Tactical changes are often associated with changes in shape, such as a back three turning into a back four, or a midfield three turning into a diamond. However, it is not limited to that.
Figures are a way to explain players’ position on the field in simple terms. The dynamics of how a team operates within a given formation is another dimension – two identical formations can attack and defend in different ways depending on the movement of the players involved with and without the ball.
A tactical adjustment can be a change in strategy within the same format, using the same players, by introducing different types of movements or occupying different spaces. Brighton & Hove Albion’s recent win over Manchester United is another example of how tactical changes can happen in different ways.
With their wingers unavailable, 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 formation to play a diamond in midfield. With Bruno Fernandes operating up front, behind Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hoglund:
Within this shape, United wanted to press Brighton’s 2-2 build using only three players, allowing themselves to play a free man role in defence. The idea was for Hoglund or Rashford to press whichever Brighton centre-backs had the ball, while blocking the passing lane for one of the midfielders while Fernandes pressed the other.
Here Hoglund puts pressure on Lewis Dunk while blocking Mahmoud Daoud’s passing lane, allowing Fernandes and Rashford to pressure Pascal Gross and Jan-Paul van Hecke respectively, without worrying about Daoud:
With limited passing options, Dunk passes the ball to Van Hecke…
…Which was immediately pressed by Rashford with Fernandes marking Gross just outside the penalty area. More widely, Christian Eriksen, the left midfielder on the diamond, is in a position to put pressure on Joel Veltman…
…And this is what happens when Van Hecke passes the ball to his Dutch colleague, who plays as a right back for Brighton.
As is usual in Brighton’s attacking build-up, Danny Welbeck comes down alongside Adam Lallana to support the team, followed by United centre-back Lisandro Martinez. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch, Scott McTominay moves inside to help United press as Brighton were unable to reach left-back, Tariq Lamptey, from this position using just one pass:
Under pressure, Veltman tries to find Simon Adingra on the line, but Martinez objects:
In the following example, the angle from which Hoglund presses Van Hecke means that the centre-back cannot play the ball forward to Dahoud.
As a result, Rashford and Fernandes can put pressure on Dunk and Gross without worrying about the pass to the German midfielder. A few lines later, Martinez desperately clings to Welbeck…
…making a three-on-three situation on the other side of the pitch when Van Hecke plays the ball to Gross. This pass leads to pressure from Fernandes…
…With the Portuguese limiting Gross’s time on the ball, Welbeck turns his marker and launches into space. The problem for Brighton is that because United successfully press with one less player up the pitch, they have an extra free player at the back.
Victor Lindelof, United’s reserve player, follows Welbeck’s path while Martinez calmly signals to his centre-back partner to switch duties:
With no clear passing option, Gross passes to Veltman on the touchline, who has Eriksen ready to press him while Hoglund drops back to mark Daoud. The result is Brighton returning to Van Hecke:
Here’s another example of how United’s pressing works.
Rashford puts pressure on Dunk and blocks Dahoud’s pass, allowing Hoglund and Rashford (yellow) to pressure Van Hecke and Gross. In United’s half, Martinez again pursues Welbeck, as the three-on-four upfield gives the home team a free player at the back in Lindelof.
Donk heads towards Van Hecke…
…and United’s attackers adjust their positions to ensure they still press the ball while blocking the passing angles of Gross and Daoud…
…Dunk was left with no choice but to continue long after Van Hecke gave the ball back to him.
United were able to win the ball back from that pass, but the key thing here is the positioning of Fernandes, Hoglund and Rashford.
Once again, Rashford closes off the passing lane to Daoud while pressing the dunk, allowing his teammates to pressure Gross and Van Hecke if necessary:
Even when the Brighton full-back moved inside and pushed Gross forward, United were prepared. A 4-1-3-2 shape means they can easily play man-to-man, with Martinez shifting his focus to Gross, leaving Welbeck for Lindelof to watch:
Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbe said: “In the first 15 or 20 minutes, we suffered a lot because Manchester United played in a different way than we were preparing for before the match.”
However, during that period, there was one instance that might have provided Brighton with a solution against United’s pressure.
In the eighth minute, Van Hecke and Dunk were positioned wider in the build-up as goalkeeper Jason Steele gained possession of the ball. This means that Fernandes, Hoglund and Rashford have more space to cover, so they can’t block the passing lanes while pressing Brighton’s centre-backs as easily:
Additionally, involving Steele more in the build-up further complicates matters for United’s pressing.
Here, Rashford tries to pressure the goalkeeper while blocking the passing lane to Van Hecke, but Steele easily finds the dunk wide as Fernandes and Hoglund focus on Gross and Daoud. As for Eriksen and McTominay, they cannot leave their position without risking compromising form:
Expanding the midfield and using Steele in the build-up helped Brighton play through United’s pressure in this attack…
…and perhaps De Zerbe’s message to Dunk after Welbeck opened the scoring was the same…
…Because after this goal, Dunk and Van Hecke made sure of their positioning more widely:
In the following example, Dunk is wide enough to Brighton’s left that he is not in the frame in the image below, and Van Hecke also maintains a wide position on the right side as Steele waits for the ball.
The difference now compared to the above examples is that United’s attackers have to cover another player, Steele, and more space due to the spread of his teammates in the centre-back…
…which makes it easier for De Zerbe’s team to advance on the field:
Here’s another example.
Hoglund tries to pressure Steele while blocking Daoud’s passing lane, Fernandes and Rashford mark Gross and Van Hecke, while Casemiro tries to help. The problem is that Dunk is completely free on the left due to the large distance between him and his partner Van Hecke…
…allowing Steele to play the ball to the England defender:
McTominay cannot move to pressure the dunk because that is not his role:
These two adjustments gave Brighton the upper hand for the rest of the game as United’s pressing was no longer effective, and in the second half, it was Dunk’s positioning wide that led to the visitors’ crucial third goal.
Here, Brighton’s build-up shape is spread across the width of the penalty area, with Gross on the right side and Dunk on the left. While Van Hecke plays the ball for the German…
…United’s narrow front three moves left, leaving Dunk free. Brighton then pass the ball to the other side of the pitch to find him…
…and plays the ball comfortably forward for Lamptey…
…before the full-back passes to Joao Pedro, which makes it 3-0:
Increasing the distance between the centre-backs and Steele getting the ball wasn’t a huge change in shape but it was a solution that helped Brighton against United’s press, and ultimately gave them control of the game.
Sometimes, maintaining the shape and making minor adjustments is the right solution.
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