Erik Ten Hag has rebuilt Manchester United into a 1-4-2-3-1 shape with a key role for Bruno Fernandes, which is neither obvious nor readily apparent, but has had its consequences in the team’s tactical transformation, which can be summarised in three words: intensity, speed, attack.
Although different variants (generally 1-4-1-4-1 or 1-4-4-2) come into play when pressing, Ten Hag has consistently used a lone central striker in every game this campaign.
After losing the ball Manchester United press high and with high intensity without changing the starting formation they try to maintain in all phases of the game. Only in the transition phase, when they fail to recover the ball quickly, does the central block switch to 1-4-1-4-1 or 1-4-3-3 with one of the central midfielders moving to a deeper position in the centre of the pitch.
During positional play, they play with a high defensive line but leave plenty of space between the lines encouraging their rivals to make shorter passes and play combinations, while relying on Casemiro and Martinez‘s ability to position, read the game and intercept direct high balls.
Interestingly, Ten Hag has almost completely abandoned Ajax’s rotating positions and ball possession in favour of a very fluid attacking transition, fast distribution and a more individual approach.
When building the action from the back, they rely on Bruno, who goes deeper towards the ball (even into half-space), which forces not only the forward movement of one of the central and both side defenders, but also the need for Eriksen to look for passing options on the wings. Thus, in the first phase of the action, a transitional 1-2-5-3 shape emerges, which as it progresses transitions into a 1-4-4-2 with Casemiro and Eriksen as partners for the central defenders. These four then dictate the tempo and progressing of the action. Once in the opponent’s half, adopt an already 1-4-2-3-1 in which the wing-backs and wingers are given freedom to find free space bound only by the position of their partners. The rotations of positions is basically only found in the positions of the central midfielders (Bruno, Eriksen), who at the same time decide on the variant of playing the action.
The key to developing shooting positions, however, is the technical skill and running intensity of the wingers (Rashford, Antony), who are able not only to find space for themselves to shoot, but above all to create space for the backs by running into vertical channels or creating overloads in their zones drawing the attention of their rivals.