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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Why do United’s full-backs play so narrow?

Shaw and Wan-Bissaka often appear to be very narrow — that is by design

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

I don’t think many people will disagree that the less that is said of the 183rd Manchester Derby the better. The entire match can be summed up in three paragraphs so that’s what I’ll do.

Manchester United wanted to disrupt anything that Manchester City was building through the middle. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer selected a midfield pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay because they are the two best midfielders United have at doing that job. Those two also struggle in possession so United wanted to hit City on the counter attack, where City tend to be vulnerable.

On the other side of the pitch, City recognized that United are very strong on the counter attack and that’s what they wanted to defend. Rather than playing their favored possession-based 4-3-3, Pep Guardiola opted for a midfield pivot of Fernandinho and Rodri to keep City’s shape and guard against those United counter attacks.

A game that featured four defensive defensive midfielders who lack creativity played out exactly like you’d expect it too. Neither team were willing to devote extra players going forward for fear of the other team’s dangerous players coming back the other way. If that sounds a lot like the Chelsea match, it was!

What this match did do was provide its fair share of examples to cover a different topic.

Recently — and by recently I mean all season and last season — we’ve seen a lot of criticism about Aaron Wan-Bissaka getting caught playing too narrow. Occasionally we see the same about Luke Shaw.

This isn’t anything new. United were also defending narrow last season when they had the third best defense in the league.

Whenever someone asks me about it I always say the same thing: “it’s by design, it’s a tactical decision.” Today we’re going to talk about what that decision is and why it’s been made.

I’m not advocating for or against this style of defending, simply trying to explain why teams opt for it.

Let’s start with the obvious.

Teams pack the middle because the middle is the most dangerous part of the field. You’re happy to concede the wings because the odds of a player hurting you from the wings are slim.

A player on the wing has two choices. He can take a low percentage shot, or he’s got to put the ball back into the middle, which you are heavily defending. Occasionally it all comes together — and there are breakdowns on the other side — like we saw last week in Leipzig, but most of the time you’ll be well off there.

Even if you want your fullbacks playing high and wide in possession...

...out of possession teams want their back lines playing tight, so as to limit spaces between the defenders. When the ball comes out to the wing and the fullback needs to push out, the entire defense will move as a unit to cover the vacated spaces.

United are far from the only team who play like this. Just look at how narrow City’s defenders were early on in the match on Saturday.

Wan-Bissaka is playing very conservatively, so he’s not attacking the space, but with left-back Joao Cancelo marking Bruno Fernandes, there’s a lot of space at the back post available for him to make towards.

At its core, when playing in a back four, the full-back’s job is to pick up the winger. If there is an opposing full-back pushing forward it’s the job of your winger to track back and pick him up.

When the ball is on the far side of the pitch you can stay narrow because it’ll take a while for the ball to get to the open man, giving your man time to get in position.

This can get tricky if you’re playing with wing-backs and your forwards aren’t tasked with tracking back as we all saw in Leipzig.

Here’s another example from a different match. Crystal Palace are a pretty solid defensive team as they come up against Tottenham.

Look at how narrow Nathaniel Clyne is as Palace defend the set piece. He’s there to help mark the run of Son Heung-min. He’s ignoring left back Sergio Reguilon, because Reguilon isn’t in a dangerous area. If Spurs send a ball to Reguilon, Clyne will have plenty of time to get over. Son is the bigger threat so he stays there.

By contrast, José Mourinho is sending Reguilon forward in hopes to either create a bad decision from Clyne or to take advantage of the full-back playing so narrow.

A similar play happened in the United match.

With the ball on the left side of the pitch, United’s defense shifts to the left. Riyad Mahrez ends up coming inside a bit with Harry Maguire marking the run of Raheem Sterling.

Sterling is making a decoy run — his job is to drag Maguire out of the middle, which he does successfully. That leaves space for Gabriel Jesus to run in behind to a very dangerous area.

Luckily, Wan-Bissaka is playing narrow and is right on top of Jesus. If he were to hold his position out wide until danger comes, he wouldn’t get to Jesus in time and that finish would be a lot easier for Jesus than Wan-Bissaka made it.

Another scenario from the Palace-Spurs match.

Spurs get the ball out wide and begin moving it in and across the box. That results in the following scenario.

Tanguy Ndombele is about to receive the ball in an extremely dangerous area. Both center-backs need to charge him. That leaves Clyne with two options, pick up Harry Kane at the edge of the six yard box or pick up Steven Bergwijn, which is his man, who is also in a dangerous position. It’s not really a choice, though — Kane is the one in the far more dangerous position. You pick him up!

How did that work out for Palace?

This was awfully similar to a chance earlier this year when United faced Brighton.

With Brighton getting through United’s midfield and into the box far too easily Maguire and Victor Lindelöf get caught having to cover at the top of the box. That leaves Wan-Bissaka with one of those false choices: who do you pick up, the dangerous man or the wide man? He correctly picks the dangerous man and the ball goes out wide.

Forcing the ball out wide allows David De Gea to do his best to cut down the angle. It’s still a good chance (0.33 xG) but De Gea has a much better chance to save this shot than if Aaron Connolly had been left all alone in front (not to mention Marcus Rashford should have tracked back on Solly March the wing-back but that’s a different story).

