Tactical Analysis: An overview of Manchester United’s pressing structure

This article is intended to be holistic, thus looking for general patterns and common occurrences rather than focusing on particular plans which varying according to opponent and players available.

Manchester United typically defend in a 4-2-3-1 structure where, when the ball is central, the wingers occupy the half-spaces as to ensure compactness and prevent central progression from the opposition. An important reference point for positioning is the depth of opposing full because their reception act as the trigger towards a more intense press. Here, Oleksandr Zinchenko positions himself deeper as to increase distance from Daniel James, creating a conundrum for United as to whether to attempt to remain vertically compact, or attempt to cover more ground as to be more prepared if Zinchenko receives possession. Hypothetically, should James adjust his positioning in accordance with Zinchenko before passing, the lack of vertical compactness would have allowed İlkay Gündoğan to receive centrally, and if tracked by Scott McTominay, potentially allow for a rotation between himself and Zinchenko, who has space and forward momentum to run into.

Tracking would additionally undermine another aspect of United’s pressing which is showing the ball to the full back as to engage in a touchline press, a press which seeks to exploit the constraining effects of the touchline to reduce the effective space available to the opponent. When the ball is played wide, the players on the ball-side adopt man-orientation which seeks to make opposition ball reception difficult by instantly placing them under pressure, hoping to produce a turnover. This only happens on the ball side, as the constraining effect of the touchline allows for compactness to be maintained despite the man-orientation by limiting effective space through limiting the options of the ball carrier. Time and space are elements which expose lack of pitch coverage, the latter of which is reduced via the touchline, thus initiating efforts to reduce time, negating the two aspects which punish a high press.

The typical manifestation of this is that one player on the forward line cuts the central passing lane to the other centre back while simultaneously applying pressure to the centre back in possession, whilst the other player on the forward line tracks the defensive midfielder. The term forward line is used because striker and attacking midfielder roles are variable and depend on the side in possession, particularly when deep, perhaps making it better to conceptualise the structure upon initiation as a 4-4-2 occasionally; however, even this is variable, as sometimes Bruno Fernandes can focus solely on the opponent’s defensive midfielder. The ball-sided winger subsequently engages with the opponent’s full back when they receive possession, while the man-orientated tracking continues from the forward line. The ball-side full back and midfielder orient themselves around their respective players, tracking their movements from deep to support, while the ball-side centre back moves wider to cover space, in accordance with the far-sided full back sitting narrower and deeper to create a back three structure to support the press. When the opponent seeks to overload wide spaces, the far-side pivot player will track his respective man additionally. This creates a vacant centre; however, it limits the opponent’s ability to open that space to make it effective through converging upon them, limiting the time and space they have available, shown by the compactness around Kevin De Bruyne prior to a turnover.

Once the ball carrier has been constrained, meaning they are in a tight space with very few passing options, (and decreasing as pressure intensifies, typically) the pressing becomes more ball oriented as a nearby supporting player(s) aid in the ‘last step’ pressing which is simply pressing the opponent with the intent on winning possession rather than attempting to cut passing lanes, show people into a particular area etc. Thus, when on the touchline, United seek to isolate the ball carrier through tightly marking options who come progressively deeper to receive possession and provide support, this congests space and increases the possibility for convergence via the last step. In summation, the first objective is to control the space the opponent can work the ball into via zonal coverage – the press is then triggered by a sideways press by the forward on the wide centre back actively showing them out wide which signals increased man-orientation on the ball-side limiting short passing options then to provoke the turnover out wide, the ball becomes the principal consideration.

Because of the commitment to the ball-side, the far side full back plays an important role in preventing possible opposing transitions, as he is often isolated 1v1 against an attacker as the rest of the team shuttle to support. This can occasionally lead to 2v1 situations additionally, as the overlapping full back has momentum over the previously narrow winger – in these instances, the full back prioritises central areas, attempting to show the transition down the flank where there is less direct danger. This can be exacerbated by the far-side winger often intensely pressing the ball recipient when they are isolated when the opponent’s action is successful. However, the pressure has overall positive effects because of the defender’s isolation leading to potential passing manoeuvre is high risk, creating an overall preference for a back-pass. This thereby becomes instantly ball-centric because the principle of isolation has been achieved.

The importance of the zonal structure when possession, particularly from the double pivot is demonstrated by this example: McTominay pre-emptively prepares for the ball-side press by tracking De Bruyne’s movements to ensure proximity; however, by doing so he vacated crucial space centrally which undermined the structure necessary to provoke that situation as Gündoğan can receive centrally in between the lines, generating an offensive transition for City. De Bruyne’s dummy movement served to disorganise, moving United to create space, exploiting the susceptibility of man-orientation to positional manipulation. Although against Manchester City, it appeared, the double pivot were more man-oriented than is typical.

Therefore, the paramount aspect of whether to track in a man-oriented fashion is the ability to reduce effective space, which is best achieved through exploitation of the touchline, the only central man-oriented tracking Manchester United adopt is attacking midfielder on the opponent’s defensive midfielder as it serves to reduce central passing options as this player can be expected to always maintain central positioning. In some scenarios, a double pivot player can track his man moving deep to force backwards orientation; however, this occurs from advanced to deep only, and has clear zonal limitations, with the double pivot player rarely going beyond the 2nd line of engagement (LW-AM-RW).

