Manchester United – Brighton & Hove Albion: De Zerbi Refutes Ten Hag’s Experiment (1-3)

Erik Ten Hag tried to experiment with a 4-3-1-2 system for Manchester United as they faced Brighton & Hove Albion. After a slightly difficult start though, Roberto De Zerbi’s side were able to find tactical superiorities against United’s system by exploiting width, and the away side ultimately left Old Trafford with a convincing victory.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

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Manchester United have had a challenging first month of the season, both on and off the pitch. Trying to revitalise his side, Erik ten Hag decided on a change of system for this game against Brighton & Hove Albion, as United lined up in a 4-3-1-2 shape. Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelöf, Lisandro Martínez, and Sergio Reguilón were the back four, with Casemiro flanked by Scott McTominay and Christan Eriksen in the midfield three. Bruno Fernandes was the number ten, with Rasmus Højlund and Marcus Rashford as strikers.

Brighton meanwhile have continued their good form from last season, with dominant wins in each of their games prior to the international break other than their defeat to West Ham. Roberto De Zerbi’s side lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system here, with a back four of Joël Veltman, Jan Paul van Hecke, Lewis Dunk, and Tariq Lamptey. Pascal Groß partnered Mahmoud Dahoud in central midfield, while Adam Lallana was the number ten. Simon Adingra and Kaoru Mitoma were the wingers, as Danny Welbeck started up front.

United start promisingly

With the forward players available to Ten Hag going into this match, the selection of a 4-3-1-2 system seemed to be a perfectly reasonable attempt at fitting in the appropriate personnel. For example, Højlund and Rashford are both forwards who thrive on being able to run in behind off the shoulder of center-backs, and a two-striker system with a number ten behind them helps facilitate this.

In the first twenty minutes, United played fairly well. They looked to break quickly when winning the ball back, and the left side of the pitch looked especially dangerous with Reguilón enjoying a lot of freedom to run forward on this side and Rashford posing threats to Brighton’s defense.

United’s buildup was quicker and more direct than the low-tempo performance against Arsenal last time out. Brighton were happy enough to drop deeper in some sequences to prevent United’s forwards running in behind.

Brighton take control

United were not on top for long though, and they did not create any clear chances. After around twenty minutes or so, Brighton began to find more settled sequences of possession and establish their familiar rhythm. Here, United experienced some issues with defending in their new system.

United’s front three would try to remain compact in the center to restrict the buildup abilities of Brighton’s center-backs and central midfielders. Højlund and Rashford would try to balance between screening passes into midfield and pressuring the center-backs, while Fernandes would provide cover behind them.

Brighton meanwhile would often build in a 4-2-4 shape, whereby Welbeck would drop into the right halfspace while Lallana occupied the left halfspace. They would be stationed between the lines, while the wingers Adingra and Mitoma were tasked with pinning United’s defensive line back. To do this, they would often position themselves just slightly narrower than United’s fullbacks, threating runs in behind to keep the attention of both the fullbacks and center-backs. From this position, the wingers could also easily move wider to create an option on the touchline if required.

Brighton always had space out wide thanks to United’s narrow shape and the smart positioning of Brighton’s front four. 

With the wingers high up and the central midfielders supporting the center-backs in buildup, Brighton’s fullbacks were able to advance and hold the width. They would end up being a key outlet for Brighton against United’s narrow shape.

Since Welbeck and Lallana occupied the halfspaces, it was difficult for McTominay and Eriksen to play the dual role of protecting the halfspaces while also pressuring the ball when it went to the wing. This resulted in easy possession for Brighton’s fullbacks through which the team could build attacks.

Brighton’s center-backs also started to split wider to evade the pressing of United’s strikers and stretch out the spaces between United’s front three in order to better exploit the two-versus-one that Groß and Dahoud had against Fernandes in Brighton’s number six area.

The triangles between Brighton’s fullback, center-back and central midfielder on each side were overall far too easy for them to exploit in order to break United’s pressure. The role of Welbeck and Lallana in the halfspaces was again key here, as they made it more difficult for United’s central midfielders to push forward aggressively in pressing.

Comfortable Brighton victory

Brighton’s superiorities in possession helped them take the lead in the first half thanks to Welbeck’s strike, and they were able to double this lead early in the second half through Groß. Despite the game state, Brighton would remain proactive in the game though, and still ended up creating more than United in the second half. 

Although Brighton would drop deep when necessary, they still showed a willingness to press high when appropriate. Here, they showed their very flexible man-oriented pressing. They started in a 4-4-2 shape, but players were able to move far from their nominal positions when marking an opponent, with players requiring a lot of awareness to cover gaps left by teammates.

United had Casemiro as the deepest midfielder, while Eriksen and Fernandes had a lot of freedom to roam, either going between the lines or coming deep to collect the ball. McTominay made plenty of forward runs, but overall struggled to impact the game when United had the ball.

Both coaches prepared changes just after the hour mark, as João Pedro and Ansu Fati replaced Welbeck and Lallana for Brighton. Ten Hag brought Anthony Martial on for Højlund who is still gaining fitness, while Hannibal Mejbri also replaced Casemiro. This change saw Fernandes become the deepest midfielder, while Mejbri played as the number ten.

Brighton were still comfortable in the game, and were able to add a third goal with twenty minutes remaining with a well-placed strike from João Pedro. The goal once again arose from Brighton being able to play out far too easily to their fullback, in this case Lamptey. There was space alongside United’s narrow midfield line, and Dalot was being pinned back by Mitoma, allowing Lamptey to receive and carry the ball forward unchallenged.

United were able to reply a minute later with Mejbri’s excellent goal from long-range, but they would only manage one shot at goal after this. Ten Hag made more changes late on, switching to a back three and bringing on Facundo Pellistri and Alejandro Garnacho as wing-backs. Brighton were the ones creating chances late on though, and could have extended their lead further before the game eventually ended 3-1 to the away side.


The change of system was an interesting attempt from Ten Hag to breathe new life into United after their poor performances so far in the season. It worked well early on, but once Brighton adapted and started finding more width in their shape United were second best throughout.

De Zerbi’s side showed their class once again. Their possession structure helped them to outplay United, especially once the center-backs began splitting wider to get around United’s frontline. The positional roles of the front four allowed them to control United’s defensive and midfield lines, creating the space for their fullbacks to exploit decisively.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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