The De Zerbi tweak that saw him outwit Ten Hag and Manchester United


Tactical changes are often associated with switches in shape — a back three becoming a back four, or a midfield three turning into a diamond. However, it’s not exclusive to that.

Shapes are a way of explaining the positioning of the players on the field in simple terms. The dynamic of how a team operates within this shape is another dimension — two identical formations could attack and defend in different ways depending on the movement of their players with and without the ball.

A tactical adjustment could be a change in strategy within the same shape, using the same players, by introducing different types of movements or occupying different spaces. Brighton & Hove Albion’s latest win against Manchester United is yet another example of how tactical changes can occur in different ways.

Limited by the unavailability of his wingers, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United entered the game in a different formation, moving away from their regular 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 to play a diamond in midfield with Bruno Fernandes operating at the tip, behind Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund.

Within that shape, United wanted to press Brighton’s 2-2 build-up using only three players to allow themselves a free man in defence. The idea was for one of Hojlund or Rashford to press the Brighton centre-back on the ball, while blocking the passing lane into one of the midfielders as Fernandes pressed the other.

Here, Hojlund is pressing Lewis Dunk while blocking the passing lane into Mahmoud Dahoud, allowing Fernandes and Rashford to press Pascal Gross and Jan Paul van Hecke without worrying about the remaining player.

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With limited passing options, Dunk plays the ball into Van Hecke…

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… who is immediately pressed by Rashford with Fernandes marking Gross outside of the penalty area. Behind them, Christian Eriksen, the left midfielder in the diamond, is in position to press Joel Veltman…

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…which happens when Van Hecke plays the ball into the Brighton right-back.

As customary with Brighton’s build-up, Danny Welbeck drops alongside Adam Lallana to support, but he is followed by Lisandro Martinez. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch, Scott McTominay moves inside to help United’s pressing as Brighton couldn’t reach their left-back, Tariq Lamptey, from this position by using only one pass.

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Under pressure, Veltman tries to find Simon Adingra down the line, but Martinez intercepts the pass.

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In another example, the angle from which Hojlund is pressing Van Hecke means that the Dutch defender can’t play the ball into Dahoud. As a result, Rashford and Fernandes can press Dunk and Gross without worrying about the ball being played in to the German midfielder. A couple of lines behind them, Martinez is sticking tight to Welbeck…

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… making it a three-versus-three situation on the far side of the pitch when Van Hecke plays the ball into Gross. This pass triggers a press from Fernandes…

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… and with the Portuguese limiting Gross’ time on the ball, Welbeck turns his marker and makes a run into space. The problem for Brighton is that, because United are successfully pressing with a player less up the pitch, they have an extra free player at the back.

Victor Lindelof, the free United player, picks up Welbeck’s run as Martinez is calmly signalling to his centre-back partner to switch markers.

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With no clear passing option, Gross plays the ball to Veltman, who has Eriksen ready to press him, and Hojlund dropping to mark Dahoud. The consequence is Brighton going all the way back to Van Hecke.

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Here’s another example of how United’s pressing worked. Rashford is pressing Dunk while blocking the passing angle into Dahoud, allowing Hojlund and Rashford (yellow) to press Van Hecke and Gross. In United’s own half, Martinez is following Welbeck, because the three-versus-four up the pitch is affording United a free player at the back in Lindelof.

Dunk plays the ball into Van Hecke…

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… and the United forwards adjust their positioning to make sure they are pressing the ball while blocking the passing angles into Gross and Dahoud…

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… leaving Dunk with no option but to go long when Van Hecke returns the ball to him. From this long pass, United manage to regain the ball but the key thing here is the positioning of Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford.

Again, Rashford is blocking the passing lane into Dahoud while pressing Dunk, allowing Fernandes and Hojlund to press Gross and Van Hecke if needed.

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Even when Brighton’s full-backs moved inside and Gross pushed forward, United were prepared. The 4-1-3-2 shape meant that United could easily go man-to-man with Martinez switching his focus towards Gross, leaving Welbeck for Lindelof to mark.

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“In the first 15-20 minutes, we suffered a lot because Manchester United played in a different way (than) we prepared before the game,” said Roberto De Zerbi after the game. However, during that period, there was one instance that might have provided Brighton with a solution against United’s pressing.

In the eighth minute, Van Hecke and Dunk were positioned wider in the build-up as Jason Steele had the ball. This meant that the space Fernandes, Hojlund and Rashford had to cover was bigger, and they couldn’t block the passing lanes while pressing Brighton’s centre-backs with the same ease.

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In addition to that, getting Steele more involved in the build-up complicated things further for United’s pressing.

Here, Rashford tries to press the Brighton goalkeeper while blocking the passing lane into Van Hecke, but Steele easily finds Dunk out wide with Fernandes and Hojlund focused on Gross and Dahoud. As for Eriksen and McTominay, they couldn’t leave their position or they risk compromising the shape.

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Widening the centre-backs and using Steele in the build-up helped Brighton to play through United’s pressing in this attack…

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…and De Zerbi’s message to Dunk after Welbeck’s opener might have been the same…

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…because after that goal, Dunk and Van Hecke made sure that they were positioned wider.

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In this example, Dunk is wide enough on the left that he isn’t showing in the image below, and Van Hecke is also maintaining a wide position on the right side as Steele is waiting on the ball. The difference now compared to the examples mentioned above is that United’s forwards have to cover another player in Steele, and more ground because of the spread of Brighton’s centre-backs…

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… which allows De Zerbi’s side to move easier up the pitch.

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Here’s another example. Hojlund is trying to press Steele while blocking the passing lane into Dahoud, as Fernandes and Rashford are marking Gross and Van Hecke with Casemiro trying to help. The issue is that Dunk is completely free on the left because of the distance between himself and Van Hecke…

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… which allows Steele to play the ball into the England defender…

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… and McTominay can’t move up to press as that isn’t his role.

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These two adjustments gave Brighton the upper hand for the rest of the game as United’s pressing could no longer be effective, and in the second half, it was Dunk’s wide positioning that led to Brighton’s third goal.

Here, Brighton’s build-up shape is spread across the width of the penalty area with Gross on the right side and Dunk on the left. As Van Hecke plays the ball into the German midfielder…

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… United’s narrow front three move towards the near side, leaving Dunk free. Brighton then circulate the ball to the other side to find Dunk…

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… who comfortably plays the ball into Lamptey…

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… before the full-back sets up Joao Pedro, who makes it 3-0.

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Increasing the distance between Brighton’s centre-backs and getting Steele on the ball wasn’t a major change in shape but it was a solution that helped Brighton against United’s pressing, and eventually, gave them control of the game.

Sometimes keeping the shape and introducing a minor tweak is the right answer.





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