Ultimately De Gea plays his angles pretty well. March hits the outside of the post but had he shot any more towards the inside of the post, the chances are high that it would have hit De Gea’s foot.

You always pick up the man in the more dangerous position. There was a great illustration of that once against at Old Trafford on Saturday.

After a United turnover City were able to break the press quickly. Wan-Bissaka gets wrong sided by Gabriel Jesus and City quickly have a break.

Thanks to Jesus bypassing both Wan-Bissaka and Lindelöf, Maguire now needs to commit to playing the ball on the right. Shaw, who is fairly wide as he’s mindful of Mahrez (who’s supposed to be his man), needs to notice Kevin de Bruyne. With Maguire coming wide, there’s a whole large very dangerous area for De Bruyne to run into.

For Shaw, it’s a simple question of who’s more dangerous: Mahrez out wide, or De Bruyne running up the middle?

Shaw makes the correct choice to come to the middle and pick up De Bruyne, leaving Mahrez wide open on the back post.

Shaw’s priority is preventing De Bruyne from getting into the red area, where he’s the most dangerous. If he has to allow Mahrez to have the ball in the green area that’s fine because while the green area is still dangerous, it’s significantly less dangerous than the middle, as it allows De Gea to square up and cut down Mahrez’s angle.

When Mahrez hesitates, De Gea can come out again, even further cutting down Mahrez’s angle.

When all was said and done Mahrez’s chance had an xG of 0.35. That’s a good chance but it’s still missed six and a half times out of 10, and it’s far lower than what would have happened if De Bruyne came right up the middle.

Defenses are always shifting and moving to cover space. Everything that happens on the pitch causes a reaction somewhere.

United don’t press high up the pitch too often for a myriad of reasons. One of the bigger ones being, if you want to press high you need to play a high line. As any fan will tell you, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf don’t exactly have the pace to play such a high line.

That lack of pace is another reason the fullbacks have to tuck inside. Luke Shaw may not be the fastest man out there but he’s much faster than Maguire and Lindelöf, and he’s often called upon to clean up the mess behind them.

This was ultimately how United conceded their first goal. Wan-Bissaka pulls in narrow after United’s defense shifts to the left. With a dangerous ball coming through the middle he has to be able to cover Lindelöf if that ball gets in behind him.

Going narrow isn’t what cost United this goal. It’s that Wan-Bissaka didn’t realize there was a man behind him and once the ball misses the first man you can see him let up for a second. That one second of taking his foot off the gas was the difference between getting to his man in time to stop the shot, and not.

When United do want to press high, their forwards have to stay central to cut off passing angles from the opposing defense to the midfield.

Therefore when the ball goes wide, it’s the full-back who needs to push up and apply pressure.

This is what’s supposed to happen. You cause a turnover!

That’s not what always happens. Sometimes your opponent is able to get by your pressing full-back and that’s when everyone has to start moving around to cover the space he vacated, which includes your other full-back getting narrow, because you cannot concede space in the middle.

Sometimes you cover it and sometimes you commit a tactical foul to allow your team to get back and reset.

While this is pretty common across most teams, there is one area in which it’s more unique to United — the right side.

Look at this scenario against City. When Wan-Bissaka has to come out on Sterling, notice how the rest of United’s defense doesn’t shift over to help him.

They all pretty much stay home in the middle. That’s what Wan-Bissaka brings to the team, his ability to shut down a flank single-handedly means United don’t have to overcommit to one side. The rest of the team can stay home because when Wan-Bissaka is one on one with an attacker they expect to see this happen.

They were probably just as surprised as the rest of us were the one time Wan-Bissaka actually did this.

It’s shocking because it’s so rare.

If you’re wondering why Wan-Bissaka seems to get caught narrow more often than Luke Shaw (or Alex Telles), there’s a good reason for that. It all comes from how United defend on the right side vs how they defend on the left.

Remember, everything comes from something and everything has a reaction. Marcus Rashford isn’t a ball progressing winger, so typically that means Shaw (or Telles) have to handle the ball progressing responsibilities. That requires them to push up the field more, which makes it more likely for them to get caught up the field. Shaw is faster than people give him credit for but pace still isn’t his strong suit.

As a result United’s back line often has to shift over to the left to cover those gaps and Wan-Bissaka ends up playing fairly narrow. It doesn’t help that this year on the right wing United have typically either had Juan Mata, who’s not known for his pace or defensive ability, or Mason Greenwood, who doesn’t tend to track back, providing the (lack of) outside cover for AWB.

This what makes Wan-Bissaka so important to the team. It’s why despite his shortcomings going forward, he’s one of the few players who doesn’t get rested even against the likes of West Brom. When Wan-Bissaka is on the pitch United don’t have to worry about the right side.

Brandon Williams may be better going forward and he may be solid defensively, but he’s not Wan-Bissaka good. If he’s out there, United’s defense will inevitably have to shift over to the right to help him out. Add that to the fact that they’re already shifting over to the left to help out on that side, and it’s double the amount of work. It sends a ripple effect through the entire team.

Wan-Bissaka does need to improve on his awareness of when players are lurking in behind him at the back post. But his narrow positioning isn’t any different than nearly all the full-backs in the league and that positioning has snuffed out far more chances than it’s allowed.

We just don’t forget the times when it goes wrong.