David Wagner and Erik ten Hag are facing similar questions on and off the pitch at their respective clubs - but can both start planning for the future? Ben Lee takes a look. 

Looking Forward and an Unlikely Comparison: 

  • Executive and fanbase narratives. 
  • A future with Wagner? 
  • Manchester United versus Norwich City. 
  • Reaching the next level. 

Manchester United and Norwich City. Two clubs occupying vastly different realms of English football. 

One’s a giant, steeped in history, celebrated globally, with a trophy cabinet gleaming with silverware; it’s a club expecting no less than Champions League qualification, and they have the resources to justify their ambition. 

The other? A club with a more modest history and the finances to match. Most recently bouncing between the top two divisions, they have two simple aims: to achieve promotion and to survive in the topflight. Maybe then they could consider thriving, but it feels like a distant aim. 

These ostensibly incomparable clubs might have more in common than you’d think. New sporting directors with a big decision to make: do they stick or twist with the head coach who preceded them, or do they wipe the slate clean? Dan Ashworth and Ben Knapper have the same question to answer. 

Yet the similarities extend beyond executive decisions and fanbase narratives. They extend onto the field of play. 

Given Norwich’s impressive ascendance into the play-off places, David Wagner increasingly challenges the ‘clean slate’ narrative. So it’s worth considering a future with Wagner at the helm, including how he could take this side to the next level. 

It’s in this context that we can explore an unlikely comparison, this time through a tactical lens. 

Too often, when considering control, we discuss phases in possession. So this time, I’ll focus on a tactical similarity between Manchester United and Norwich in their pressing phases – a crucial strategic element for sustained success. 

Norwich invariably create a 4-1-3-2 structure during their opponents’ deep build-up phases. One midfielder advances between the wingers, while the remaining pivot – usually Kenny McLean (23) – occupies the space behind. 

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Once the deep build-up begins, City press man-for-man on the ball side, aiming to trap their opponent against the touchline. 

Typically, given the prevalence of double pivots, Norwich’s ball-side winger presses the full-back, while the advanced midfielder tracks one pivot, and the far-side winger shifts over to the other. 

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Ultimately, pressing is about controlling the right spaces. When players jump from position to position, they inevitably leave space in the position they just vacated. 

Understanding how best to close gaps in dangerous areas while allowing space in relatively harmless parts of the pitch is crucial. It’s key to controlling a game without the ball. 

By pressing from the front, Norwich close space on the ball side of their opponent’s defensive third. But this creates space behind the first two lines of pressure, where Kenny McLean is tasked with tracking an advanced midfielder. 

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Opponents often attempt to overload this space with two players occupying positions between the lines. In these situations, McLean tends to track the player on the ball side, but in doing so, he leaves a possible escape via the player on the far side. 

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The next challenge becomes about how this space is closed. After all, few areas are more dangerous than that between the defensive and midfield lines. Indeed, many coaches call this space the ‘red zone’ – it’s key for profitable ball progression. 

The natural pressing dynamics would be for the far-side full-back to move infield. But the distances between these players are often too large, and opponents occasionally push their far-side full-back high to discourage these usual dynamics. 

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Alternatively, the pressing side may choose to push a centre-back into midfield. But this strategy becomes difficult if a centre-forward is pinning back the nearest defender, and its efficacy depends on the profile of centre-backs available; if they’re slow, it may be more of a risk to leave space in behind. 

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This issue can be even more apparent before City’s opponent commits to playing out down one side. In these moments, McLean hasn’t received the trigger to press the player on the ball side, and he’s overloaded in a horizontal 2v1. 

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But how does any of this relate to Manchester United? Well, spend some time watching United, and you’ll notice they have a very similar issue. 

After creating a similar pressing structure to Norwich, their defensive midfielder – often Kobbie Mainoo (37) – tends to jump into the second line of pressure, creating a 4-4-2. In doing so, he’s caught between the pivot and an advanced midfielder in the space behind – he’s overloaded in a vertical 2v1. 

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These pressing issues are made even worse by United’s tendency to press high from the front with a deep defensive line, thereby leaving vast spaces totally unguarded between the lines. 

Let’s be clear, United’s press is fundamentally flawed; Norwich’s isn’t. But both sides allow space in similar areas. Norwich have had comparable issues in their 4-4-2 mid-press when a winger is drawn to press against a back three, creating space between the lines. 

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Both David Wagner and Erik ten Hag have defended the efficacy of their sides’ press using the number of high turnovers achieved as the primary performance metric. 

But this logic fails to consider what should be a key element of every pressing strategy, particularly against top-quality opponents: ‘what happens when we don’t force a high turnover?’ If you allow progression into dangerous spaces, perhaps the number of high turnovers you achieve shouldn’t be the focus. 

Both sides sit in the bottom half of their respective leagues for the number of touches they allow their opponents in the attacking third and for open-play expected goals against. 

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Even in settled possession, Norwich and United have comparable setups designed to pin their opponents back. 

Their expansive structures allow for fast progression into areas of superiority. Wagner’s side, for example, often create a last-line overload by pushing up to six players against their opponent’s back line. 

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But with every tactical upside, there’s a trade-off. Both sides have had issues with their ‘rest-defence’ – or the defensive protection provided by the remaining defenders in possession. 

The space Norwich and United leave in central areas makes it difficult to counter-press in defensive transitions, leaving the sides vulnerable to counter-attacks. Former RB Salzburg, RB Leipzig, and Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch articulates this notion best. 

“If you don’t have the appropriate tactical arrangement, if your players are too spread out […] and you’re thinking about big switches [of play], I don’t care how good the reactions are [of] your team, you cannot be a good counter-pressing team.” 

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It’s worth noting the improvements Wagner’s side have made since last season, when the spaces they left were even more vast. City’s 3-diamond-3 build-up and their more structured response to turnovers have made a difference, but the underlying issues haven’t entirely disappeared. 

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You’d be forgiven for being dismayed by this apparent pessimism. After all, Norwich are now comfortably beating many opponents they face, and few teams would want to meet them in the play-offs, especially given the individual quality they possess. 

But in a world of increasing polarisation, particularly on social media, we need to start finding space for more nuanced debate. 

Discussing areas for improvement shouldn’t be frowned upon, particularly if we’re serious about promotion to the Premier League, where even the smallest weaknesses are exposed ruthlessly.