Those of you who listened to the most recent episode of The Fergie Fledglings Podcast heard the discussion on how there was nothing to take away from Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Brentford last week.
Brentford’s tactics were completely perplexing. Earlier this season, Brentford pressed United high up the pitch, which forced United into making many mistakes and before you knew it Brentford were 4-0 up.
That was the second game of the season, United have had plenty of time to figure out how to play through a high press and improve. If you were just basing it on time, you could forgive Brentford for thinking this tactic may not work as well this time around.
Brentford must not have done their homework because that simply isn’t the case. Just three days earlier Newcastle pressed United high and caused all sorts of problems. United were never able to get into the game.
This has actually been a bit of a theme for United recently. Over the first 21 games of the season the average defensive line height of United’s opponents was 43.97 meters (In their first match of the season Brentford’s line height was 42.8). Over the next six matches the average line height against United jumped by nearly three meters to 46.72. United greatly struggled during this stretch, winning two, drawing two, and losing two. They scored nine goals over those six matches and conceded 12.
Yet for some reason Brentford decided to park themselves in their penalty box and let United play freely. United “dominated” the match with 64 percent possession, but only turned that control into 18 shots for a mere 1.2 xG. A measly 0.07 xG per shot. Early on it was easy to see that United winning the match was going to be dependent on whether they could score from a set piece.
Real low block from Brentford today. United going to need to either figure out how to break one down or suddenly transfer the set piece form they've had in the cups into the league— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) April 5, 2023
The match was a drag, and it didn’t inspire much confidence for their match three days later because frankly, Brentford looked like what you would expect a Sean Dyche team to look like. And Sean Dyche teams are really good at frustrating their opponents.
To avoid another frustrating affair Ten Hag made multiple tactical changes for this match. Some were obvious for everyone to see, but a closer look revealed even more tactical nuance then what first appeared.
When facing a Sean Dyche team, you would have expected Everton to come out and look like this.
They’d drop deep and let United get forward, only for the Red Devil’s to find there was no space to create any chances.
That’s not quite what happened though. Instead, it looked as if Sean Dyche had done his homework and seen United had been struggling with teams that pressed them high and thought, we should do the same.
You can’t fault that thinking. There’s just one problem. Sean Dyche isn’t exactly known for coaching a high press and it’s not as simple as, just push your men high up the pitch. It didn’t appear that Sean Dyche knew that part, and Everton’s players looked like they didn’t have much instruction beyond, just push up high. That allowed United to break the press with ease.
There was no cohesiveness for Everton between their front line and midfield, or their midfield and back line for that matter. They didn’t stay compact and there were gaps aplenty, allowing United players - specifically Bruno Fernandes - all the space in the world to operate. Even calling it a high press is generous, but the one thing Everton did have was a high line.
That high line can quickly become suicidal if you’re front line isn’t working hard and allowing players time and space on the ball. Look at the gap between the defense and midfield here, yet even from this angle you can see that Bruno has all the time he wants here.
It didn’t take an astute eye to quickly surmise the order of the day for United was “over the top, over the top, over the top.” As long as Everton are going to keep doing this “high non-press” United were going to ping balls over the top.
It started seven minutes into the match when Maguire played Rashford over the top.
And it just kept coming.
Even David de Gea got in on the act.
Per the Athletic, Three of United’s shots on Sunday came from passes that travelled over 50 meters. Something that United had only done once this season. They also created chances off passes that travelled 30 meters six times, the most in any game this season.
The play long tactic was clear and on another day they would have scored three or four goals if not for Jordan Pickford having an other worldly day.
Interestingly though, the long ball was not how United scored their first goal. That came from Scott McTominay making a run into the box and beating Pickford on his near post.
McTominay is one week removed from an international break where he scored four goals in two appearances for Scotland. It’s very easy to see this goal and attribute it to McTominay being in good form and taking advantage of the two things he’s very good at: making late runs into the box and striking a ball.
Upon rewatching the match, it’s clear that there’s far more that meets the eye here. This wasn’t McTominay acting on instinct. This goal came from clear tactical instructions.
United weren’t just making runs from deep to take advantage of a high Everton line, but rather they were instructed to make specific types of runs. In many situations - specifically when the ball was on the right side of the pitch - United would have a player isolate the two center backs and dart between them. Once he got through, he’d slightly pivot and adjust his run towards the near post.
The first player to do this was Jadon Sancho about 10 minutes into the match.
It’s easy to miss because, well you don’t know something is a pattern until you see it multiple times, and this particular time Sancho doesn’t even get the ball.
10 minutes later, we see Marcel Sabitzer make the same run.
Sabitzer’s run is nearly identical to McTominay’s, only he gets the ball 20 yards away from goal, giving Pickford a much better angle to make a save.
Four minutes later we see Rashford go for the same move.
Rashford starts behind the center back so he has to curl his run just to get between them. Once he’s done that he’s already at the near post so he straightens out. He’s only denied a goal from a great save by Pickford.
11 minutes later there’s McTominay, making the same run between center backs and at the last second makes a sharp cut away from the right center back creating enough space for him to get the shot.
At halftime Everton adjusted and closed off those avenues, making it more difficult for United to add to their lead. The balls over the top weren’t available anymore nor were these runs into the box. Ironically United’s second goal did come from a long ball, but the goal was created by an Everton mistake rather than getting beat tactically.
The balls over the top were the easily identifiable tactic from United but might have been the by product of rare circumstances such as having both time and space on the ball in their own third while also facing a high line. You don’t prepare for that in a match because it typically just doesn’t happen at the Premier League level.
Underneath that though was something you could tell was discussed in meetings in the buildup to this match. The way United made specific off ball runs, from specific locations, against certain looks. Those near post runs are something you could replicate against a low block that you would have expected Everton to play. This was a targeted instruction from United’s coaches as to how they would beat Everton, and it’s fitting that’s how they got their breakthrough.