Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Manchester United's piston press affords Manchester City too much space centrally

June 4, 2023 — Manchester United’s piston press opened up too much space between the lines, allowing Manchester City to advance into United’s half too easily.

Figure 1.1 - Christian Eriksen challenges John Stones and Jadon Sancho begins his run to Ruben Dias.
Figure 1.2 - Jadon Sancho presses Ruben Dias and Bruno Fernandes readies his run to Manuel Akanji.

Piston press. One man presses, ball is passed, another man presses the ball, the ball is passed, the next man presses the ball, and so on.

Once the first line is finished making their runs forward, space opens behind them.

Figure 1.3 - Ilkay Gündoğan runs out wide into the space Bruno Fernandes left. Rodri runs wide anticipating the pass to Gündoğan.
Figure 1.4 - Ilkay Gündoğan passes to Rodri, and John Stones is free.
Figure 1.4.1 - Illustration of Figure 1.4

Once Manchester City triggered Manchester United’s piston press and got past their initial press, space opened up centrally between the lines.

United’s far side was not as active as the ball side, so in this instance, John Stones became free centrally.

Figure 1.5 - Rodri passes to John Stones unmarked, and then John Stones passes to Ruben Dias.
Figure 1.6 - Erling Haaland drops to receive the pass from Ruben Dias.

Erling Haaland would take advantage of the space afforded by United and drop, dragging a defender with him. This was City’s way to break into United’s half.

Drop Haaland, pass into him, and Haaland lays the ball off to either Rodri, John Stones, Ilkay Gündoğan, or Kevin De Bruyne.

Both Ilkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne were pushing higher up the pitch to further expand the space centrally.

Figure 2.1 - Erling Haaland drops to receive a pass from Ruben Dias. Rodri moves into space anticipating the pass.
Figure 2.2 - Erling Haaland passes to Rodri, and then immediately turns to run behind Victor Lindelof.
Figure 2.3 - Rodri passes to Ilkay Gündoğan.
Figure 2.4 - Erling Haaland running into space behind Raphael Varane.
Figure 2.5 - Ilkay Gündoğan passes to Erling Haaland.

I expected Manchester United to instead press in the middle third like they did against Brighton. Have one forward put pressure on the backline and then have the three other forwards stay with their man. Wait for a mistake rather than create space for the opponent with a piston press.

Figure 3.1 - Illustration of how Manchester United should have pressed. Bruno Fernandes curves his run to cut off the pass to Manuel Akanji. Marcus Rashford cover shadows John Stones. Fred, Casemiro, and Christian Eriksen tightly man-mark Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gündoğan, and Rodri.

Herd Manchester City into one side of the pitch.

Figure 3.2 - Bruno Fernandes presses Akanji, while Eriksen and Casemiro follow Gündoğan and Rodri.
Figure 3.3 - Ilkay Gündoğan becomes trapped out wide with Bruno Fernandes and Casemiro pressuring him.

And then trap them out wide, without giving them as much space centrally. Force Manchester City to play long out of tight spaces. Don’t hand them huge pockets.

Figure 4.1 - (23 April 2023) Manchester United's pressing pattern against Brighton.

Manchester United were effective against Brighton in the FA Cup Semi-Final using this type of pressing structure: Anthony Martial pressed Brighton’s backline, and the rest stayed man-to-man waiting for Brighton to make a mistake.

I said before the match that this final would be decided in Manchester City’s buildup, and it was. City had complete control and were able to easily manipulate United. Manchester City were not clinical or sharp in the final third, but they had control over the middle third.

Figure 4.1 - Manchester United tired in the second half, not pressing Manchester City's backline and leaving large amounts of space open between the lines.

In the second half, both sides became very fatigued, and the intensity of Manchester United’s press wore off. You can’t allow City that amount of space between the lines because, on a good day, they will eventually punish you.

Two incredible strikes from Ilkay Gündoğan won Manchester City the FA Cup. Now they are only one win away against Inter from securing their first Champions League Final and the European Treble.

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