Ralf Rangnick’s introduction at Manchester United has been far from smooth given the COVID-19 outbreak within the camp, meaning the German has only taken charge of three Premier League games.
Despite this, two 1-0 wins vs Crystal Palace and Norwich City respectively seemed to have steadied the ship at Old Trafford after a poor start to the campaign. However, a 1-1 draw away at Newcastle proved there is definitely still work to be done.
Yet, with limited training time and a poor general team performance on Tyneside, the tactical elements in the game were difficult to see, and so this article will provide focus on the former two matches that the German manager has had with the side.
The article observes United from a tactical perspective to examine the themes and patterns of play that have been evident in those two games, whilst also explaining specific aspects of performance that we may see in the near future.
General deep possession (specifically from static goal kicks) was a fundamental problem throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjær. United were predictable and static, therefore being easier to press.
Therefore, it was satisfying to see one pattern which had seemingly been worked on in the days leading up to the home match vs Crystal Palace.
To summarise, I will explain the pattern in a series of sequential steps:
1. Ball is moved from De Gea to Maguire. Centre-backs received without pressure due to the passive nature of Palace’s press until the second outfield line (double pivot and full-backs).
2. Maguire steps forward with the ball, eventually passing to Alex Telles on the touchline.
3. Alex Telles receives the ball and is pressed quickly by Palace’s right midfielder, as the opposition seek to use the constraining effect of the touchline. As Telles is receiving the ball, the ball side attacking midfielder (Jadon Sancho on this occasion) is positioned in the half-space and drops towards the ball to offer Telles a short option.
4. This towards the ball movement from Sancho is used as a decoy as it drags Crystal Palace’s right-back forward and into a more narrow position, thus triggering a run down the line from United’s ball side forward, Marcus Rashford.
5. Rashford receives the vertical pass from Alex Telles which creates a 1v1 vs James Tomkins, who has been pulled wide as a result of the movement of Sancho and Rashford.
This is also summarised in the following diagram. Key: Dotted line = player movement. Solid line = pass.
The rigid nature of the 1-4-2-2-2 from the static goal kick naturally gives you greater depth than other setups such as the 1-4-2-4 due to the additional outfield line. This greater depth essentially facilitates this pattern, as it allows United to stretch the opposition not only vertically, but also horizontally through touchline full-backs and Rashford drifting wide.
Isolating Rashford 1v1 vs a centre-back is an advantageous situation for United due to the creation of a qualitative superiority. This is essentially whereby although numerically the situation is equal, Rashford is deemed to have the advantage over the defender due to not only his 1v1 ability, but also due to the creation of central space to cut inside as a consequence of the opposition centre back being pulled wide.
The movement of Sancho, or the ball side attacking midfielder which could also be Bruno Fernandes as their in-game rotation suggests, is crucial to isolating Rashford 1v1 against the opposition defender. The movement towards the ball, without the intention of receiving due to being tightly marked and the pass itself being a risky one, drags the opposition full-back forward and into a more narrow position, thus increasing the distance between themselves and their ball side centre-back, which ultimately increases the time and space Rashford has in isolation against the opposition centre-back.
From early observations, the pattern seems to work slightly differently on the right, in that the ball side attacking midfielder starts deeper and is essentially on the same horizontal line as the full-back (Dalot) as he receives from the centre-back (Lindelof). The main difference however, is that the ball side forward (Ronaldo) drops towards the ball to receive from the full-back, as opposed to running down the line to receive the ball, which facilitates a combination between Ronaldo and the ball side attacking midfielder in a tight area once he receives.
The following diagram visualises this: Key: Dotted line = player movement. Solid line = pass.
The rationale behind the different patterns depending on which flank it occurs on seems to be the personnel in the forward positions: Rashford vs Ronaldo. The latter is more suited to receiving the ball to feet rather than in behind, whereas Rashford thrives in attacking space and is very direct when one on one vs a defender. Therefore creating the qualitative superiority down the left flank is more advantageous for United.
The pattern down the right is also arguably more suited to Jadon Sancho in comparison with Bruno Fernandes, due to his ability to combine with team mates in tight spaces and therefore create opportunities to switch play. This was seen in the Norwich game; Dalot fired the ball into the feet of Ronaldo, who played a first time ‘lay off’ pass to Sancho, who quickly returned the favour and then received the ball back from Ronaldo, which would have created an opportunity to switch if it wasn’t for sharp defending by Lukas Rupp to recognise and suss out the danger.
The switch of play following this combination between Ronaldo and the ball side attacking midfielder is something that I hope we see happen in the near future as a result of this pattern. This is because when the ball is moved towards our full-back, the opposition midfield will naturally commit towards the ball side in attempt to compact the ball area and also cut out any possible passing options that the ball carrier has available, which in turn, creates greater amounts of space on the left flank.
