Analysing Manchester United’s build-up structure – By Eric Laurie

Written by guest writer and tactical analyst Eric Laurie, follow him on Twitter here.

For different reasons, the coaching staff at Manchester United have been very persistent in their use of a double pivot over the past few seasons. I assume the rationale behind this is based on a couple different factors. One of those factors is an added layer of protection, which is a key benefit of a double pivot. United´s front four clearly have instructions that they should attack with freedom and fluidity — having two players sit in midfield allows for that freedom, with the forward players knowing their is protection behind them in the form of a double pivot.

Another reason I suspect there is persistence with the double pivot, is the coaching staffs desire to utilise fullbacks in the attack. Again, the use of the double pivot allows for fullbacks to overlap simultaneously, and puts less pressure on them to tuck inside when the ball is on the opposite wing.

Taking the aforementioned into account, I will assume United´s use of the double pivot will continue moving forward, and will have a closer look at adjustments to the structure based on that. Below I will highlight what I feel to be some of the fundamental problems with the current shapes used — what I would consider to be a 2–4 shape and a 3–1 shape.

The 2–4 structure, and its deficiencies

United´s primary 4–2–3–1 formation often turns into a 2–4 shape during the build-up phase. This presents a few problems against teams who defend with a high-block, particularly when they press with two strikers.

2–4 shape vs Southampton (double pivot with advanced fullbacks)

During the build-up phase, the primary goal for most teams is to progress into the midfield. To achieve this in a way which is easiest for the players to execute, there are a few key factors: passing angles, passing lanes, triangles and support underneath the receiver. As seen in the above image, arguably none of those four principles are present. Harry Maguire has the ball at his feet, and he pretty much has two options, up the left wing to Luke Shaw, who would be immediately pressed against the sideline, and most likely forced back. Or Maguire can pass to Victor Lindelof who will be in the exact same situation as Maguire was, except on the right side.

Creating a 4–2 shape

Theoretically speaking, how can this be solved? By dropping the fullbacks into a deeper starting point.

Deeper fullbacks — creating a 4–2 structure

This particular change to the fullbacks positioning will help to achieve a few things.

  1. Easier passing angles into the midfield for the fullbacks.
  2. Allow the fullbacks more time and space on the ball when receiving, and avoiding the pressing traps against the sideline.
  3. Offer a better option underneath the central midfielders in the instances when the centre backs are able to find them between the lines directly

Angles into the midfield

To get around the opposition block, deeper fullbacks creates better progressive passing angles into the pivot players. Patience in the build-up with quick passing and few touches will open these passing lanes into the midfield and allow for a more simple pass than if the fullback was receiving further up the pitch with a more closed body orientation.

Angled passes into the midfield

Avoid pressing traps

Teams that that defend in a 4–4–2 high-block, with in-to-out pressure, tend to use the sideline as one of their main pressing triggers. When the fullbacks receive higher up the pitch, this means the ball-near winger is in close proximity, the ball-near striker can cut off support passes with a quick back press, and the fullback will most likely receive with a closed body shape (image below). By dropping deeper, this allows them to receive with an open body shape, and most likely have a lot more time and space before they are pressured by the opposition. IF the opposition winger does pressure further up the pitch to prevent this, new passing lanes will be created for the centre backs to find the ball near winger between the lines.

High fullback being pressed against the sideline

Support for the pivot

Both Maguire and Lindelof are above average passing centre backs. If the pivot players are able to avoid the cover shadow for a split second, each of the two centre backs are more than capable of playing line breaking passes into their feet. In these situations however, they will most likely receive with their backs to goal, and be pressed very quickly from behind. What this does achieve however, is the opposition block collapsing around them and opening spaces on the wings for progression. They will need support underneath to release the pressure and achieve this though. Again, something which can be done by simply dropping the starting positions of the fullbacks.

Deep fullback offering support to the pivot

The above solution forces the opposition right winger to make a decision. Should they hold their position and apply pressure to the centre midfield? Should they jump the passing lane and attempt to block the support pass to the fullback, in turn creating a passing lane up to the left wing? Or should they maintain shape and allow for the fullback to receive with time and space to progress into? Though a fullback in the 2–4 structure is still able to receive from the centre mid, it makes the angles much tighter and execution more diffucult.

Dropping a Centre Mid to Create a 3–1 Shape

When United struggle to progress play in their 2–4 shape, they typically tend to drop one of the pivot players between the centre backs to create a numerical superiority in front of the opposition pressure. Dropping a midfielder in between the centre backs is a very common tactic in world football. However, the problem which often arises when United attempt this, is that the other pivot player is isolated in the midfield, which allows for the opposition to easier pressure with cover shadows and block central progression. A 3–2 shape is much more conducive for progression via passing angles, and more vertical option in central areas.

Manchester United’s 3–1 shape, with Nemanja Matic dropping down

One of the main issues with the above image is quite easy to see. With just one centre mid, either one of the Southampton strikers should be able to block passing lanes with their cover shadow at any given time, no matter which United player in the back three has possession. A 3–2 shape allows for the pivot to split, and either receive on the outside of the Southampton strikers, or for one to maintain the central positioning and one to receive on the outside. It also helps to avoid the 90 degree vertical angles which is being created between Nemanja Matic and Fred in the above image.

How United create their 3–1 shape

The 3–2

I am not going to get intopersonnel, as that is a different discussion, but if United wish to create overloads in the build-up with a three man backline, they could attempt to do this while maintaining two central players. This can be done in a few different ways, the most simple of which would be to play in a 3–4–3 system similar to that of Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel.

Assuming United wish to continue with a back four out of possession, they would have a few options for creating the 3–2. One of which would be an asymmetric back four.

Asymmetric back four

With one of the fullbacks pushing forward, and the other tucking inside, the 3–2 shape is created in the build-up, while the double pivot maintains their positioning. Another option for creating the 3–2, is for one of the pivot players to drop in as they currently do to form the back three. With one of the fullbacks pushing forward, and the other inverting centrally.

3–2 with inverted fullback

As mentioned above, the 3–2 shape creates better angles for central progression, and also more triangles for quicker access to multiple players.


At the highest levels, where the speed of play goes extremely fast and time and space is extremely limited, creating situations where players can succeed a high percentage of the time is invaluable. Of course there is no blueprint to building play, or every team would look the same. There is A LOT of other factors to consider when changing shape or structure, and build can not be the only phase in focus.

Written by guest writer and tactical analyst Eric Laurie, follow him on Twitter here.

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