Yea, it’s a Tactical Quickie. I’m not doing a full post this week (famous last words) but this was just something I noticed when re-watching the match and wanted to point out. Hope you enjoy.
Ralf Rangnick fielded may have named the same 11 players against Norwich City that beat Crystal Palace a week earlier but it wasn’t a completely unchanged side.
In his first match against Palace, Bruno Fernandes was deployed as the “duel no. 10” on the right side with Jadon Sancho taking up the same position on the left. The players do have plenty of license to move around and swap sides but their primary side is going to be where they spend the majority of their time on the pitch.
This week the pair were swapped with Sancho starting on the right and Fernandes on the left. I’m sure Ralf had his reasons for this and fans would certainly like to see Sancho operate on the right some more (as we already knew he basically split his time between the left and right over his last two years at Borussia Dortmund with remarkably similar numbers and his creativity numbers this season remain remarkably similar from each side).
In possession, the swap probably didn’t have much of an effect on the team - though Sancho gets fewer touches on the right (which happened again) and gets the ball into the box far more from the left so maybe it did - what’s important is their responsibilities off the ball.
As you know, Rangnick is a big proponent of the 4-2-2-2 formation. He likes to press teams high up the pitch, and in order to do that the fullbacks need to push high up the pitch. As we saw against Crystal Palace, if the opponent attempts to beat the press by having the striker run wide and playing the ball straight down the line, it’s on the center back to track that run wide and stay with the striker.
From there, the rest of the team needs to plug the holes. With the centerback now essentially playing right back, it’s typically the midfielder who drops to fill in at centerback and complete the back four, while the “duel 10” from that side drops to cover the midfielder until you have a chance to reset.
There’s also times - when you’re not pressing and the opponent has brought the ball further up the pitch - where the central midfielder can get pulled wide to help out on the touchline.
When that happens you’ll typically see the other midfielder coming over to cover his partner and once again see the number 10 drop into midfield to cover that gap.
And of course, if one of them gets caught higher up the pitch you’ll see the other one come over to fill in and you see the same rotations.
The profile of the midfielders playing on your side is going to dictate the types of fill in situations you’re put in. Fred is more likely to get caught further up the pitch, causing McTominay to come over and the right sided number 10 to drop deeper to form a two man midfield. McTominay is more likely to... just generally get sucked out of position, which can cause any number of problems for the right sided number 10.
Why does any of this matter? For starters, Bruno is a no. 10 who has experience playing central midfield whether as part of a three or even deeper in a pivot back in his Sporting days. Sancho has always been an attacking player playing on the front lines.
In other words, when Bruno has to drop into midfield to provide cover he’s dropping into a position that he has experience playing. When Sancho does it, he’s dropping into a completely foreign position. There’s a lot of nuance that he naturally doesn’t have yet and while he’s still learning that, mistakes can be made.
This came about in the first half on Saturday. Fred was caught up the pitch when Norwich broke through a trap with him and Telles. McTominay comes over and Sancho correctly drops into midfield. But Sancho, not quite the experienced midfielder, marks the space and not the man. He never responds Lindelof pointing out for him to mark the late runner into the box.
Lindelof believes the run will be picked up and stays with his man. It’s not, and as a result Lukas Rupp breaks into the box unmarked and Lindelof - who has to switch off - is late to get over to him.
This results in a chance that, had this not been Norwich, could have ended much worse for United.
In the second half with the ball on the wing, Fred has been pulled over to the left to provide support for Telles. Despite the numerical superiority McTominay also comes all the way over because... reasons I guess. Sancho has once again dropped into midfield but this time he’s completely isolated.
With all that ground to cover, Sancho (perhaps understandably) once again marks the space rather than the man. When Lindelof’s header comes straight out to Rupp, Sancho is behind the 8-ball in finding the man as well as being in position to cut off a passing angle - again not entirely unexpected from a player with little experience in that position.
This time Norwich turn this into a half decent scoring chance that requires an excellent David de Gea save to keep it out.
It’s only been two games but based on the touch locations for Bruno and Sancho over those two games we’re already seeing a larger percent of the right sided number 10’s touches coming deeper on the pitch (likely because of more defensive coverage) while the left sided number 10 gets the ball more (and in the attacking third more). That’s likely the reason behind the two players swapping sides but it’s important to recognize the defensive risks that may come with this. This problem isn’t exclusive to Sancho but could also arise if Mason Greenwood continues to be deployed in this position.
This was only two examples but it’s crucial for for the coaches to notice these things early and make the necessary adjustments as well as working with the players so they know what to do in these situations. That’ll come with time.
It didn’t hurt United this weekend, but if they were playing a team better than Norwich, it very well could have.