“I want my defensive organisation to be better but the defence begins in the striker’s position. It is team work, so when we concede a goal it’s not only because of an individual error in the defence. It starts somewhere else and that we have to analyse and improve. ”

These were the words of Louis van Gaal not long after United’s famous collapse away to Leicester last season. The turnaround in United’s game from a defensive point of view have been so dramatic since then it led to this comment from Van Gaal in August 2015 (just under a year after):

‘’You are writing that we have no defence and that we are not good enough, and then I say that the defence is starting in attack and not with the defenders and now we prove it’’.

So what do United do so well that has led Gary Neville to brand them:

 ‘’the most well-drilled defensive unit in the league’’?

General Shape and Benefits

This season United have been defending in a 4-4-2 shape (see image 1) as part of the mid-high block defensive system Van Gaal has implemented. United look to maintain their shape with high vertical compactness (lines of defence being close together) this makes it very difficult for opponents to progress vertically as it means United control vital areas of the pitch.

Image 1

Image 1

With two players in the first line of defence United can distribute roles effectively such as one forward covering the opposition pivot and the other pressing a centre back. This helps United restrict opportunities for opponents to develop possession in the all-important centre and half spaces of the pitch in turn encouraging teams to play out wide which is a major pressing trigger, more on this later. Alternately teams will play the ball long to get players in behind United’s defence which can be dangerous but this is very difficult to execute correctly. This is an advantage of United’s shape as ultimately they make the opponents’ play predictable which is key to defending well.

Horizontally United are not so compact in the pressing phase with the block often stretching from one wing to the opposite half space, however this changes in the deep block phase.

Height of Pressing (Line of confrontation)

United generally confront the opposition midway in their half (if they try to play out that is), however this is dependent on the opponents, the game state i.e. winning or losing and time in the game. The front line can be described as relatively passive with their roles being to lead opponents into certain areas using body positioning, angled pressing and curved runs. In away matches the height of pressing is often just above the halfway line, while at home opponents who try to build from deep are pressed right on the edge of their box. The two forwards are positioned to use their cover shadows (red triangles) to prevent passes into the centre and the half spaces and when they press the centre backs they approach from specific angles to ensure their cover shadows are still effective.

Pressing and Pressing Traps

This season United have shown a bigger focus on ‘’leading and trapping opponents’’ into certain areas of the field in comparison to last season. United’s primary is aim to lead opponents into wide areas using curved runs from the two forwards. Two examples of typical pressing traps used this season are shown below from the fixtures against Tottenham (image 2) and Club Brugge (image 3).

Man Utd press trap vs Spurs  Man utd press trap vs Brugge

Image 2, United vs Spurs and image 3, United vs Brugge

In image 2 the curved runs from Rooney and Mata coupled with Carrick’s marking of Bentaleb force Vertonghen to pass to his right, when Alderweireld receives the ball Memphis directs him to play to Walker who becomes the victim of the trap as Young presses him with Dier in his cover shadow while Schneiderlin moves to cut out the pass to Dembele.

The trap against Brugge in image 3 is even more impressively co-ordinated; Memphis moves to press De Fauw when he receives the ball and his body position forces De Fauw to loft a pass into Castelletto. While the pass is travelling Shaw sprints up to meet him, keeping Diaby in his cover shadow. Castelletto is then the victim of the trap as he has no viable passing options.

United also executed their pressing traps effectively against Aston Villa several times during the match, below are a couple of examples (images 4 and 5).

Man Utd press trap vs AVL  Man Utd press trap vs AVL (2)

Images 4 and 5 United vs Aston Villa

As the images demonstrate the body positioning of the forward players and their curved runs are key to these traps. In both images Januzaj presses the ball carrier Richards ‘’showing him outside’’ and Bacuna receives the ball both times with Shaw tight to him (as Shaw had travelled to press as the ball was moving). Shaw’s positioning makes Bacuna turn backwards and from there United are positioned to cut off all feasible passing options. Januzaj uses his cover shadow to prevent the pass back to Richards, Rooney anticipates the goal-keeper outlet, while the central players go man to man in the centre. Rather predictably Villa’s build-up was successfully disrupted on both the above and many more occasions that night which protected the defence and demonstrated the value of ‘defending from the front’.

Defensive line

In most phases of their defence United maintain a very high defensive line, this coupled with the mid-positioned front line means United have high vertical compactness and are difficult to play through. With high resistance to forward passes Van Gaal has created a pressure cooker that intensifies if opponents try to play into midfield.

Image 6, United high line vs Barcelona

Image 6, United high line vs Barcelona

 

The result is twofold, opposition central midfielders drop out of the high pressure zone and opponents often elect to play in wide areas where they will still be pressed anyway. If and when opponents are able to play through the press and get into the final 3rd United drop as a unit get behind the ball and move quite cohesively.

