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RC Lens will prove a fantastic test for Manchester United

by David O'Neill

Manchester United’s preseason encounter brings them up against an interesting side in RC Lens today. Second in Ligue 1 last season, they were the surprise package for many, pushing Paris Saint-Germain all the way in the title race.

There is an enormous value in playing against a variety of opponents in preseason, particularly when those sides throw up differing tactical challenges. How the players adapt to different stylistic challenges and answer different tactical questions can tell a coach plenty about them. Against RC Lens, there will be a few key demands that will help prepare the players for specific threats.

Lens always line up in a 3-4-3 shape initially, adjusting the orientation of their front three depending on the opposition’s own formation. Against single pivot systems, Lens defend in a 3-4-1-2, but as they more commonly face double pivots, the 3-4-2-1 is the usual.

This is similar to how Erik ten Hag flips between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 based on the opposition – he typically goes with the one that provides the best access to press the pivots.

It will be interesting to see if the there are a few formation switches in this preseason encounter as the two coaches experiment with their systems.

In offensive transitions, Lens’ shape always ends up being something of a 3-Diamond-3, with one of the forwards joining the midfield as the wingbacks push on. This gives Lens a numerical advantage in the middle of the park and allows them to work the ball through midfield, contributing to their intricate style of play.

It could be a good opportunity for Man United’s wingers to shine, as they will be the players with the most space. Jadon Sancho and Antony – if involved – have big seasons ahead of them and could really use this as a chance to get into their groove.

In drawing the battle into the centre of the pitch, Lens’ wingbacks are also freed up as passing options, which is one of the reasons why Lens’ most common source of chance creation is crossing, although they are flexible in that regard.

That suits Lois Openda, who can thrive on crosses but is also happy to play on the shoulder owing to his pace. His 21 Ligue 1 goals last term had good variety, but his bread and butter was low flashed balls across the penalty area. The United backline will principally have those to contend with here.

Lens typically defend high up the pitch, although they are not an intense pressing side by any means. They look to contain opponents away from their goal rather than force high turnovers, which can make progressing the ball against them tricky.

Ten Hag will be keen to see his side maintain their composure and look for line breaking passes quite early – he won’t be happy with his team holding onto the ball at the back indefinitely. Judging by the training sessions on the USA tour, decisive action on the ball will be paramount this season.

Plenty of challenges for Manchester United today and – while it is unclear who will be in today’s squad – this match is an excellent opportunity for the players to get themselves ready for the season ahead.

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