Updated: Jul 15, 2020
In recent weeks, I've taken the opportunity to watch Manchester United and saw something that I wanted to share. Now before we start, a little disclaimer that I am aware that I have a very small sample size of games and am also looking at this against against a very basic data set, so if the numbers or system are not represented over the full season, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) as I would be very interested to hear about how this measures against what they have done previously. First up.... when I'm watching a team who are in a good run of form, which United certainly are, I'm always very curious to see the build. Typically with teams in winning runs, it's really positive and with a high tempo build, which United certainly are doing.... but one thing stood out for me and when Harry Maguire is in possession.
With the COVID break and heavy game schedule, more teams are opting for pressing traps as oppose to high pressing for sustained periods of time. The most common trigger for a pressing trap is the center back pass to the full-back (see below).
Here are a couple of similar examples of this in the games against Brighton and Sheffield United. Look at how the opposition wide player holds before the pass and then sprints aggressively to close it down.
It seems like Manchester United and Maguire are well aware of this and try to counter-act it in a very simple way: Reduce the amount of passes from center back to full-back. I was curious if the pass maps showed anything different around this and reached out to performance analyst Carlon Carpenter. Against Aston Villa, only 8 out of 56 of Harry Maguire's passes went to Luke Shaw. Similarly, against Bournemouth, there were only 12 of 82 passes were from center back to the full-back. Below is a pass map of those passes versus Bournemouth and, if it looks a little messy, I think that's exactly the point. Defending against this variety of distribution would be incredibly challenging for a manager to counteract.
Of course, asking a center back to play less passes to their nearest full-back is much easier said than done, and one of the most impressive things for me when watching United recently has been how they have set this up when in possession of the ball in order to change the picture and the options available to center backs. Frequently United have dropped in a holding midfielder like Nemanja Matic, in between or alongside the center backs. This creates a number of positive attacking pictures for the team:
Full-backs know have license to go higher because the three players at the back can cover those traditional spaces
The wide forwards can tuck inside and now potentially overload spaces and ask questions of defensive shape of the opponents.
Defensively United have cover for a potential counter attack with three players covering centrally
It suits the profile of Pogba and Maguire in terms of their ability to play longer passes with the constant availability of width and multiple passing options higher up the pitch
Below is an example of how this structure changes from a starting in a traditional 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1
Here are some clips of United utilizing this type of movement in the recent games that I have watched. The first one below is against Aston Villa.
This one is against Sheffield United and Brighton. Again, you can see the clips where Maguire has multiple options, and chooses to overlook a pass to the full-back or even to his center-back partner.
What message does this have for youth levels? I think there is a pretty powerful takeaway in the development of center backs in possession. Traditionally center backs are applauded for their pass completion and their ability to be comfortable on the ball. But at the highest levels, we are seeing that this is no longer enough. The position is changing and the challenges are increasing. How do you define comfortable on the ball? In basic terms, this is the ability to pass and receive successfully. In Manchester United and Harry Maguire's case however, it goes way beyond that. Look at the pass map below and that used to resemble a central midfielder. Now the center back is becoming more of a quarterback in-possession and that takes an incredible level of ability to do consistently. We often hear the term "possession is a tool" and this certainly seems the case for United. It's a tool in moving players into higher valued positions, asking more questions of the opposition, and putting them in a position for defensive transitions. This should also challenge how we coach the center backs in possession, particularly at the youth level. Rather than demanding them to "find feet" or "keep it simple" we must now be helping them to solve problems and not placing limitations on their ability to do so.
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