Image 7, United high line vs Spurs

Image 7, United high line vs Spurs

Coverage Scheme(s) and Deep Block

Louis van Gaal has employed a zonal man-oriented coverage scheme. This may sound somewhat contradictory, but contrary to common conception zonal and man-oriented defensive schemes are not mutually exclusive. When used together it simply means a player has a designated zone in which they man-mark either particular players or whoever come into their zone more typically.

United’s man-orientations are active in the middle third and generally in the two closest vertical channels to the players’ position, for example the left central midfield player will man-mark only in the left half space and the centre. On some occasions these zones are adapted an example of this was against PSG in pre-season where the midfielders’ man-marking zones were expanded significantly to cover PSG’s first two thirds and generally the two closest vertical channels. Generally the only players who are man-oriented are the central midfielders in the opponents’ first two thirds while the ball side wingers and full backs are man-oriented in United’s deep block phase.

One advantage of a zonal man-marking scheme is that it avoids the main criticism of all-out man-marking namely; being too easy to disrupt. It also has one of the positives of man-marking in that particular players can be paid greater attention to reduce their influence on proceedings.

On the fairly rare occasions that United are forced into a deep block there are some differences to their pressing strategy, firstly their collective ball-orientation increases meaning they are narrower. Also the central attacking midfielder drops in to create a 3 man midfield and create a 4-4-1-1 shape (image 8).

Image 8, United's 4-4-1-1 in deep block

Image 8, United’s 4-4-1-1 in deep block

Importantly the central midfielders are far more position-oriented in their attempts to shield the back four, meaning they aim to maintain a central position and do not follow opposition players, in order to prevent easy disorganisation.

The full-backs however are quite man-oriented when the ball is on their side and stick quite tightly to their wingers thus United’s wingers have an important role in tracking the ball side full-backs meaning United can at times resemble a 5-3-1-1. When the ball is wide and opponents shape up to cross one of or both holding midfielders drop right on top of the defensive line to assist with clearing cut-backs allowing the centre backs to focus on heading out crosses.

Defensive Transitions

Like most modern teams Manchester United counterpress in defensive transitions. The aims and intentions for counterpressing differ depending on the type employed and the game state but it is mainly done to prevent opponent’s counter attacking. Manchester United’s counterpressing schemes this season seem to be wholly dependent on the situation and at times even wholly random. The one constant in United’s counterpressing is the two central midfielders pushing forward and holding a central position around the edge of the box. This helps secure United against counter attacks but the pressing from the forward players is often not well co-ordinated enough to enable quick regains.

Due to United’s poor positional play which lacks strong positional connections United’s players are often outnumbered in attack. Therefore the counterpressing variant often requires players to cover more than one passing option each, and at times it resembles a passing-lane-oriented counterpress. Passing lane-oriented counterpressing is where players position themselves to block certain passes and at times deliberately leave one or two options open and then attack the pass, it is therefore likely to lead to interceptions.

United passing-lane-oriented counterpress   United poor counterpressing example

Image 9, United’s passing-lane oriented counterpress and Image 10, example of United’s poor counterpressing

Image 9 is a good example of passing lane-oriented counterpressing from the home draw to PSV. Memphis, Rooney, Martial and Lingard are all in positions where they can prevent one or more passes and can approach the ball carrier from the same angle to simultaneously apply pressure and cover passing options. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin perform their usual roles by pushing up to a position where they can deal with any loose balls or simply slow down the counter.

Image 10 is a poor example from the home win over CSKA Moscow, importantly this is after a cross was cleared meaning there are several players ahead of the ball and their lack of backwards pressing allows CSKA to set up a counter attack. With Carrick and Schweinsteiger pushing forward to the edge of the box they leave a huge space in front of the defence and Zoran Tosic (the ball carrier) plays a dangerous pass between the lines to Milanov who runs around Carrick’s blindside. United had Smalling’s proactivity to thank for this situation not becoming more dangerous.

Statistics

The table to the right (image 11 by @deepxg a great statistical account) demonstrates one facet of United’s defensive approach. The table is measuring the average position of touches, pass destinations and where the passes come from of all central midfielders against the teams listed. Numbers 50 is the halfway line, anything lower than 50 is deeper than the halfway line and over of course above the halfway line. The further away the number is from 50 represents how far away from the halfway line the average touches are. Against United midfielders receive and pass the ball to deeper areas than against any other side. This fits the point I made about ‘Van Gaal’s pressure cooker’ and shows it is effective in forcing opponents to drop out of it.

