EPL 2019/20: Brighton vs Manchester United – tactical analysis
Gameweek 32 of the English Premier League 2019/20 season saw Brighton and Hove Albion take on Manchester United at home. Since the restart, the Seagulls have taken four points of their two games heading into this fixture, beating Arsenal at home before getting a point away at Leicester. United, however, steamrolled Sheffield United 3-0 at home in their previous Premier League fixture before sealing a spot in the FA Cup semi-finals with an extra-time winner against Norwich City. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of both Brighton and Manchester United in this fixture.
Graham Potter made three changes to his starting eleven, most notably leaving top scorer Neal Maupay on the bench. Adam Webster and Aaron Mooy were also left out of the lineup with Potter keeping an eye on the crucial clash with Norwich over the weekend. Shane Duffy and Martin Montoya slotted into the defence with 19-year-old Tariq Lamptey moving up to play as a right-winger. Davy Pröpper also started in midfield, meaning the Argentinian Alexis Mac Allister played as a forward in Maupay’s absence.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær made no changes to the team that beat Sheffield United at home, with the duo of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes starting together once again. Fernandes has been in impressive form and though he looked a bit tired in the FA Cup semi-final a few days earlier, retained his place in the starting eleven. 18-year-old Mason Greenwood made his 25th Premier League appearance and has been impressive this season for the Red Devils. Anthony Martial looked to add to his hat-trick against the Blades in the previous game week with Marcus Rashford hoping to score his first goal since the restart.
Brighton do not see much of the ball
The first half of the game was all about Manchester United and Potter’s side seemed content to allow their opposition the possession. Brighton’s tactics saw them maintain organised defensive structures and in the first part of our tactical analysis, we will look at these tactics.
Brighton looked to press Manchester United in their own half, pressing in a 4-1-3-2 formation. The Seagulls, originally starting off with a 4-4-2, adopted this new formation while pressing so as to ensure that there was some cover for the defence.
This meant that passes to Pogba and Nemanja Matić in midfield were cut off as they often found themselves surrounded by the Brighton attackers. However, this did not seem to faze Manchester United, with Matić dropping back almost as a third centre-back as per the original tactics and providing a passing option. Pogba was also able to follow his original tactics and move forward to make use of his creativity and attacking threat.
Alternatively, Brighton switched their tactics to a 3-4-3 press. With United opting to play out from the back through Luke Shaw, Lamptey would move up to the forward line while right-back Montoya would slot into his position. Such a press meant that Manchester United had more players in Brighton’s half than Brighton themselves at times. However, they did not exploit this numerical advantage by means of a long pass but instead stuck to their tactics of playing short passes.
United did not lose anything by sticking to their tactics, however, and were able to dominate possession of the ball. In fact, the Red Devils had more than 70% of the ball possession in the first half of the game and consistently put pressure on the Brighton defence. With Matić and Pogba sticking to their original tactics, United could rotate the ball easily and they escaped Brighton’s press, finding themselves frequently in the opposition half.
Brighton reverted to their original 4-4-2 formation in their own half and looked to maintain a very narrow structure. The backline were hardly spread out wide and the forwards and midfielders were tasked with winning the ball back for the Seagulls. However, United were still able to maintain possession easily with Brighton looking to keep all their men behind the ball. Brighton’s tactics showed a lack of attacking intent in the first half and the team were happy to maintain a low block in the hope of preventing United from scoring.
When pushed further back, Potter’s defensive tactics meant that Lamptey and Yves Bissouma would also slot into the backline as shown below.
This saw Brighton alter their tactics to adopt what was almost a 6-2-2 formation. The Seagulls hoped to cut off crosses from Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bisakka and also clear them away by making use of their tall defenders such as Lewis Dunk and Dan Burn. This, however, meant that the likes of Pogba and Fernandes were able to slot into the half-spaces and, with their one-touch passing capability, were able to cause constant problems for Brighton.
It should also be noted that with Shaw and Wan-Bisakka pressing higher, the wingers in Rashford and Greenwood were allowed to move centrally to find themselves in better positions as well.
United exploit the half-spaces
As mentioned earlier, Brighton’s defensive tactics meant that United could slot into half-spaces in their defence. In this section of our tactical analysis, we will look at how the Red Devils were able to exploit these half-spaces and create chances for themselves.
The fact that Brighton’s tactics saw them sit so deep in their half meant that United could push their full-backs much higher up the pitch. Wan-Bisakka was able to move down the touchline and at times the centre-backs in Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf could drive forward with the ball as well. This meant that the likes of Greenwood could move into the half-spaces between the defenders. Fernandes would also play very high up the pitch and hence why Greenwood’s run into the half-spaces often meant that he would only have about one or two defenders to beat, with others having to mark the other forwards.
This was in fact how Manchester United were able to score their first two goals. Their effective exploitation of Brighton’s tactics meant that they could easily break through the defence and create shots for themselves. The image above was just moments before Greenwood would beat two defenders and put the ball in the back of the net. Another example in the form of the second goal is shown below.
