Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Why did Manchester United leave Declan Rice free?

September 9, 2023 — Why was Declan Rice so free on the back post against Manchester United? The better question is, ‘why didn’t Arsenal score more than one goal from a corner?’ because United left men free on the back post all match.

Figure 1.1 - Illustration of Manchester United's zonal and man-to-man marking defending an Arsenal corner.

Manchester United used a mixture of zonal and man-marking, and they stuck to it.

  • Five Manchester United players zonally mark in the penalty area.
  • Christian Eriksen and the man on the back-post watch the three men free on the far side.
  • The center-forward and the smaller center-back act as blockers to mark two Arsenal players running into the penalty area.
  • The right-winger marks the man on the ball-side at the top of the box.

This leaves two Arsenal players free on the back-post and the top of the box. The players strictly followed these instructions, never deviating from them, even when it was obvious that a correction was needed.

Figure 2.1 - Six Manchester United players zonally mark in the penalty area, while two blockers man-mark. Declan Rice is free.
Figure 2.2 - Arsenal leaves Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka free.

Look how open Declan Rice is. Everyone is drawn into the center, ball-watching, and he holds his run.

Figure 3.1 - Two blockers but Manchester United leaves three Arsenal players free on the back post.
Figure 3.2 - Christian Eriksen and Diogo Dalot watch the three Arsenal players free on the far side.

Eriksen and Dalot don’t react to the movement. They wait until the ball is kicked to attack those who are free and moving.

Figure 3.3 - Corner is taken, three still free.
Figure 3.4 - Diogo Dalot comes out to challenge Declan Rice for the header.

This zonal marking heavily relies on quick reaction time, and I’m not sure why Manchester United needs that many men on the near post.

Figure 4.1 - Four Manchester United players free.
Figure 4.2 - Ball falls to Eddie Nketiah completely uncontested on the back-post.

Eddie Nketiah should have taken the shot here. At this point, Manchester United needs to make an adjustment because Arsenal can’t be this open on the back post on every corner. Move one of the men zonally marking on the front post to man-mark at least one of the men on the back-post.

Figure 5.1 - Two Manchester United blockers and three Arsenal players left free.
Figure 5.2 - Arsenal man free on the back-post.

Every corner, the last man on the back post is open.

Figure 6.1 - The same Manchester United marking, different angle.
Figure 6.2 - Manchester United leaves Declan Rice free.
Figure 7.1 - Two blockers, two Arsenal men free on the back post.

Still into the second half, United persists. They survived the first half, but once subs are made, the assignments change. It starts to get a bit confusing, and the gaps are larger.

Figure 7.2 - Martin Ødegaard joins Bukayo Saka short, dragging a Manchester United defender to the corner.
Figure 8.1 - Martin Ødegaard attracts an Arsenal defender again, and Antony is marking no one.

Arsenal helps add further confusion by having Martin Ødegaard go short. This drew a defender to him, detracting resources from their rest attack, making one more man cover more ground on the counter, helping to tire them.

Figure 8.2 - Declan Rice controls the ball with his chest, from the corner.
Figure 8.3 - Declan Rice's shot for the goal.

Finally, Arsenal scores from one of these corners. The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and the way United defended those corners was insane.

Figure 9.1 - Declan Rice celebrating the goal. Getty Images

A goal was inevitable, like Declan Rice.

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