Image 11, BPL centre midfield touches against

Image 11, BPL centre midfield touches against

Michael Caley’s advanced statistics (image 12) show that United have faced the second fewest shots and boast the lowest (xGA) expected goals against in the league. Leading the expected goals against league essentially means United have given away the lowest quality chances in total. Van Gaal’s men have faced the joint-second fewest shots from established possession. It is not shown in this image but United have also faced the joint fewest shots on target.

Image 12, Advanced statistics BPL - Defence

Image 12, Advanced statistics BPL – Defence

According to Daniel Altman, a fantastic statistician, Manchester United end almost 40% of opponents’ attacks with their pressing and only 5% of opponents possessions lead to shots of any kind, these figures are far ahead of the rest of the league. Generally the statistics back the idea that United are doing something right when they are out of possession.

Potential Issues (Case Studies)

There are of course some issues with this defensive system (as there are with any) and this was never clearer than at the Emirates in October. Long before that though there was a fascinating game against PSG in pre-season where a number of issues were visible against a very good PSG side.

United were compact and created a high pressure zone (think pressure cooker) in the middle with strong resistance. The result was that even with the extraordinarily talented Verratti PSG struggled to progress their possession through the thirds. Blanc adapted and used Ibrahimovic to drop deep on several occasions with Matuidi making long vertical runs and taking up positions like a striker.

Image 13, Matuidi goal vs United

Image 13, Matuidi goal vs United

This worked well to disrupt United’s scheme at times, the man-orientations in particular. One centre back, often Jones, would follow Zlatan deep into midfield while Matuidi was often unmarked on his forward ventures or simply too quick for Carrick/Schweinsteiger to track. This meant PSG had some joy playing over United’s block to Matuidi most notably for the 1st goal (see image 13). What this exposed was how it only takes one or two individual mistakes to compromise the whole system in a man-oriented approach, in this case though there were several mistakes.

3-0 down at the Emirates with 20 minutes gone! Ok now I have got that out of the way let’s analyse what actually led to this.

United came into this game with a heavily man-oriented pressing scheme, interestingly and somewhat surprisingly Van Gaal tends to instruct the players to be more man-oriented against more talented opposition (See Man City, Wolfsburg and Arsenal in addition to PSG from pre-season). In this game though there were several issues, firstly the midfield selection was quite strange. For all of Arsenal’s flaws they rarely ever compromise their quick ball circulation, position interchange and combination play, thus it seems counter-intuitive to pair two over 30s against them in midfield with the likes of Schneiderlin and Fellaini (who helped matters in the 2nd half) on the bench.

Furthermore it was clear in the very early stages of the game (even before the first goal) that United were struggling to organise their man-orientations and Ramsey’s central movement was the cause of this. The base man marking roles were as follows; Schweinsteiger-Cazorla, Rooney-Coquelin, Carrick-Ozil, Martial was almost wholly passive while Memphis and Mata were used to press Arsenal’s centre backs diagonally to prevent passes into the full-backs (see image 14).

Image 14, United Pressing issue vs Arsenal

Image 14, United Pressing issue vs Arsenal

Surprisingly United seemed unprepared for Ramsey who acted as a 3rd central midfielder. There seemed to be no one assigned to man-mark Ramsey and his roaming caused momentary hesitation which was enough to help Arsenal bypass United’s pressure. Given that United often committed five or even six players to prevent Arsenal’s build-up this was dangerous and had huge consequences.

In reaction the United players tried to re-organise themselves but they failed to do so effectively and the pre-assigned man-orientations almost disintegrated. This often meant one Arsenal player was free to progress the play, this only really improved after half time, by that time the damage was already done.

Furthermore the deep block strategy of the near side wide players man-marking could be quite problematic. With the wingers expected to track full backs they must be diligent but full-backs with good offensive qualities may be able to expose the likes of Mata or Memphis with their respective defensive deficiencies.

Conclusion

Van Gaal has clearly put in immense work on the training ground to create a structurally solid outfit that reduces the burden on the defenders themselves by defending as a unit from the front and excellent covering from the midfielders which makes the defenders’ lives easier. When this is combined with the stabilising effect of possession it is no wonder that United have the best defensive record in the country.

Despite the system being strong and probably the best in the league there are some flaws that will continually need ironing out including Van Gaal’s team selection and game to game adjustments. However if United are to have a disappointing season, it is unlikely the system out of possession will be the major factor. A major factor behind United’s defensive success is the strategic use of possession and the positioning in possession, in the words of van Gaal himself,

“When you attack you take always risk because you have a big space behind you …….… because of that you need defensively thinking when you attack”.

Article by Judah Davies. Follow Judah on twitter @1415football or read more of his writing at https://footballtactics1415.wordpress.com/