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HomeSportsDe Zerbi's adjustment that saw Brighton outsmart Ten Hag and Manchester United

De Zerbi’s adjustment that saw Brighton outsmart Ten Hag and Manchester United

De Zerbi’s adjustment that saw Brighton outsmart Ten Hag and Manchester United

Tactical changes are often associated with shape changes: a back three becomes a back four, for example, or a midfield three becomes a diamond. However, it is not exclusive to that.

The shapes are a way to simply explain the position of the players on the field. The dynamics of how a team operates within a given shape is another dimension: two identical formations could attack and defend in different ways depending on the movement of the players involved with and without the ball.

A tactical adjustment could be a change of strategy within the same shape, using the same players, introducing different types of movements or occupying different spaces. Brighton & Hove Albion’s latest win against Manchester United is yet another example of how tactical changes can happen in different ways.

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Limited by the lack of availability of their wingers, Erik ten Hag’s United entered the match at Old Trafford yesterday with a different formation, moving away from their usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 to play as a diamond in the center of the field. , with Bruno Fernandes operating up front, behind Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund:

In this way, United wanted to press Brighton’s 2-2 lead using only three players, to allow themselves a free man in defense. The idea was for Hojlund or Rashford to put pressure on the Brighton centre-back who had the ball, while blocking the passing lane to one of the midfielders while Fernandes put pressure on the other.

Here, Hojlund puts pressure on Lewis Dunk while blocking the passing lane to Mahmoud Dahoud, allowing Fernandes and Rashford to put pressure on Pascal Gross and Jan Paul van Hecke respectively, without worrying about Dahoud:

With limited passing options, Dunk passes a ball to Van Hecke…

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…who is immediately put under pressure by Rashford with Fernandes marking Gross just outside the penalty area. Further away, Christian Eriksen, the diamond’s left midfielder, is in a position to put pressure on Joel Veltman…

…which is what happens when Van Hecke passes the ball to his Dutch compatriot, who plays at right back for Brighton.

As is usual in Brighton’s build-up, Danny Welbeck drops in alongside Adam Lallana to support, followed by United centre-back Lisandro Martínez. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch, Scott McTominay moves inside to help United’s press, as Brighton were unable to reach their left-back, Tariq Lamptey, from this position using just one pass:

Under pressure, Veltman tries to find Simon Adingra on the line, but Martínez intercepts:

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In our next example, the angle from which Hojlund presses Van Hecke means that the central defender cannot pass the ball to Dahoud.

As a result, Rashford and Fernandes can press Dunk and Gross without worrying about a pass to the German midfielder. A couple of lines further, Martínez clings to Welbeck…

…turning it into a three-on-three situation on the other side of the field as Van Hecke passes the ball to Gross. This pass causes pressure from Fernandes…

…and with the Portuguese limiting Gross’s time on the ball, Welbeck turns his marker and runs into space. The problem for Brighton is that, as United are successfully pressing with one less player up the pitch, they have an extra player free at the back.

Victor Lindelof, that leftover United player, resumes Welbeck’s career while Martínez calmly tells his central teammate to change assignments:

With no clear passing option, Gross passes to Veltman on the touchline, who has Eriksen ready to press him and Hojlund coming down to mark Dahoud. The consequence is that Brighton goes back to Van Hecke:

Here’s another example of how United’s pressure worked.

Rashford puts pressure on Dunk and blocks the pass to Dahoud, allowing Hojlund and Rashford (yellow) to put pressure on Van Hecke and Gross. In the United field, Martínez once again follows Welbeck, because the three against four on the field leaves the home team a free player in the rear: Lindelof.

Dunk goes straight to Van Hecke…

…and United’s forwards adjust their positioning to ensure they continue to press the ball while blocking passing angles towards Gross and Dahoud…

…leaving Dunk with no choice but to leave long after Van Hecke returns the ball to him.

United managed to regain possession from that pass up top, but the key here is the positioning of Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford.

Again, Rashford blocks the passing lane towards Dahoud while putting pressure on Dunk, allowing his two teammates to put pressure on Gross and Van Hecke if necessary:

Even when Brighton’s full-backs moved inside and Gross moved forward, United were prepared. The 4-1-3-2 shape meant they could easily go man-to-man, with Martínez shifting the focus from him to Gross, leaving Welbeck for Lindelof to score:

“In the first 15 to 20 minutes we suffered a lot because Manchester United played in a different way than we prepared before the game,” said Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbi.

However, during that period, there was one case that could have given Brighton a solution against United’s pressure.

In the eighth minute, Van Hecke and Dunk were more open in the build-up, as their goalkeeper Jason Steele had the ball. This means that the space that Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford have to cover is greater, so they cannot block passing lanes while pressuring Brighton’s centre-backs with the same ease:

On top of that, involving Steele more in the build-up further complicates matters for United’s pressing.

Here, Rashford tries to put pressure on the goalkeeper while blocking the passing lane towards Van Hecke, but Steele easily finds Dunk wide while Fernandes and Hojlund concentrate on Gross and Dahoud. As for Eriksen and McTominay, they could not leave their position without risking their form:

Expanding the centre-backs and using Steele in the build-up helped Brighton overcome United’s pressure in this attack…

…and De Zerbi’s message to Dunk after Welbeck opened the scoring could have been the same…

…because after that goal, Dunk and Van Hecke made sure to be more open:

In the example below, Dunk is open enough on Brighton’s left side to not be in the frame of the image below, and Van Hecke also maintains an open position on the right side while Steele waits for the ball.

The difference now compared to previous examples is that United’s forwards have to cover another player in Steele, and more ground due to the extension of their centre-back colleagues…

…which makes it easier for De Zerbi’s team to move up the field:

Here is another example.

Hojlund tries to pressure Steele as he blocks the passing lane to Dahoud, and Fernandes and Rashford mark Gross and Van Hecke, with Casemiro trying to help. The problem is that Dunk is completely free on the left due to the great distance that separates him from his teammate Van Hecke…

…which allows Steele to pass a ball to the England defender:

McTominay can’t go up to press Dunk because that’s not his role:

These two adjustments gave Brighton the advantage for the rest of the match, as United’s pressing could no longer be effective, and in the second half, it was Dunk’s wide positioning that led to the visitors’ decisive third goal.

Here, Brighton’s build-up extends the width of their penalty area with Gross on the right side and Dunk on the left. While Van Hecke passes the ball to the German…

…United’s tight front three move to the left, leaving Dunk free. Brighton then circulate the ball to the other side of the pitch to find it…

…and comfortably plays the ball forward for Lamptey…

…before the full-back assists Joao Pedro, who makes it 3-0:

Increasing the distance between their center backs and getting Steele on the ball wasn’t a major change in form, but it was a solution that helped Brighton against United’s press and ultimately gave them control of the game.

Sometimes maintaining form and making a small adjustment is the right answer.



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