Tactical Analysis: Pressing concerns at Manchester United

‘Playing out of defence’ is an abstract concept which has established hegemony at the elite level compared to its binary abstract opponent of ‘the long ball’. This is predominantly due to the greater degree of control exerted, through using numerical superiorities and goalkeeper involvement for instance, and the potential to quickly create transitional moments through vertically stretching a pressing opponent.

These concepts, while not baseless, are broad: a lack of specificity over a general issue such as playing out of defence often lacks precision. The issue is not the concept, but the application of said concept. In this article, I hope to detail why Southampton’s pressing caused Manchester United issues, linking with the inability to take advantage of the aforementioned advantages of numerical superiorities and goalkeeper involvement.

The first example of playing out of pressure occurs below:

Southampton maintain distance initially, sitting approximately 30 yards from goal. This blocks the passing lanes to Manchester United’s double pivot, while their wide midfielders sit narrow. This approach seeks to dominate central progression space and force opposition progression down the flanks.

The 4-4-2 here balances compactness and coverage through controlling the space directly accessible for their opponent progress into. To remain compact, they must sacrifice direct wide coverage, under the notion they have the capacity shuttle quickly to limit the wide player after reception.  Regarding depth, pressing too high initially potentially exposes space in between the lines, as lacking the tool of offside to limit effective vertical space, maintaining strong defensive connections while pushing into the opponent’s box is difficult, and risky.

The positioning of the wide midfielders in the half-spaces moreover becomes pertinent, as they can still quickly access the oppositions full back, while the far-sided player remains an important actor to jump onto more accessible far-side and central players rather than being pre-occupied by a presently inaccessible far sided player, making them essential in cutting possession links to the far-side. Overall, the aim of this set-up is to funnel possession into wide regions where compaction becomes easier due to the constraining effect of the touchline.

An interesting element is the angling of Adam Armstrong’s run which seeks to cut the passing lane to Luke Shaw, reducing the size of the effective playing area by negating potential for left sided build-up. This is referred to a pistoning, as the forward attempts to direct possession to a side where his teammates can subsequently look to compact and commit to a greater extent to generate a turnover.

The depth of play remains however, and the passing connections are strong, which causes Southampton to shuttle while the defensive midfielders remain the reference points for the forwards. Aaron Wan-Bissaka may appear open, but the pass will act as a trigger to ball-oriented pressing from Moussa Djenepo, with his passing options being limited to recycling back Victor Lindelöf, where during this sequence, Southampton would have more time to limit space and options Lindelöf.

Attempting to attain control against the first line of pressure, Nemanja Matić drops into the first line of defence while Fred centralises. Theo Walcott orients himself around Matić, negating the attempt at a numerical superiority, while as the ball on the far-side, the space in between the lines opened by the increased vertical commitment is not accessible.

Armstrong then engages in another pistoning press on Harry Maguire; on this occasion however, support is more readily available to seek to constrain and generate a turnover. Additionally, he no longer needs to cover Nemanja Matić, as the midfielder has been transferred to Walcott through the action of dropping changing him from, defensive midfielder to far-side centre back in practical terms.

Lindelöf now has his passing options cut, as Southampton methodically reduced the size of the effective pitch before seeking to engage in a ball-side press. They use the dropping of the centre back against Manchester United, as there is one fewer player on the ball-side directly due to Fred’s central commitment compared to previous ball sided in the double pivot, while Matić deepening makes him an ineffective actor at this stage.

The problem for Manchester United here was lack of ball-sided support, which was predictable as Maguire and Matić lacked a strong connection. Theo Walcott was in closer proximity to Matić due to the aforementioned far-side midfielder becoming responsible for the half-spaces during far-sided possession, ignoring the irrelevant actor of the far-side full back, who is too wide to have a direct influence. Armstrong’s pressing cuts the option to the advancing Luke Shaw while simultaneously initiating intense pressure on Maguire, forcing a quick decision, where he was limited to Lindelöf.

By the time this occurs, Southampton are primed for outside-to-in pressing where they can carry their runs with initiative, achieving the dynamic superiority over a comparatively static United side, where Djenepo and Che Adams orient themselves around their respective players to cut the connections to Lindelöf, leaving him isolated against the onrushing pressure of Armstrong.

