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Taking Advantage of Superiorities

Last weekend, Manchester United hosted Arsenal in a Premier League match, which ultimately ended in Arsenal winning 0-1. I found the game to be extremely interesting from a tactical perspective, and especially in the first half. In particular, I was most intrigued by Arsenal's aggressive high pressing in a 1-3-4-3 (1-3-4-1-2) structure against United's 1-4-3-1-2 (1-2-4-2-2) structure in the build up. The first half ended 0-0, however, United's best chance to score came at 20:58 when Greenwood received a great through ball from Rashford, forcing Arsenal's goalkeeper to make a save at the first post.

You can see the highlight of the opportunity here at 2:12 in the video.

Although the highlight does not show the build up play prior to the quick free kick from Rashford, it was that play which I found to be the most interesting. Why? Because United took advantage of the 'third man' to progress beyond Arsenal's forwards, and ultimately earn a free kick that they were able to play quick and create a scoring opportunity.

Here is an image of the situation before the foul on United's #39 McTominay. In the build up play, United circulated the ball out wide to their right fullback, #29 Wan-Bissaka, and with no clear passing options inside towards midfielders, #10 Rashford drops from the forward line to offer support inside. Meanwhile McTominay anticipated the forward pass towards Rashford, and moved to offer emergency support (click here to read our last article on emergency supports) and receive as the 'third man' to help the team progress forward.

To give a simple definition of the 'third man', one could say that it is passing the ball to the third player in a passing triangle. There are different ways in which a team could utilize the 'third man', such as to progress beyond the opponents pressure with the 'third man' receiving the ball facing forwards or to give continuity to the game and secure possession of the ball, to name a few examples.

Below are two examples. In situation one on the left, the team is using the 'third man' to play beyond the opponents pressure, playing directly to the striker, so the midfielder as the 'third man' can receive the set facing forwards. In situation two on the right, the team is using the 'third man' to give continuity to the game by securing possession with the free center-back.

To bring this concept and image to life, here is an interesting video on different 'third man' plays that Leeds United have utilized in the build up under Marcelo Bielsa.

Now from my humble analysis, I will discuss the concept of the 'third man' in relation to United's build up play while taking into consideration Arsenal's defensive structures and strategies. In the first half of the United-Arsenal match, United utilized a base structure of a 1-4-3-1-2 (diamond) on offense, while Arsenal was applying high pressure in a base structure of 1-3-4-3. Here is a representation - United is in red and Arsenal in white.

In the dynamic play, United appeared to alter their structure in the build up to a 1-2-4-2-2 (cannot be sure without the tactical camera of the match), against Arsenal's 1-3-4-3 or 1-3-4-1-2, represented below. McTominay positioned next to #17 Fred and #18 Fernandes positioned around the same height of #6 Pogba, to generate the presumed 1-2-4-2-2 structure. This structure in the build up for United laid the foundation to generate numerical superiority in the central lane.

The dynamics of Arsenal's high pressure and United's build up structure was a great situation to study and learn from because there were many interesting components present. Such as Arsenal's three forwards pressing aggressively and midfielders man marking while United mixed numerical superiority, mobility, and dynamic attackers. Here is a presumed representation of a United build up structure against Arsenal's high pressing movements.

As you can see from the image, Arsenal's #25 El Nenny and #18 Thomas man marked United's #18 Fernandes and #6 Pogba in midfield, while McTominay and Fred created a 2v1 situation against Arsenal's #9 Lacazette in the central lane for numerical superiority. From analyzing the match, it appeared that Arsenal's three forwards - #9 Lacazette, #14 Aubameyang, and #12 Willian were responsible for defending against United's two center-backs and two defensive midfielders.

Arsenal's forwards applying pressure in central lane.

Specifically, when the ball was with United's left center-back, Aubameyang positioned inside to defend the passing line into McTominay as Willian orientated the pressure towards the central lane. As the ball traveled to the right center-back, Aubameyang and Lacazette had to coordinate their movements because Lacazette had to shift from marking Fred to McTominay, while Aubameyang applied pressure to the right center-back and Willian shifted inside to now defend the passing lines into Fred. To get a full understanding of the build up moment, here is an image on the left.

It was during that type of shifting between Arsenal's three forwards mixed in with the man marking in midfield that appeared to present United with some possible opportunities to utilize the 'third man' to progress beyond Arsenal's press. Specifically, United was able to play directly from the defensive line into the forwards (Rashford and Greenwood) because Pogba and Fernandes dragged their marks (El Nenny and Thomas) away from the central lane. At the same time, Fred and McTominay (whoever was closest to the forwards receiving) coordinated their movements to offer emergency support to Rashford/Greenwood as they moved to receive direct passes from United's defenders. This situation appeared at 7:57 - here is the image from the match.

Notice Arsenal's midfielders following Fernandes and Pogba out wide, creating space for United's forwards.

Although Greenwood wasn't able to cleanly link play with McTominay, the 'third man', due to Arsenal's #6 Gabriel reducing the space quickly, the intention was there. Ultimately in this play, United had to recirculate the ball, however if they were able to connect the play with McTominay facing forward, they would have generated an interesting attacking situation, similar to the one that led to the best chance of the first half, thanks to utilizing the 'third man'.

Utilizing the 'third man' to progress beyond an opponents pressure is extremely useful because it can also help generate a free player to receive in a dangerous position inside the opponents structure. The reason being is that once the 'third man' receives the set, the opposition must shift and reorganize the marks according to who are the most dangerous players. When the opposition is re-organizing according to the new location of the ball, a free player can appear inside the opponents defensive structure. This situation appeared in 44:17 - see below.

United's right center-back had a direct passing line into Rashford who had McTominay moving to provide emergency support as the 'third man' to receive facing forwards. Ultimately Rashford did not set the ball to McTominay, and decided to secure possession by passing to Fred. However, notice in the image that as the ball was traveling into Rashford, El Nenny moved closer help apply pressure near the ball, leaving Pogba to be free in midfield. If Rashford decided to set the ball to McTominay, the United midfielder would have had a good opportunity to pass to Pogba who was alone inside Arsenal's defensive structure. Finding advanced midfielders who have time and space to receive facing forwards is an advantageous situation to exploit due to the attacking options available - i.e. run with the ball to commit a defender in the defensive line or play directly to a teammate running into the free space behind the defensive line, to name a few.

As I have said many times before, soccer is an extremely complex sport, and there are many ways to overcome the opposition. Here I simply wanted to discuss the concept of the 'third man' from a theoretical perspective and in an applied context while shedding light on the many considerations a coach must take into account when developing game plans such as player qualities, structures, opposition structures and patterns to name a few.

Thanks for reading.


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