Injuries and off the field issues meant that 21 year old Facundo Pellistri was the only recognized right winger available for Manchester United to face Brighton on Saturday. Pellistri signed with United in the summer of 2020 but has played more senior minutes for Uruguay than for Manchester United since that time.
Last season Pellistri played just 64 Premier League minutes spread out over four different appearances for Erik Ten Hag. This season he had made 14 and 6 minute cameos. The fact that even when United need a goal, Ten Hag doesn’t put him on the pitch until the absolute last minutes of a match suggest that Ten Hag doesn’t trust Pellistri’s off the ball qualities and would make him hesitant to start him.
But with no other (natural) right wingers available, Ten Hag was left with seemingly three choices on Saturday:
- Roll the dice and start Pellistri anyway.
- Shift one of your two left wingers - Marcus Rashford or Alejandro Garnacho - over to the right wing. Moving either one of your two best players or your best prospect out of their favored and arguably best positions.
- Shift Bruno Fernandes from the no. 10 position out to the right wing, moving your best player out of his best position.
Erik Ten Hag chose door number four, change the system entirely. Ten Hag set the team up in a 4-4-2 diamond, allowing Bruno to remain as the number 10 while Rashford played as a second forward, more up top out of possession and more of a left wing when United had the ball.
The idea was to use three players to cut off Brighton’s four in their 2x2 buildup structure, thus having a free man left in midfield to aid in the defending.
No one saw this shape coming - including Brighton - and the element of surprise allowed United to get off to a fast start.
A few minutes later United were able to get Rashford into space on a counter attack.
From there Rasmus Hojlund showed us what things could look like when you have a striker that can make quick near post runs.
After 15 minutes United were outshooting Brighton 4-1 - though the 0.26 xG (0.07 xG per shot) was already indicative of the trend of the match, United didn’t have much of an offensive plan besides get the ball to Rashford and let him run at defenders.
It was at this time Brighton started making adjustments. With United playing very narrow, Brighton pushed their centerbacks wider, making the angles tougher for United’s front three to cut off. That meant United could no longer mark four players with three men, giving Brighton a numerical advantage.
Here, Pascal Gross drops between the two centerbacks to collect the ball. The centerbacks have pushed wider giving Gross multiple options.
Further up the pitch, Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana began dropping to give United more things to worry about in midfield and eliminate their numerical advantage. Shortly after the image above, Welbeck has found himself unmarked behind and between Casemiro and Christian Eriksen.
While United are cutting off the short passes to Gross and Dahoud, as well as the long pass out wide to Joel Veltman, they leave an avenue open to go directly to Welbeck.
When the ball is played directly to Welbeck it opens up Pascal Gross via an easy one touch pass from Welbeck. But when Christian Eriksen follows the ball to Welbeck he leaves Veltman wide open. Fullback Sergio Reguilon is already occupied by Simon Andigra ready to make a run.
In two touches, Brighton have the ball across midfield in space. As soon as Gross plays the ball out wide Welbeck turns to run forward. He quickly gets it back from Veltman as Casemiro was presumably too busy laughing about how United were actually dumb enough to give a 30 year old physical midfielder that one last huge payday he was looking for to actually track his runner.
With Reguilon having to leave his man to pick up Veltman, space opens up for Adingra to run into the channels. The play develops slow enough for United to theoretically be able to recover only to be plagued by the same ailment they’ve had for most of this calendar year. No one actually bothers to pick up a man.
This was the third time in five matches this season where the opposing manager made the simple adjustment ‘have your centerbacks stand wider’ that completely undermined United’s press. From there, Brighton were able to break United’s press at will.
How did Ten Hag react to this? He didn’t. United stuck with their game plan. They stayed narrow. They weren’t aggressive.
Some numbers might tell you otherwise. United’s defensive line height - calculated based on the position of their defensive actions - was a season high 50.3. Combine that with their 10 high turnovers and it looks like United played a high line and aggressively pressed Brighton high up the pitch. That’s not what happened though.
This was the second straight game where United were not aggressively pressing their opponents. A clear tactical choice and one that makes sense given how United’s press had been ineffective the first three matches and tired them out. Once again United had a PPDA (passes per defensive action) above 20 (22.48) after averaging an 8.3 PPDA in their first three games and 12.3 over the whole last season.
Some other numbers to showcase their lack of aggression. Entering the match United were averaging 7.75 interceptions and 11.25 blocked passes (last season it was 9.47 and 9.16 respectively) while their opponents attempted an average of 493 passes per match (464 last season). Against Brighton United intercepted four passes and blocked seven others while Brighton attempted 677 passes.
Brighton had 778 touches - the third most an opponent has had in the Erik Ten Hag era. However only 10.91 percent of them came in the final third, the lowest in the Ten Hag era. They completed just six passes within 20 yards of United’s goal. They were more than happy to go backwards and recycle possession until an opportunity opened for them. When that opportunity came they were tremendously efficient. United for their part were more than happy to let Brighton have the ball, even they were chasing a goal for 70 minutes of the match.
It begs the question, what was the plan? It’s one thing not to press high, let Brighton move up the pitch and open space up behind them for Rashford to attack. This was very similar to what United did under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Once their opponents got to midfield they’d get far more aggressive in trying to win the ball back. But that wasn’t there on Saturday.
