In recent weeks, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has seemingly come to the same conclusion of most fans of the club in the sense that the 4-2-3-1 that has been used for a predominant amount of time this season is failing to deliver the same exciting and free-flowing football that we saw under the Norwegian during his interim-reign, where he used a 4-3-3 before things turned south.
The problem with United’s 4-2-3-1 is that although Solskjær aims to be offensive, pressing high and pushing on his full-backs, United don’t have a squad capable of it at this moment in time and even more so in the absence of Paul Pogba. An example of this is within the ‘number ten’ position within the line of the three advanced midfielders. When Pogba is not at the disposal of Solskjær, the remaining options – or at least the two that have been most used – are Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard.
Though both have had moments of proving their worth at the club, neither have shown anything close to being capable of providing any form of attacking contribution this season. In fact, both Lingard and Mata have failed to register a goal or assist since the start of the new campaign and for Lingard in-particular, the 26-year-old has failed to score or assist in the Premier League since the turn of the new year, with 2020 just over two months away. Not only does this create a problem for Solskjær against any opposition, but against sides who sit in a deep-block and refuse to be caught on the counter-attack, United continuously fail to find a way through in open-play.
In the 4-2-3-1 that has been used this season, Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matić are the three midfielders most commonly used within a double-pivot to provide defensive stability and, ideally, be able to dictate play and open up opposition defences. However, although Fred at least attempts to, neither of the three are blessed with the ability to regularly break the lines and overcome opposition press for those in more advanced positions to receive the ball in space. Against teams who have little intention to play higher up the pitch, such as Crystal Palace, United’s usual strength of breaking fast in transition with the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James bombing forward whilst the other team are disorganised fails every time, and due to the number ten problem and the deeper midfielders being incapable of finding players in space and then executing the right pass, Solskjær’s side posses little-to-no threat.
Furthermore, because of the lack of penetrative passes or dribbles from United’s deeper players, either Lingard or Mata will find themselves having to drop deep to collect the ball, leaving them to vacate the space between the lines that would be able to hurt the opposition’s structure and once they receive the ball, they usually then have to play backwards or sideways which allows the other team to maintain their defensive structure with ease and United’s sluggish passing continues until a mistake occurs. This, in essence, is the total opposite of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, whose midfielders are able to play high and in-between the lines and trust that those behind them are capable of picking the right pass to beat waves of opposition pressure or their defensive structure. The signing of Harry Maguire was progress for United for this reason, with the England international able to step forward with the ball, however, he remains unable to replicate his usual qualities under Gareth Southgate when at Old Trafford due to the squad’s inability to receive the ball in pockets of space.
Because of the problems highlighted, the suggestion of a switch to a 3-4-3 or 5-3-2 has been suggested and actually implemented by Solskjær in United’s last two fixtures, a 1-1 draw to Liverpool and a scrappy 1-0 win over Serbian side FK Partizan. In these games, a 5-3-2 has been noticeable, especially against Jürgen Klopp, who later mentioned Solskjær’s team being defensive following the full-time whistle. The German would be right had he been talking about the second-half only, but the first forty-five minutes saw United show arguably their best performance of this season.
Solskjær deployed the 5-3-2, using a strikeforce of Rashford and James, with the intention of attacking the spaces in transition left by Liverpool’s’ high-flying full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson which would then lead to Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip being left in one vs. one or two vs. two positions, a situation which was created during Rashford’s opener. The problem, however, arrived when Klopp’s game management saw the introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana in addition to a change in formation that allowed Alexander-Arnold and Robertson more room out-wide. With United tiring and dropping deeper whilst Liverpool’s attackers became narrow in a 4-2-4, they grabbed the equaliser from a cross from the wide position. Despite this, United looked considerably better in the 5-3-2 than when using a 4-2-3-1.
So, why suggest a 3-4-3 over the 5-3-2 you may ask. The 5-3-2 excelled against Liverpool but a larger percentage of teams United will face will not push their full-backs on as high as Klopp does and therefore the opportunity to attack spaces in-behind does not present itself. Instead, United will have two forward’s who are not in the game because as mentioned earlier, the midfielders will struggle to find them as they aren’t able to break down opposition who form a deep-block. The emergence of Brandon Williams within the first-team fold and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s struggles going forward are also two huge factors behind the idea.
