case of weighing up the pros and cons. In this case, Solskjær’s decision to press and engage high, forcing play wide and long, rather than sitting off was certainly the correct one.
In summary, it was excellent to see United press with cohesion in an organised manner which forced the opponent to concede possession frequently, whether that was high up or being forced long. The aggressiveness of the full-backs allowed United to apply pressure upon reception and therefore create wide turnovers in Chelsea’s half.
The pace of Dan James proved to be a critical element of our pressing, and in fact, our overall defensive structure. His pace allows for greater commitment to the ball side which allows the Reds to remain more compact and difficult to play through. His pace allows us to shuttle across effectively and apply pressure quickly following a switch, which is extremely important to pressing in general. There is a case to be made for James’ position in the first team, especially in matches against top six opposition where United typically have less possession than the opponent given his value out of possession.
The pressing against Chelsea provided United a platform to build on because there was a clear plan and a clear direction which was evidently suited in accordance with the opposition’s build up structure. Even though this does seem simple, it is something United have struggled to display regularly this season, and therefore it was positive to see.