Tactical changes are often associated with switches in shape – a back three becomes a back four, say, or a center three becomes a diamond. However, it is not exclusive.
Shapes are a way to explain the position of players on the field in a simple way. The dynamics of how a team operates within a given shape is another dimension – two identical formations can attack and defend in different ways depending on the movement of players with and without the ball.
A tactical adjustment can be changing the strategy within the same shape, using the same players, introducing different types of moves or occupying different spaces. Brighton & Hove Albion’s recent win against Manchester United is another example of how tactical changes can happen in different ways.
Hampered by the unavailability of their wingers, United’s Erik ten Hag entered the match at Old Trafford yesterday in a different formation, deviating from their usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 and playing a diamond in midfield. , with Bruno Fernandes operating at his leading edge, behind Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund:
Within this shape, United wanted to push through Brighton’s 2-2 formation using just three players to allow themselves a free man in defence. The idea was for Hojlund or Rashford to press whichever Brighton centre-back had the ball while blocking a passing lane for one of the midfielders while Fernandes pressed the other.
Here, Hojlund presses Lewis Dunk while blocking Mahmoud Dahoud’s passing lane, allowing Fernandes and Rashford to press Pascal Gross and Jan Paul van Hecke without worrying about Dahoud:
With limited passing options, Dunk plays the ball to Van Hecke…
…which is immediately pressed by Rashford and Fernandes marks Gross just outside the penalty area. Even more, Christian Eriksen, the left-sided midfielder in the diamond, is in a position to pressure Joel Veltman…
…which happens when Van Hecke moves the ball to his fellow Dutchman who plays at right-back for Brighton.
As is customary for Brighton, Danny Welbeck drops out alongside Adam Lallana in support, followed by United centre-back Lisandro Martinez. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Scott McTominay moves inside to help United press as Brighton were unable to reach their left-back Tariq Lamptey from this position with just one pass:
Veltman tries to find Simon Adingra on the line under pressure, but Martinez intervenes:
In our next example, the angle from which Hojlund presses Van Hecke means that the centre-back cannot play the ball forward to Dahoud.
This allows Rashford and Fernandes to press Dunk and Gross without worrying about passing to the German midfielder. A few rows behind them, Martinez is holding on to Welbeck…
…and on the other side of the field a three-on-three situation arose when Van Hecke passed the ball to Gross. This pass will invite pressure from Fernandes…
…and as the Portuguese limits Gross’s time on the ball, Welbeck turns the marker and runs into space. Brighton’s problem is that because United are successfully pushing with one less player further up the pitch, they have an extra free man at the back.
Victor Lindelof, United’s substitute, takes Welbeck’s drive as Martinez calmly signals his centre-back to switch tasks:
With no clear passing option, Gross passes to Veltman on the touchline, who has Eriksen ready to press him and Hojlund drops to mark Dahoud. The implication is that Brighton goes all the way back to Van Hecke:
Here’s another example of how United’s pressing worked.
Rashford presses Dunk and blocks a pass to Dahoud, allowing Hojlund and Rashford (yellow) to press Van Hecke and Gross. In United’s half, Martinez again follows Welbeck as a three-on-four down the pitch provides the home side with a free man at the back in Lindelof.
The dunk goes straight to Van Hecke…
…and the United forwards are adjusting their position to make sure they keep pressing the ball and blocking the passing angles to Gross and Dahoud…
…and Dunk has no choice but to go long after Van Hecke returns the ball to him.
United were able to regain possession from this pass, but the positioning of Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford is key here.
Rashford again blocks the passing lane to Dahoud while pressing Dunk, allowing his two team-mates to squeeze Gross and Van Hecke when needed:
Even with Brighton’s full-backs moving inside and Gross pushing forward, United were prepared. The 4-1-3-2 shape meant they could easily go man-to-man, with Martinez targeting Gross, leaving Welbeck for Lindelof to mark:
“We suffered a lot in the first 15-20 minutes because Manchester United played in a different way (than) we prepared before the game,” Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi said.
However, there was one instance during this period that could have provided Brighton with a solution against United’s pressure.
In the eighth minute, Van Hecke and Dunk are set up wider as their goalkeeper Jason Steele has the ball. This means that the space Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford have to cover is greater, so they can’t block passing lanes while pressing Brighton’s centre-backs with equal ease:
Additionally, having Steele become more involved in the build-up complicates the situation even more for United.
Here, Rashford tries to pressure the keeper and block a pass to Van Hecke, but Steele easily finds Dunk outside, while Fernandes and Hojlund focus on Gross and Dahoud. As for Eriksen and McTominay, they couldn’t leave their position without risking a threat to form:
The expansion of the centre-backs and the use of Steele in the formation helped Brighton push past United’s pressing in this attacking…
…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 they were wider:
In this next example, Dunk is wide enough on Brighton’s left that he is not in the picture below, and Van Hecke also maintains a wide position on the right while Steele waits for the ball.
The difference to the examples above is that United’s forwards have to cover another player in Steele and more space due to the extension of his fellow centre-backs…
…which makes it easier for De Zerbi to progress on the pitch:
Here is another example.
Hojlund tries to press Steele and 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 large distance between him and partner Van Heck…
…which allows Steele to play the ball to an England defender:
McTominay can’t move up and press Dunk because that’s not his role:
These two adjustments put Brighton on top for the remainder of the game as United’s pressure could no longer be effective and in the second half it was Dunk’s wide position that led to the visitors’ decisive third goal.
Here, Brighton’s stacked shape is spread across the width of their penalty area with Gross on the right and Dunk on the left. While Van Hecke plays with the ball the Germans…
…United’s narrow front three move towards their left, leaving Dunk free. Brighton then circulated the ball to the other side of the pitch to find…
…and comfortably plays the ball forward for Lamptey…
…before the full-back sets up Joao Pedro to make it 3-0:
Increasing the distance between their centre-backs and getting Steele on 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 the right answer is to keep the shape and introduce a small improvement.