A counterfactual could have Matić coming short upon the first pass to Lindelöf rather than performing the drop which would have overloaded the shuttling Southampton press, with Armstrong at this stage having to still tail the midfielder, which would have opened space for the Maguire pass. There can however be issues with the centre back lateral pass as it allows for defensive readjustment. This is as it is not quick enough to punish commitment and could potentially lead to similar out-to-in pressing as Southampton’s 4-4-2’s allows it to quickly man-orient on the underloaded flank after United circulate possession. Meaning, despite the switch of play, isolation can still occur as the far-side for Southampton is not underloaded. A dropping supporting midfielder to link with Aaron Wan-Bissaka to link in an up-back to Fred is another potential solution.

An overall persistent issue was David de Gea’s lack of willingness to be involved in possession, as well as uncomposed displays when he did receive possession. The goalkeeper when building deep is becoming increasingly important actor with regards to undermining opposition pressure, with the +1 often being uncovered by many pressing schemes, or otherwise drawing attention away from more advanced players. As a deep central possession player, more likely to have time in possession, they are an essential link between the far and near side, which is crucial in exposing opposition compactness, as quick circulation via the free man in the goalkeeper is an important to tool in exposing lack of horizontal coverage. Additionally, it serves as a consolidating force because of the linking qualities mentioned which could lead the opposition to prioritise restructuring and shuttling to cover new ground, thus alleviating previous pressure which encouraged the backwards pass. Goalkeeper involvement is not a panacea; isolation-based pressing can still occur when space is constrained, which is potentially easier to do once encroachment has occurred because of the constraining effect of the touchline and the goalkeeper being the deepest actor who limits backwards options, increasing the ease at which the opposition can cover all passing options to mark while progressively closing space and moving to ball-orientation. Nonetheless, to successfully play out of difficult high pressing situations against sophisticated pressing systems such as Southampton’s, the goalkeeper is an asset that needs to be exploited as the free man and the link.

Moving back to structure: working backwards creates this consolidated possession circumstance – something approximating this regularly occurs.

The double pivot is supporting the ball-side with the far-side player Fred centralising while Matić remains vertical to Maguire. This is better postionally, comparatively, because it manipulates the positioning of Southampton forwards in a way which allows for a 2v1 to be quickly created if the ball is moved out to Lindelöf. If Armstrong commits to Lindelöf too early the pass to Fred becomes open which should gain time, with a dropping midfielder/forward (Bruno Fernandes, who that player in this instance or potentially Antony Martial depending on interchanging) coming from the half-spaces to create a diamond shape with Lindelöf, Wan-Bissaka and Fred. Che Adams marking tight on Fred (for their ball-side press, far-side forward goes on near-side DM) will also be behind the midfielder, who might not have the skillset to turn into the space in between the lines making that a difficult option to build around, but if the ball can be played towards the forward to be played back in between the lines, or infiltrate centrally via Fred, there is potential for a transition.

However, Maguire plays a lofted ball which slowly floats over and is easy for Southampton to deal with due to the static positioning of Manchester United’s players.

Lindelöf here receives from de Gea and moves inwards while directing Fred wider to the right and Maguire wider to receive a pass. This is to create the 3-1 structure attempted earlier, with Matić as the pivot on this occasion. Rather than this issue being tactical per se, ball dwelling and the time it took to complete actions generally allowed Southampton to easily constrain, cut passing lanes and isolate the back three.

Prior to this image, Maguire played it lateral to Lindelöf, who proceeds to play it back to Maguire, with the only difference being to previous is that Southampton encroachment was enabled. Reticence to pass to Fred here is understandable because of Djenepo’s proximity. However, it encapsulates the issue of players lacking an idea outside of creating a 3-1 structure for progression. The creation of the 3-1 does not seem to imply any other subsequent actions, and serves to disconnect the full backs from build-up if the ball is held centrally for too long because of the adaptive in built measures in Southampton’s press which allows the wide midfielder to come narrow, threatening the far-side centre back. The problem is lack of clarity in ideas which causes slow circulation, which allows for the methodical limiting of space and options by Southampton leading to a turnover or an otherwise hopeful option being pursued.

