When talking about tactics, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype over a formation and entirely ignore the system. There is a lot more thought put into the intricacies of how a team functions on a pitch than how it lines up.

Tactical thinkers, Louis van Gaal especially, are always quick to point out that the same formation can be played in many different ways. What makes these systems different is the little intricacies that managers and coaching staffs add in, whether it’s by the match, or a more general tweak used each week to set the system apart.

At the weekend, Manchester United reverted to the system with which it started off the season. The system features three center backs, two wing backs, two center midfielders, and three attackers. Barring specific player instructions, the general roles of each player are exactly the same as those of the players who fit into the system van Gaal deployed with the Netherlands at the World Cup.

This is especially true for that third attacker, who acts as a link between the attack and midfield. What is more interesting about that player’s role though, is their actions in defense. When the opposition has possession, that player steps up as a third presser.

Having the additional person stepping up is an interesting tweak to van Gaal’s five-back system. See Georginio Wijnaldum in the World Cup semi-final:

And here’s an aerial view.

It might be difficult to see him, but Wijnaldum is the player who steps to the Argentine player on the ball at top-middle of the screen.

Another feature of the system that explains why that extra presser is so important, is that the Dutch defensive line is extremely high. As we saw with Tottenham a few weeks ago, teams that play with a high line have to put pressure on the ball. What’s admirable about this Dutch team is that it’s so compact and packs the game into such a tight space when not in possession.

All of that was emphasized by the man-marking that went on in the middle the pitch, as that made the space for individual players smaller as well. Holland did get knocked out in the semi-finals, but few remember that team’s excellent defensive record in the tournament, as it shutout its last three opponents.

None of that was new for the semi-final though, as Wesley Sneijder took on a similar spot in the team as it locked down its operation against Spain.

The same is going on when United deploy the system. On Saturday, Wayne Rooney was used to break up the build up play in the same way that the Dutchman who played under van Gaal at the World Cup were.

You can see the same attributes to the system in the GIF below, as the three attackers sit in the line farthest forward, with Rooney stepping out of midfield to press. The two center midfield players have to pick up anyone between the front line and the five-man defense.

It is very important to recognize how defensive these wing backs play when United doesn’t have the ball. In possession, their position is no different from an attacking full back pushed up the pitch (see Leighton Baines at Everton), but without the ball, the wing backs are very conservative in that they line up with the three center backs. However, the aggressive mentality of the high line remains the same. As seen in each of these GIFs, United wants the game to be played in the fraction of the pitch between its back five and front three.

The role of the third presser remains constant, as Rooney serves as an extra person in each of these clips to disrupt build up play. Simply being present in that area blocks off the defender’s vision not only to the center midfielders, but also of any forward or attacker dropping in between the lines to get the ball. The extra body in that area shrinks the passing lanes and can force the opponent to play the ball into a less dangerous position on the flank.

The obvious problem is that if United gets spread out too much, it opens up space for the opponent to drive into.

For example, early in the match on Saturday, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick get split in midfield and there’s ample space for the Gunners to drive into.

The bottom line for the third presser is that it gets an extra attacking player forward in the squad, and puts them in the position to do defensive work. Earlier in the season, Juan Mata was that player, but his defensive work rate will only see him directly cause one turnover every other match. Rooney only won the ball back a couple of times against Arsenal in his role on Saturday though, and van Gaal must hope for more from Rooney as that third presser, if he continues to deploy that system in the coming weeks.

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