Despite the summer signing of Wan-Bissaka undoubtedly enforcing United defensively, the 21-year-old often hesitates and struggles technically when entering the final-third, often leading to the ball being played backwards rather than the approach that one Diogo Dalot prefers to take. The Portuguese youngster is a more direct option when attacking and is able to offer more of a threat, though he lacks what Wan-Bissaka possesses defensively. Both, however, offer enough to argue that neither of them should be excluded when fit. The logical option would be to drop Wan-Bissaka back into a right-sided centre-back role, still taking up similar positions he would as a right-back, but allowing Dalot to be trusted with providing the attacking output in a right-wingback role. An adjustment period may be needed for the former Crystal Palace defender, but his excellent ability in one vs. one situations should help him excel whilst Dalot would naturally fit into his change of position.
On the opposite side of the defence, Tuanzebe has shown his versatility in the limited chances he’s had at United, playing in every position along the back-four and he recently featured as a left-back against Arsenal with the task of stopping the Gunners record-signing Nicolas Pépé. Though his mishap allowed Unai Emery’s side to equalise, his performance was a very good one and given Victor Lindelöf’s recent drop in form, the 21-year-old deserves his chance within the team, something snatched away from him after picking up and injury in the warm-up vs. Liverpool. Williams’ introduction into the first-team has seen him eclipse the form of Luke Shaw or Ashley Young in the role and regardless of his age, he should be rewarded by becoming the first-choice left-back/wingback under Solskjær. Like Dalot, Williams also has the intention of attacking his direct opponent and this handed United three points in Serbia as his surging run earned the penalty that Martial later converted.
When in a 5-3-2, United, ideally, need to field a number ten and with Mata and Lingard in such poor-form, their inclusion would be undeserved and also results in James, Rashford or Martial likely being on the bench. With the 3-4-3, United have a front-three full of pacey, direct and exciting forward’s who would rarely have to play in their own half due to the presence of Dalot and Willams. This then allows them the freedom to come narrower, with all three capable of playing in central areas, and offer more space for Dalot and Williams to attack in. Their ability to remain higher up the pitch also provides the counter-attacking threat Solskjær adores so much, creating fear and overthinking in the minds of opposition defenders who would have to remain more cautious in their approach. Though the three would not be close to the same level as the trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, the stylistic approach of attacking narrowly with pace and allowing full-backs/wing-backs to fill the space out-wide could make United much more of a threat offensively. It would also majorly boost Solskjær’s desire to press, with Rashford and James’ energy and pace key to that.
Though a midfield partnership of Fred and McTominay doesn’t sound too appealing at first, the 3-4-3 would remove the creative responsibility from the United duo and ball-winning would become their main focus before releasing the ball to players who offer a higher threat. The removal of a number ten also prevents carrying passengers such as Mata and Lingard in the side and for the development of the prospects in the squad, the formation offers one of the best chances to include multiple talents who share similar positions. Another huge bonus to it is that it would allow recruitment in the transfer window to be incredibly precise because players can be signed with the idea of their role within the formation, rather than signing players to chop-and-change strategies and formations using players out of position.
A negative of the 3-4-3 and a thought probably in the head of many readers throughout this article is the struggle to fit Pogba into the side, given he remains best in a three-man midfield and is United’s most productive midfielder. Other than playing further forward with license to come inside, a role Pogba once played against Everton at Goodison Park under José Mourinho and did so very well, it is indeed extremely hard to see where the Frenchman fits. However, when considering the likelihood of Pogba not being at the club for the long-term future, building a platform for a squad would be a much more beneficial decision than attempting to accommodate an unhappy player.
The players in the formation can be altered, such as swapping the inexperienced youngsters with senior squad members, however in a season that isn’t destined to end with great success, implementing the exciting talent within the academy within a structured-system may be the best way forward for Solskjær should he wish to remain in charge, with some players at the club having been provided with enough chances to show their worth now, it should be the time to switch things up.
Formation pictures created via: sharemytactics.com.
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