An example of it working would be something like this:

Centre backs make the striker split then the defensive midfielder, Matić here, can turn and attempt to find a progressive pass, likely into the half-spaces. If played to Bruno on the right (which occurs) Fred is a backwards option, particularly as Djenepo commits to the central compaction. Which if the pass is waited well could allow for quick progression down the right flank. In this instance, I think James Ward-Prowse getting tight to Matić because the passing lane is open would have been the correct response. In general, Southampton are less compact here and not applying pressure directly to worry the ball carrier which makes pressing harder.

An example of the other attempted shape, a 4-1 working is displayed here:

Southampton midfielders are not close enough to offer a pressing threat to Matić in possession which allows the horizontal coverage to be exploited to find access in between the lines through going around the defence, opening new angles which are uncovered due to Southampton still being in the process of shuttling and restructuring in accordance with the crisp switch of possession. Wide enough to stretch but narrow enough as to not be constrained. Within 7 zone conceptualisation this is the second widest zone, where the half-space is split into two, which I think better approximates deep build-up conditions and better acts as a proxy to positioning. Pictured, it can be seen the semi-wide positioning helps Matić break the lines to find Pogba. This only works in the wide 4-1; however, because of the deeper positioning of Southampton wide midfielders relative to the forwards.

Issues however can arise when building backwards (it is a deep-rooted issue from more static circumstances) when too much time is taken which allows the opposition to successfully restructure mimicking a static game-state.

Issues however can arise when building backwards (it is a deep-rooted issue from more static circumstances) when too much time is taken which allows the opposition to successfully restructure mimicking a static game-state. When the defensive midfielder is covered, the ball carrier simply lacks option because of lack of support which is partly numerical and partly positional as compact central positioning establishes connections to expand to the wide outlets, rather than here where ball side commitment is forced through lack of options allowing Southampton to dominate the centre. To illustrate the potential for central compactness to provide better passing circumstances through generating tighter connections view the Shakhtar Donetsk example below, where the ball carrier has many options, compared to isolated Maguire within the 4-1 stucture.

Shakhtar Donetsk here are compact which allows for a greater degree of tight circulation to keep the ball moving quickly with this allowing for greater exploitation of small gaps which appear in the oppositions positioning. Shakhtar are an extreme example of this central compactness; however, it illustrates the necessity to create connections when building to move the opponent effectively rather than being unnecessarily spread out which is ineffective when lacking connections.

To show the persistence of the issue when building back from wide regions view above where a simiarly spread back 4 is created with few links limiting the potential of the ball carrier. Situations like this require a double pivot to provide additional support and better establish connections to exploit the horizontal stretching occurring.

Cycling back to the first 4-1 example; Maguire ultimately tries a hopeful ball to the flanks – time it takes to reach receiving player allows Southampton to shuttle and constrain via the touchline and force play backwards.

Emphasising a previous point regarding wide and half-space diamonds through dropping players, Paul Pogba here dropping opens access to Nemanja Matić. These types of up-back sequences are effective because they allow a different route of access in between the lines, undermining the forwards cover shadow. Because tight marking is common in these sequences, they essentially force quick movement of possession to prevent a turnover from occurring, which acts in United’s favour as it prevents dwelling.

Another example of where Pogba’s dropping to create an up-back sequence to open access in between the lines by undermining the cover shadow.

This then allows the for the exploitation of ball-sided compactness as Fred has time on the ball and progressive options to switch to.

Southampton here press higher, engaging in the box, funnelling the ball out wide quickly and subsequently moving to man-orientation to constrain on the touchline. This hastens play which leads to a give-and-go underlap from Wan-Bissaka to Bruno Fernandes.

This is promising as it has potential to be effective and shows similar up-back benefits of access the space the in between the lines and using the dynamic superiority generated by the forward run contrasted to the opponents previous closing down. It ultimately was not effective, but the decisiveness of action and speed of play suggested there was a plan, which had potential.