Another note on the City game was the confusion caused by João Cancelo as to which player adopted responsibility for him. As the nominal full back, he came under Marcus Rashford’s domain, but postionally, he often corresponded more with Fred. This was quickly resolved and elucidates another aspect which is that it is perhaps more accurate to call the ball-sided system zonal-man orientation, as full tracking does not occur but rather the passing of responsibility based on positioning as to better maintain zonal coverage of the pitch. The important aspect is not the player in the abstract, but rather the zone being occupied by the player, although two aspects commonly overlap, particularly against opponents with less complex positional structures and frequent rotation. Issues can nonetheless remain as how far to track someone within a particular zone, meaning slight overlaps can happen; however, it prevents egregious positional manipulation and largely suffices to solve the issue of attempting to cause difficult reception while additionally covering space adequately.

Furthermore, a John Stones run exemplified potential issues of rigidity on focusing on the man. Pictured, Rodri drops deeper as to create space centrally for Stones to run into, Anthony Martial shuttles across and covers the passing lane but does not close Stones down with intensity, thereby allowing him time and space because of Rodri’s movement.

An interesting way the pressure was flummoxed came against Brighton: Danny Welbeck was used as a pinning player preventing Aaron Wan-Bissaka from engaging high. Welbeck thereby served to vertically stretch United’s pressure, hoping to make it less effective as compactness and convergence are crucial towards execution as they limit passing options thereby limiting the extent to which space can be exposed. Typically, a player in the role of Welbeck would have been covered by Victor Lindelöf drifting wider; however, the extent to Welbeck’s horizontal stretching prevented tracking as it would have left too much open space centrally. This forced a series of compensations which created an extreme ball-sidedness, which is not a negative thing inherently, but it is critical to cut the central connections to prevent the emphases on compactness rather than coverage being exposed. The lack of full back to wing-back engagement allowed Brighton to progress up the pitch more easily, undermining the efforts of the press.

The importance of aggressive full back tracking was detailed here: Tactical Analysis: Manchester United’s pressing against Chelsea – UtdDistrict. The Chelsea and Brighton matches showed variance because the wide forwards were largely responsible for their opposing centre back with a direct pressing route rather than the typical in-to-out practiced on full backs which placed greater emphasis on the full backs compared to the midfielders who played more of a covering role which helped win second balls after forward on centre back duels. When in-to-out did occur, it came from narrower positions meaning more ground had to be covering, and they role adopted was largely that of showing Chelsea into wider areas. This additionally forced more aggressive positioning from the centre backs to cover wide spaces when Chelsea in particular sought to progress via vertical passing down the flank. This means overall, when facing back three’s United are more inclined to press high because the positioning of the opposing centre backs makes United’s wide forwards have a narrower and more advanced starting position which thereby causes the ball-side full back and centre back to push higher to cover the opponent’s wide options, while the direct high pressing makes central progression less likely to occur, reducing the responsibility for the midfielders to press high on the ball side.

A crucial aspect to emphasise is the importance to intensity towards the efficacy of this type of press as it requires alertness as to what phase of pressure has been entered and because of the scarified zonal coverage, requires quick closing down as to limit the options of the ball carrier and to produce a convergence for a turnover, in addition to recovery speed provided the press is broken to compensate for forfeited space. This makes players such as Fred, McTominay and James enormously important towards execution, and explains Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s preference towards them in big games, as the defensive approach wanted is predicated on intensity of pressure.

A frequent criticism of Solskjær is the lack of systematic chance creation methods employed, and an effective press is an indirect answer to that issue at its core – which is the inability to create chances as regularly as would perhaps be expected from a Manchester United side. A solution could be greater sustenance of pressure and a commitment towards suffocating the opponent. Recently, when behind we have seen much more aggressive on ball positions from Harry Maguire and Lindelöf as they seek win duels early to prevent transition and allow United to instantly re-start breaking down the opponent. This proclivity to be more aggressive when behind perhaps explains United’s ability to frequently mount comebacks, although mental aspects and opposition tactical aspects such as managing game-state should be noted to be significant. Nonetheless, through sustaining pressure errors can be forced and opponents can be limited in opportunities to create chances. The hazard is potential exposed space in behind when not implemented effectively, or a crucial duel is lost, making the strategy higher risk/higher reward hence its usage in scenarios when behind. Moreover, it should be noted there are important on ball aspects of sustaining pressure such as quick circulation with the contradictory profiles of United’s present midfield duo’s making it difficult to know which aspect to prioritize – possession quality with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba or off the ball intensity with Fred and McTominay.

Nevertheless, United’s ability to keep clean sheets in the big games this season can largely be attributed to an effective high-to-mid pressing structure which prevents the opponent from successfully sustaining pressure by preventing early central occupation, and swiftly limiting options when progression down the flanks is attempted.

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