Marcus Rashford will be crucial to this eventual switch of play as his narrow position seeks to pin the opposition far side full-back inside, which creates significant space out wide for our far side full-back (presumably Alex Telles given his recent run of form) to move into in order to receive the switch first time, or overlap the far side attacking midfielder who might receive the original switch pass as this inside pass is more achievable given the horizontal distance between the players being shorter.
In general, the pressing already seems to be more cohesive than the previous tenure under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, even in this short period. This will hopefully only improve given that 1) Rangnick teams are generally renowned for aggressive, front foot pressing, and 2) because a sophisticated pressing structure should take time on the training ground to be implemented properly.
The structure begins as a 1-4-2-2-2 when the opposition have deep central possession (i.e., a static goal kick).
When the ball moves wide to the opposition full-backs, the press becomes more intense and man-oriented. The ball side attacking midfielder will jump from the narrow half-space position towards the full-back, applying aggressive pressure and preventing an inside pass, either trying to regain possession or force possession down the line so the constraining effect of the touchline can be utilised.
The wide pass also triggers a number of actions which are carried out with the aim of compacting the ball side to maximise the chances of a turnover: the ball side defensive midfielder marks the opposition’s closest central midfielder, whilst the full-back engages the vertical line pass, ensuring they are ready to pressure aggressively if the ball is played down the line. The far side defensive and attacking midfielders shuttle across into a more central position, reducing the effective pitch size, thus achieving a more narrow out of possession structure, thus creating a greater environment for the ball to be regained.
The following diagram seeks to visualise the role of each player during the touchline press. Key: Dotted line = player movement. Solid line = pass.
One potential way to exploit our press seems to be when our ball side forward presses the opposition centre-back in possession and naturally directly blocks access to the opposition defensive midfielder due to in to out pressing (forcing down the line). This can be exploited via a dropping midfielder being used as the link pass to access the defensive midfielder who can then receive freely and switch play to potentially exploit the especially under loaded flank (given United’s heavy commitment to ball side in pressing thus far under Rangnick).
This is visualised below with an example from the Crystal Palace game.
This is why I feel a crucial part of our press is for the far side forward to step into a more narrow position when the ball side forward is engaging with the centre-back in possession. This will prevent the defensive midfielder from being free to receive and will essentially make this pass impossible due to the risks associated with being pressured deep in your own half with all other options tightly marked.
After a successful ball side press, i.e., possession is regained, it seems that the far side attacking midfielder holds significant potential in transition. This is because their responsibility from the moment the ball moves to the opposite side centre-back is to compact the ball side, therefore operating zonally, whilst ball side players operate in a man-oriented manner.
Therefore when possession is won following the ball side press, the far side attacking midfielder is unmarked and free to receive a diagonal pass because their previous zonal responsibility means no opposition player is directly close to them.
Therefore seeking to find this player upon regain after a ball side press seems to be a viable strategy in attempting to exploit the opposition in their transition from in an possession shape to out of possession shape because this player will have time and space to turn and drive forward at the opposition backline, which will temporarily be lacking compactness due to the nature of the transition.
Finally, and more specifically in possession, the 1-4-2-2-2 naturally results in attackers occupying the same vertical lines due to the similar vertical nature of their position. I feel this is exacerbated by the nature of our attacking players; for example, Sancho and Rashford both naturally want to occupy the half-space which can sometimes cause congestion.
I feel this can have drawbacks because it essentially can reduce the effectiveness of our spacing between the lines. This seems to result in imbalance in terms of horizontal coverage between the lines as overloading one specific area naturally results in less coverage elsewhere. We naturally rely on the full-backs to provide width in attack and therefore they can become isolated after receiving the ball as a result of the narrow structure of our attacking four, for example, when the ball is switched there is no player in the half-space instantly ready to receive and combine with the full-back to work a crossing / cutback opportunity.
On the other hand, I feel this can also have benefits. Quick combinations between the lines are possible if players are in proximity with each other. This suits the likes of Sancho too, who can surely become the creative hub of the team. One aspect which is crucial to the success of these combinations is a third man run, and I believe the full-backs are best suited to produce this.
Occupation of the half-spaces naturally draws the opposition full-back into a more narrow position which in turn creates space for a penetrating third man run from the full back on the blindside of the opposition wide midfielder.
Perhaps a pattern like this could be possible in future matches in order to create a crossing opportunity.
To conclude, it seems United look more cohesive in their pressing and more effective in their build-up in comparison with the previous tenure. One aspect which seems to have significant potential is finding the far side attacking midfielder after a successful ball side press. It remains to be seen whether Rangnick can build on this good start and continue to implement his ideas.