Here Brighton have the same buildup structure from before, only this time their in the midfield circle. United have three forwards right on top of the ball and everything looks blocked off. Only United aren’t being aggressive, they’re just standing around letting Gross possess the ball.
By simply opening up his left shoulder to the touchline, Gross triggers both Hojlund and McTominay to vacate their positions and run towards open men.
Only by doing that they’ve not only left Karou Mitoma alone in acres of space, but opened up a very simple pass to get him the ball.
From there it’s an easy pass to Welbeck between the lines, giving him an opportunity to run at the defenders.
Halftime would give Erik Ten Hag a chance to counter the adjustments but halftime adjustments aren’t things Ten Hag has done this year. United came out for the second half with the same plan as the first half and it only took seven minutes for Brighton to punish them.
You don’t need a breakdown of the goal. It’s already been widely shared on social media as United have essentially been meme’d.
The lack of effort displayed by United’s players is simply astonishing and frankly opens up questions as to how much they believe in the manager (and also questions like how is it even possible that Jadon Sancho is giving less effort than this in training?).
In fact, all the questions in this match fall to the manager, starting with the formation.
It seemed as if the diamond was chosen because it checked the boxes of not having to play Pellistri, keeps Rashford on the left wing, and keeps Bruno as the number 10. Unfortunately it doesn’t take into account how everyone else would react to it.
A diamond requires the two number 8’s to start narrow but get out wide defensively. 31 year old Christian Eriksen doesn’t have the mobility to do that anymore. Asking him to do it is simply not putting him in a position to succeed. It’s going to result in him getting beat a lot and thus needing 31 year old Casemiro to cover for him.
On the other side Scott McTominay does not often play in a midfield three and rarely does he play in a diamond (there’s probably a reason why). He was previously used in a diamond in United’s 1-1 draw with Everton in March 2020 - just weeks before the COVID shutdown. McTominay struggled with getting out wide and closing down Brighton’s attackers down the flanks - the same things he struggled with when in the same role against Everton. The third goal came from United not being able to close down the wide man.
On the one hand, one game three and a half years ago is not enough of a sample size to say someone can’t do something. He’s had plenty of time to develop and improve since then. On the other hand, he really hasn’t been asked to play in that role ever since, so there wasn’t much opportunity to improve there.
It’s likely that Ten Hag was trying to find a way for to maintain the international form McTominay has had playing for Scotland that sees him topping the charts for goals in Euro 2024 qualifying. For Scotland, McTominay is doing what he does best, making late runs into the box and being able to shoot. He’s also been playing against Cyprus and Georgia (plus two goals against Spain).
With Rashford on the left, Hojlund down the middle, Bruno as the number 10, and McTominay as that right sided 8, you can see the line of thought here. Unfortunately there’s no role/position in the Premier League that only asks a player to make late runs into the box and shoot. You have to be able to do other things, otherwise you’re hurting your team.
McTominay played 84 minutes on Saturday and managed just 20 touches of the ball. Only two of those touches came in the attacking third and from there he was hardly threatening.
He was essentially invisible and it meant two things: Bruno Fernandes had to drop deeper to get on the ball - essentially taking him out of the no. 10 role you tried to keep him in - and United had to exclusively attack down the left side. United had nearly double the amount of touches in the final third against Brighton as they did against Arsenal (160 to 82) but only managed three more touches in the box. They didn’t seem to have the means or a plan for getting it into the box. How could you expect your new striker to be effective if you can’t the ball to the area where he needs it?
This game can be best summed up by two post match quotes. Here’s what Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi said after the match.
And here’s what Erik Ten Hag said.
It’s all right there in those two statements. They both highlight the first 20 minutes and how United were very good. Per De Zerbi that was because they caught him off guard. They were playing a different way than he was prepared for, but then he adapted and Brighton gained control of the match.
Ten Hag’s perspective reads completely differently. Rarely do managers tell the truth in their press conferences and United fans will have to hope that this is the case here because this reads like a manager who genuinely believes his plan worked, only after 20 minutes the players stopped executing the plan. No mention of that might be because Brighton changed their style and United never adapted to that. No, the plan was working until the players stopped doing the plan.
Clearly the plan wasn’t working though. United played a diamond so that Bruno Fernandes could stay in his preferred no. 10 role, but after an hour he was moved from the tip of the diamond to the base of it. He ultimately finished the game as the right center back. That couldn’t have been the plan.
When Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Pellistri, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka came on, and Bruno Fernandes moved to center back, with six minutes to go there was only one image in my head.
This was how United came out for the second half when they were 2-0 down to Newcastle in Jose Mourinho’s final months. Paul Pogba lined up in a back two as Mourinho threw caution to the wind to try and get back into the game. United ultimately won 3-2, but this was Mourinho officially threw his hands up and said “I’m out of ideas.”
Certainly it’s too early in his tenure for Erik Ten Hag to be out of ideas, but that was how the team looked in the second half on Saturday. A team chasing a match but with no clue how to do it.
Ten Hag’s post game comments align with his comments from previous weeks. He’s consistently highlighted how United have done one thing well that lead to a few chances early before going quiet about how those chances dried up when the opposition adjusted. Too often United have gone to the halftime dressing room after an even first half where they missed some chances only to be blown away in the second because only one team made adjustments and it wasn’t them.
It would be naive to think Ten Hag actually believes United played well on Saturday and that their plan worked. But actions speak louder than words, and right now Ten Hag’s actions consistently leave United fans feeling very concerned.