Game of Numbers #12 – Erik Ten Hag’s Positional Play Masterclass

After achieving much in the way of acclaim for their performance against Barcelona in the Europa League, Manchester United only rolled on in the Prem – with a 3-0 smashing of Leicester City.

The Red Devils have been in fine form in recent months, with only one defeat in their last 19 competitive fixtures. After a shaky start to the season, it would be difficult to truly quantify Ten Hag’s side as title contenders. But if they carry on with this kind of form, anything could be possible for this crop of players. With that, we take a look at Erik Ten Hag’s side once more, with a special focus on how they put on a tactical masterclass against Leicester City.


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Out from the back, Erik Ten Hag allowed his players to achieve the freedom of movement based on the four elements of the game (ball, opposition, teammates, and space). In particular, players would adopt positions to receive based on the already existing positioning of their teammates, and the space available to create optimal angles for the next pass.

As a prerequisite to positional play, this means that players do not always receive the ball in areas of the field that would normally be associated with their position. Right from the first minute, Diogo Dalot started this trend by inverting into central areas.

This has been a hallmark of the game since Pep Guardiola used Philipp Lahm as an Inverted Fullback for Bayern Munich, and it’s something Erik Ten Hag often deployed at Ajax with the use of Noussair Mazraoui and Nicolas Tagliafico in central areas. But we must first ask the question of why? Why put a high-flying crossing demon of a full-back in central areas instead?

We’ve long hypothesized that having the full-back in central areas helps the wingers to receive in space, as the opposition condense to counter-act that centrally-focused approach. They can then better isolate opponents 1v1, and seek moments for crosses into the box. When looking at United’s structure on the day, they deployed their true ’10’ – Bruno Fernandes – as a right winger instead. This means that they are now allowing their best creator, and perhaps even their most dangerous weapon, to receive away from congested areas.

Rather than needing to constantly come in deeper and get touches on the ball away from goal, Bruno Fernandes is now receiving the ball closer to goal, in a way that can optimize his own team’s scoring opportunities. Here he is receiving the ball out wide and playing a beautiful outside of the boot pass into the path of Marcus Rashford, for United’s first goal.

Just over ten minutes later, Diogo Dalot picks up the ball with acres of space to drive at the opposition in transition. Bruno is again out wide with acres of space himself to receive with an open body shape – away from the congestion.

These are the types of positions that players like Kevin de Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes thrive off when playing passes into the penalty area. That’s because unlike the congestion of the overly-beloved ‘Zone 14’, players are often able to make smart maneuvers with enough time and space to whip in a delivery away from the keeper’s grasp.

The half-spaces as a key chance creation channel

Bruno Fernandes crossing from the half-space.

On this occasion against Leicester, Bruno smartly plays the pass back into Dalot, only for the Portuguese full-back to miss the glorious chance by approaching the ball with the wrong foot for the moment.

As we’ve discussed over the years with the likes of Guardiola’s use of Kyle Walker at Manchester City and now Arteta’s implementation of Inverted Fullbacks at Arsenal, having the full-backs invert into central areas can also benefit the team in transition. Most teams will aim for verticality immediately on the break, and try to break through the centre.

Ben White of Arsenal winning the ball back in transition from an ‘Inverted Fullback’ position.

Having an additional player who can immediately step up and make a challenge allows the rest of the team to continue to fall back, and increases the likelihood that they can win the ball back before the gaps in their attacking shape are exposed.

Now, Ten Hag is not the first manager to deploy an inversion of fullbacks at Manchester United. It’s something that Luke Shaw has made a habit of over the years, whether that be from specific instruction on behalf of the coach, or the Englishman’s own desire to get on the ball and work his magic.

The central premise of positional rotation in this manner is that it has the power of dismarking a previously covered player, while simultaneously pulling the opposition all over the place. Here’s Luke Shaw operating to the right of United’s ‘6’ – Marcel Sabitzer. Fred’s ahead and ready to shift toward the ball, allowing Luke Shaw to potentially dismark himself in space, as Fred attracts the pressure.

Now you might expect this tactical approach to be best used as a polarity. That is, as one full-back inverts, the other maintains the width on the other side.

Bayern Munich for example adopt this approach to get the best out of high-flying full-back Alphonso Davies down the left wing, as Benjamin Pavard slots in alongside the centre-backs.

But as demonstrated by each of City, Arsenal and United this season, this is not always the most optimal approach to deploying ‘Inverted Fullbacks’.

The closer the two full-backs get together, the more they confuse the opposition into compacting their shape, while simultaneously creating optimal angles and triangulations to overload one side of the field. Below you can see how Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw (not to mention Jadon Sancho at the top of that diamond) have caused the opposition to compact, again allowing Bruno Fernandes to receive in space – in a dangerous crossing position.

But the beauty of positional play is that Dalot and Shaw are not restricted to playing in these positions at every moment. Instead, they are brilliantly responding to the positioning of the ball, the opposition, their teammates, and the space surrounding them. This means that the opposition can never fully counter-act the approach.

At one moment, Dalot will roam the half-spaces as Bruno Fernandes drops all the way toward the ball.

At another moment, the roles reverse, and Dalot surges up the wing.

If you’re Leicester City, you’re simply confused. You don’t know when to pressure, when to hold position, when to follow, when to allow them to receive, when to cry…You simply don’t know!

Take this capture again as a perfect example. Bruno Fernandes has only achieved this position through floating toward the ball from a higher position, and Leicester either failing to react, or simply allowing the Portuguese playmaker to receive in space. Now that he’s on the ball with time and space, he’s able to get his head up and play a cracking ball over the top should he desire.

Leicester must either react by having their closest player pressure the ball, or they allow the potential for a dangerous pass to be played. If we know anything about Marcus Rashford this season, it’s that he’s thrived off dangerous passes over the top – where he can allow his undeniable speed and precision to take center stage.

So you must be screaming that the right answer is to heavy metal pressure the situation, and reduce the time that Bruno Fernandes has to see his options. But look who’s there if the Leicester man leaves his current position. Diogo Dalot will now receive in space of his own. Not only that, he’ll receive in a position closer to the opposition’s goal, with a higher likelihood of being to carve the opposition open from that dangerous half-space channel.

It’s this kind of momentary dilemma that United created for Leicester City all match. As their attention starts to wain and they wonder ‘How on earth are we going to solve these complex problems??’, it’s all the more likely for someone like Marcus Rashford to suddenly appear on the blindside of a defender, run into space and score.

In fact, you could say that the true key to scoring goals in football is in unbalancing the opposition. United created a game-state in which Leicester were continuously unbalanced. If I were the Foxes, I would simply be afraid.

So now as the title race electrifies, Manchester United are firmly in the hunt with a shout. Erik Ten Hag has deployed brilliant implementations of positional play all season long, putting on an absolute masterclass of how to confuddle the opposition into oblivion against Leicester City.

So there it is! A positional play masterclass by Erik Ten Hag in our Issue No. 12 of Game of Numbers. Be sure to check out more from this series, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!


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