Manchester United face Aston Villa today and Erik ten Hag will be looking to his fullbacks to continue their positive preseason performances.
Against Crystal Palace, Diogo Dalot and Tyrell Malacia put in stellar showings on the ball, demonstrating a tactical intelligence in possession that we are not used to seeing in the position at United.
One notable feature throughout the tour so far has been the use of underlapping runs to offer support in midfield areas.
Dalot gave us a taste of this movement in game one against Liverpool, combining well with Jadon Sancho who has been in incredible form on the right wing.
But with Malacia starting against Patrick Vieira’s side on Tuesday, we witnessed the Ten Hag ideal for how the fullback role ought to be played.
Both players roamed from the flank to central areas to create overloads in the middle third of the pitch, with the Dutchman’s runs especially difficult to pick up as he took on unorthodox positions to help work the ball up the pitch.
However in the final third, these two were often the principal providers of width in United’s attack.
That width in itself was somewhat unorthodox as the team look to be taking to the new manager’s way of playing.
Throughout his managerial career, Ten Hag has been an advocate for adaptable width structures, coaching his teams to adjust their lines based on the width of the opposition’s own defence.
For Anthony Martial’s opener, “minimum width” was on display, as the fullbacks – playing in that moment as wide attackers – took up as narrow positions as possible while still affording themselves space and time on the ball.
This allowed them to shift Palace’s defenders back and forth to carve out an opening for the revitalised Frenchman.
The importance of the fullbacks in that move cannot be understated.
And against Steven Gerrard’s side, how well they cope with a different system will be well worth looking out for.
Gerrard is likely to use the Christmas tree formation he brought with him from Rangers in this match.
Although it is a close cousin to the 4-3-3’s United have come up against thus far on tour, a key feature of a 4-3-2-1 is its aim to control central areas through sheer numerical superiority.
Indeed, United had a difficult time against it when the sides met back in January, with Villa using five players in central positions to basically walk straight through United’s midfield, something they did with alarming regularity during a second half in which Phillipe Coutinho and Jacob Ramsey had the freedom of the pitch.
Dalot and Malacia (or Luke Shaw) will be far more tested when stepping into midfield zones, where Gerrard’s side are likely to cause congestion, and it will be interesting to see how they adapt their width in response.
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