Overall, the issue, I think is more abstract, as Manchester United seemed to lack idea of a path of progression which required players to then dwell on the ball as the sequence above was an aberration rather than the norm. The ponderous pace made it Southampton readjustment and manipulation of space easier through cutting passing angles and gradual constrainment of space. The crucial aspect in playing a press which transforms into ball-sided man-orientation after a central zonal funnel is to achieve the dynamic superiority (time advantage – through having the initiative of making the movement first in addition to having generated more momentum due to earlier acceleration) and the tool I think best suited to achieving that in circumstances such as this, where there is consolidated deep possession is automatisation.

Pressing seeks to limit the time, space, and options available to the player in possession which in tandem, provoke suboptimal decisions and technical errors – generating opportunities for turnovers. Automatisation crucially generates more time in an effective or relative sense for the player in possession as they are already aware of their next action, and consequently, time spent processing and assessing options is eliminated which increases the speed at which they can conduct said action. This allows the ball carrier to play in more limited space, as they require less time. Superior knowledge is the fundamental concept to apply to automatisation. The players performing the automatism are more aware of the aims and consequences of their actions.

Automatisms for this reason often exist at the fringes, by which I mean, the touching point between possession maintained and turnover generated with slight errors potentially being disastrous as effective and quick execution are paramount. They often seek to vertically stretch an opponent and manipulate positioning with clairvoyance; baiting and subsequently exposing uncovered space of compaction attempts, whereby the more compact the positioning, the worse the subsequent spatial coverage, creating a structure which incentivises close calls. Effective and quick execution within tight spaces is what make the possession sequences seen under managers such as Antonio Conte aesthetic. The players are performing at a seemingly impossible level of swiftness if spontaneously reacting. Automatisation in essence, makes possible difficult sequences through reducing thinking time by setting a clear goal to be acted upon, which is known by the team, who can act with superior knowledge in positioning and action compared to the opposition reacting to events sequentially.

Many sequences have an intended recipient should the automatism go accordingly to plan, and the opposition react as anticipated, meaning the cutting of particular options is; firstly less effective as the possession team require less space and time and secondly, the creation of options to be cut is often planned to generate space elsewhere under the pretence non-automatised conditions may make pressing opportunities look advantageous but because of the aforementioned factors are a poisoned chalice making previously considered unavailable options, available, through quicker circulation or seemingly aimless passes into space, where in actuality a trigger has implied the necessity for a player to occupy the space (think a central midfielder dropping deep to support the wide full back in possession, who is about to receive from the centre back. He is tightly marked making the pass to him a bad option, but the space he occupied is being moved into, so that when the full back receives the ball, they can play a quick first-time pass into the space where a dropping forward or attacking midfielder can receive).

The prerequisite condition for automatisation is the creation of predictable playing circumstances which is why they frequently occur from deeper possession phases where the numerical superiority, often provided by the goalkeeper allows for control to be ascertained through the consistent creation of free men, thus allowing the team in possession greater control of the circumstances. Moreover, vertically stretching the opponent to create spaces in between the lines is often a critical component of automatised sequences, which can be achieved more effectively in deeper regions where the last line of defence advancement is limited by the half-way line, as they cannot use offside as a tool for making space ineffective.

I think incorporating an element of automatisation would play to our strengths additionally because they are typically intended to create transitional moments. Artificially producing counter attacking conditions through exposing the opponents pressing commitment which is analogous to attacking commitment. Space exploitation is where Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær thrive. Reticence however is understandable because of the risks involved in creating short passing automatisms which seek to draw pressure. Nevertheless, I think capitalising upon on potential predictable moments through a degree of automatisation is beneficial, all else equal with valuable considerations such as opportunity cost and limited time in between matches to significantly alter playstyle being pertinent.

In the short term, despite the downsides of his sometimes-slow possession play which I have consistent reiterated is a negative to our build-up play, I think Nemanja Matić should start in midfield, at least until Paul Pogba is(?) dropped back into the double pivot to add extra technical security, incision and positional nous when building from deep. Despite his presence though, this game highlighted the lack of connections present when building from the back which I think stems from lack of clarity regarding progression pathways, with thinking being overly microcosmic – meaning the pass may be safe and achieve but there is very little thought as to what comes next. Heuristics such as maintaining a double pivot when attempting to stretch the first line of the press horizontally and compacting in a 4-1 shape otherwise to better establish central control through enhanced connections would, I think, additionally help.

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