Diamonds are supposed to be hard to break, but not for Roberto De Zerbi who seemingly made a light work of it against Ten Hag’s Manchester United side. Okay, well the puns aside, the diamond here is a reference to Ten Hag’s new look midfield orientation with Casemiro-Scott McTominay-Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen all partnering behind Marcus Rashford and new signing Rasmus Højlund in a diamond shaped setup.
It almost looked like United could establish control of the proceedings, before the Seagulls soared with De Zerbi catching up to the act and tactically get the upper hand with almost no response from Ten Hag as the game ended 3-1 to Brighton.
So, let’s have a look at what and how it transpired…
Ten Hag’s Diamond midfield system – Understanding the nitty gritties
Pic 2,3,4: In a rare occurrence, United’s Buildup ideas with Andre Onana proved less successful than ones without him
United’s buildup ideas in initial minutes of the game had them using Onana in a 3-1/3-2 fashion in a bid to entice Brighton’s press. But this largely proved unsuccessful as Brighton went man to man (Pic 2). With this United were forced to try alternatives such as Drop Eriksen from his left sided 8 position to the 6 (Pic 3) or access Dalot between lines (Pic 4) with clipped balls, the latter being a good option though risk conceding a transition wrt 2nd balls.
Not involving the GK had United execute some good buildups. The Video shows both positive and negative aspects. Casemiro for some of his criticism on his on ball duties actually showed some off ball awareness with his experience, creating space for teammates but United’s pass speed was bit lacking as mentioned in the clip, and also Brighton’s aim of restricting passes centrally and lateral ones to Fullbacks meant there were openings in the halfspaces (areas between direct central or wide areas).
In these areas, with Perhaps mount playing could have provided United more opportunities even if Rashford did good up until combining with Reguilon’s overlaps or his own final actions.
End of the day the devil is the details and for the Red Devils (no pun intended), their out of possession (OOP) structure was feeble and this came down a lot to lack of intensity and mistiming of actions. Even in the opening 5 minutes, Brighton comfortably were able to play 3rd man sequences to access their CB, typical flavor of De Zerbi’s football.
If it happened once, it only gave the courage for Brighton to do it more, which led to the goal itself just 15 mins later of this sequence.
Waiting for the right moment: How De Zerbi’s Patience in opening minutes paid off
De Zerbi’s best adjustment of the game was not making any (w.r.t. tactically but technically a lot) but rather observe the nitty gritties of United system and then just exploit those loopholes in one sweep. United perhaps overdid their act of not allowing central progression that Brighton at end of the day did find central spaces in Phase 3 and whether you’d debate it’s entirely on Ten hag’s plan or United players’ lack of sharpness is something that’s hard to pin down.
Pic 5: The Gaps that were already appearing in United’s defense akin to mentioned in the video
Coming back to the particular point made in the video above about leaving gaps between CB’s, it was visible even before the 1st goal and my personal opinion was Dalot dealt with Mitoma better than his teammate on the left Reguilon that allowed balls behind him. So for De Zerbi it was a matter of executing similar sequences testing the resolve of United’s OOP structure which just couldn’t hold long.
And in my personal opinion, United probably have a big issue responding to maximum width idea that Brighton held (Both wingers closer to touchline to stretch final line). This opinion stems for the fact that United’s backline don’t move in sync when they want to close down space for wingers. A backline of 4 like in the above pic that doesn’t maintain same distances between it’s defenders was always a recipe for disaster.
Pic 6: Blindside runs from FB’s narrowing from Brighton
And perhaps another weakness of United that De Zerbi and his players understood were Ten Hag’s men were susceptible to Blind side runs: Remember how Martin Odegaard scored against United, making a blindside run off Eriksen?? Though it didn’t lead to a goal opportunity in particular atleast in 1st half, De Zerbi’s usage of Narrowing his Fullbacks meant Lamptey had clear advantage for example here to support 2v1’s for Mitoma before McTominay who would be caught in 2 minds whether he tracks Welbeck or support Dalot in his duties.
Again De Zerbi’s little adjustments, have a huge effect on United.
The 2nd Half: Hitting the final Nail in the Coffin
Brighton’s 2nd Goal had it all: some great blindside movements to escape markers from Pascal Groß, creating favorable numerical situations by Welbeck dropping in wide areas, a fine 3rd man sequence before the goal was made. United’s every weakness we have talked about perhaps all came into fore in this sequence. Wrt Game state, this was the final coffin than the 3rd goal as this mentally killed the game.
Once again, like I personally felt, Brighton didn’t really make a heap of tactical changes, it was just playing the game their way, bit more patient in buildup to test United’s resolve and draw them out, and towards the end of video as mentioned earlier, Lamptey gets behind McTominay near the box, space open for Groß to crash the box who calmly showed some great ball manipulation inside box to score.
United’s Woes this season continue, whether that’s off or on pitch and for Ten Hag, it’s going to be a long season with injury problems leaving holes in his own ideas lot of times. With Amrabat’s arrival, there’s better hope for United going forward but my personal opinion is that Mason Mount’s injury really changed a whole lot of dynamics than the availability of other players as such. Something only a few months later when Ten Hag has a full squad, the best judgement would arrive without ignoring that Ten Hag has plenty to work on.
For De Zerbi, this season is mainly where he raises the ceiling of this Brighton team even if there were and would be departures in his squad. His Work is Phenomenal, something that’s worth analyzing multiple times and you still extract new information.