Brighton’s pressing hindered United in possession – The Conventional Playmaker

Erik Ten Hag did not get off to the best of starts in his first taste of Premier League football as Manchester United manager. His new side lost their opening game of the season 1-2 to Brighton & Hove Albion, who, led by Graham Potter, came to Old Trafford with an interesting game plan, and secured their second win against United in as many games.

During the first-half, Brighton adopted a back three system as expected, and executed effective man-to-man pressing tactics. The adopted pressing comprised of a few key features, and did also come with a flexibility which meant that at points, Brighton seemed to refrain from an entirely fixed shape when pressing United higher up the pitch.


Brighton fielded wing-backs, Solly March on the right, and Leandro Trossard on the left, in a nominal 3-4-3 shape. The wing-backs were arguably essential as Brighton attacked via transitions, but also when they tried to regain possession.

This was because as Brighton pressed United in their own half, both wing-backs pushed high up the pitch to close down United’s right and left-back, which meant United’s aims to progress the ball down the flanks was halted, and build-up was slowed down.

In one scenario, United centre-back Harry Maguire was in possession inside United’s penalty-area. Being pressed by centre-forward Danny Welbeck, with Adam Lallana close by, and Untied holding midfielder Fred tracked by Pascal Gröss, Maguire’s only option was to pass to United left-back Luke Shaw.

But as Shaw received the ball, he is immediately pressed by March, who closes down the space to turn and pass forward.

Brighton’s 3-4-3 is in practice here, with Lallana pushing forward to support Welbeck, but this particular 3-4-3 adopted by Brighton had the wing-backs push remarkably high up the pitch to close down space and force longer passes across the pitch.

March recovered the ball five times within United’s half.
Source: StatsZone

Another example came when Maguire was again in possession, but this time within the centre circle. Maguire here was void of pressure, but nearby passing options were being man-marked.

Here, Trossard again pushed up to close down the space in front of Dalot, whilst also creating further risk by passing to either of United’s full-backs. With Dalot closer to Maguire and the ball, it was perhaps necessary for Trossard to stick closer to Dalot.

The image above shows Christian Eriksen, who started the game as a false 9, to be in space to receive the ball, having dropped from a more advanced position. But midfielder Alexis MacAllister tracked his movement. Instead, Maguire passed to Fred, who was being tracked by Lallana.

By now, Dalot had retreated into a deeper position, and Eriksen had continued to try to offer a passing option.

The ball was eventually switched out wide to Dalot, but this pass seemed to be prepared for, as Trossard quickly pushed forward to close down Dalot.

Meanwhile, Moises Caicedo and Gröss had pushed up into midfield from positions closer to the back three, to support the closing down of nearby passing options.

Lallana was tracking Eriksen, and United winger Jadon Sancho was being marked by wide centre-back Adam Webster. Dalot was encouraged to play a backwards pass, recycling build-up in the process.

Organisation and covering space

Both teams were quite flexible, but in being so, Brighton were evidently organised when defending against United’s build-up. When the wing-backs pushed higher up the pitch, the wide centre-backs covered the space left vacant and defended against United’s wide attackers.

The midfield three of Gröss, MacAllister, and Caicedo either marked United’s midfielders, or dropped closer to the back three, to cover more space. This helped not only if the wing-backs were high and wide and the wide centre-backs needed to drift further out wide, but also if United players were making runs. It did also mean that the shape Brighton kicked off with wasn’t exactly kept throughout the game. Brightons shape also changed entirely in the second-half.

In one scenario, Brighton’s midfielders were covering passing lanes in the centre. But at the same time, Scott McTominay was making a lateral run beyond the defensive line.

So whilst centre-back Lewis Dunk moved out of position to track the run made by the United midfielder, Caicedo dropped back to occupy the space left vacated by Dunk. This sort of simple action provided good cover against United trying to bypass Brighton’s block.

It is arguable that how organised Brighton were, meant that their approach to man-marking is in one way more effective than that of Leeds United, in recent seasons, which has sometimes led to large spaces being exploited in transitions by opposing sides.

Pressing triggers

Fred was the lone holding midfielder when United were in possession, as McTominay would push higher up the pitch. And when the ball was passed to Fred in United’s half, it acted as a trigger for Brighton to press tightly.

Less than five minutes into the match, the ball was set to be passed to Fred. Almost immediately, Gröss went to close down the midfielder. And with Gröss pressing Fred, MacAllister and Caicedo marked Bruno Fernandes and McTominay respectively.

The ball was switched to Rashford on the left by Fred, where the attack from the flank was shut down, as Dunk covered against Rashford.

Brighton’s tactics put them in good stead from the offset, and they took a two goal lead going into the second-half. United continued to dominate possession, but Brighton’s compactness as the game wore on provided protection against passes into the box from United.


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