A quick analysis of the image above shows that Fernandes smartly slots into the gap between the Brighton midfielders. While this did not necessarily provide a crossing option for Shaw on the ball, it meant that he was ready for any ball that was half-cleared. In fact, a few seconds later, the ball was at Pogba’s feet and Fernandes’ smart movement meant that he was in prime position to take on a shot from the edge of the box. With the Brighton players simply looking to get behind the ball, such a simple movement meant that United could break down their tactics and find a goal-scoring opportunity.
A simple pass from Pogba saw Fernandes’ shot end up in the back of the net, providing United fans more reason to celebrate their star midfield pair.
Manchester United reaped their rewards for their dominance in the first half and by cleverly exploiting Brighton’s poor defensive tactics, had taken a commanding lead.
Brighton’s refreshed tactics
The second half saw Potter bring on Maupay and Leandro Trossard for Lamptey and Pröpper in what was a reshuffling of tactics. Brighton looked to play with almost a 4-2-2-2 formation, with the wingers maintaining a relatively narrow position ahead of the midfielders. In this section of our tactical analysis, we will see how these refreshed tactics affected the game.
Right off the blocks, the Seagulls looked a different team and their new tactics meant United had to get men behind. After having most of the possession in the first half, United had to adapt to their lack of possession in these early stages. Brighton’s attack early on troubled the Red Devils who scrambled to form a concrete defensive structure.
Trossard and Maupay offered a dynamic attack and the former’s narrow position meant that he was a huge attacking threat for Brighton. Rather than being isolated out wide against Wan-Bisakka, Trossard was able to pose a direct threat to the centre-backs by often being able to cut in towards the centre. The offensive push from Brighton also saw them send their full-backs in Burn and Montoya higher up the field in order to enable the likes of Trossard and Mac Allister to cut in towards the centre effectively. However, United were able to organise themselves defensively and Brighton could only conjure up half-chances that they could not convert.
Once United adapted to Brighton’s new tactics, they were also smartly able to pick them apart on the counter. With Rashford and Greenwood staying down the wings, United were capable of a quick turn on the counter and could exploit the gaps in the Brighton defence. With the full-backs pushing forward, the United attack was effectively only against the two midfielders and centre-backs who would stay behind. While they were stopped in the first few opportunities, United managed to cut open the defence eventually with a swift counter-attack.
A through pass from Matić meant that Greenwood had loads of grass to run into and United found themselves four against five Brighton defenders. The pace of United’s attack was too much to handle for Brighton on this occasion, however, meaning that Fernandes was able to volley home Greenwood’s cross for his second goal.
In just a matter of seconds, United had managed to overcome Brighton’s refreshed tactics and effectively put the game to bed. In pursuit of a goal to get them back into the game, Potter’s side had left themselves vulnerable on the counter and the risk did not pay off with United making full use of their opportunities.
This meant that Brighton had to slightly tweak their tactics and in doing so, were able to ask questions of the United defence.
With Potter acknowledging that his full-backs could not afford to press as high, he opted to push his forwards wider instead. It was Maupay who would often drift out wide, meaning that Trossard would move towards the centre to receive the ball in dangerous positions. This movement often caused confusion among the United backline, with Matić and Pogba having to keep an eye on the two attackers.
Both Maupay and Trossard combined well to spread the United defence and Brighton were able to not only see more of the ball but also put some pressure on the United defence.
With the wingers in Trossard and Allister cutting in, United’s backline was also forced narrower and this meant that the occasional push of the full-back was a major attacking threat. Maupay and Connolly also combined well in order to drag the centre-backs out of position and this opened up excellent spaces for the Brighton attackers to run into.
United’s attackers had to fall back in order to ward off the threat caused by these new tactics and apart from the occasional chance, they were able to restrict Brighton. The increased attacking threat of Brighton, coupled with the comfortable lead, also saw Solskjær make defensive changes to his team, bringing on the likes of Scott McTominay in order to provide better cover in midfield.
Overall, United were largely able to handle Brighton’s attacking threat and ensure that they kept their clean sheet.
With Brighton six points off the relegation zone, this loss does not come at a good time. It is their first loss since the restart and with a game against bottom club Norwich is up next over the course of the weekend, they could look to quickly turn their results around. A win in that fixture would see the Seagulls in a good position to remain in the Premier League for another season.
As for United, their impressive form continues and the midfield pairing of Pogba and Fernandes is certainly proving to be lethal. The Portuguese has in fact been an amazing addition to the squad and is yet to lose a match for Manchester United. With the Red Devils fighting for Champions League qualification next season, performances like these would be needed consistently for them to overtake rivals Chelsea and even Leicester City in third place. With a possible ban for Manchester City, even fifth place may be enough for qualification and United would hope to fight off the likes of Wolves and Sheffield United to seal fifth place at least. At the moment, it looks bright for the Red Devils and their fans will be overjoyed with these results.