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Could Three at the Back Save Manchester United?

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Solskjær should explore an extreme tactical change to combat predictability

Image via Nathan Heintschel

The same team that shelled Chelsea FC to the tune of 4-0 on opening day this season has only scored seven times in its last 10 matches.

Manchester United’s youthful, counter-attacking approach to football was unlocked by the opposition within a week of its deployment. A rewatch of the Chelsea match will also show that the Reds’ system had its flaws, but an uncharastically clinical day of finishing papered over those cracks for an afternoon.

Now, with career-defining matches on the horizon for Ole Gunnar Solskjær as a manager, it might behoove the Norwegian to borrow from Chelsea’s past success in an attempt to catch opponents off guard and generate a competent attack again.

United invested heavily in its defense during the 2019 summer transfer window as it welcomed Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka who both rank in the top 10 for most expensive defensive signings of all time. Thankfully, both players have appeared to settle in at United so far and are amongst the team’s top performers -- which, admittedly, is not saying a whole lot right now. However, the emphasis on building the defense has provided the foundation to stray away from Ole’s preferred 4-2-3-1 and experiment with a 3-4-3 that Antonio Conte used to set the Premier League on fire.

Now, before you jump down my throat in the comments section, because I know our internet society lacks the nuance of leaving obvious things unsaid, I’m going to acknowledge that United’s roster is nowhere near the quality of Chelsea’s title-winning team. The Reds do not have the likes of an Eden Hazard, an N’Golo Kanté or even a Diego Costa. However, because the team features young and athletic players, it can attempt to fudge the differences and at least get results against relegation-bound and midtable opponents.

Below is our starting template for what the three in the back could look like for a fully-fit United.

The Defense

Where United does match quality of that Chelsea team is with its three-man backline. Conte used David Luiz in the center of the backline because the Brazilian had the ability to man mark the opposing center forward one minute and then push up into the attack and play a ball forward the next minute. On either side of Luiz’s flanks were Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta. Cahill and Azpilicueta were responsible for the wider areas of the pitch and needed to have the athleticism for more lateral coverage.

Using this as a reference point, Maguire would most likely be the guy to play in the center. As the ‘leader’ of the backline, Maguire would be responsible for getting his guys in position while also having the ability to push forward — a skill he proved capable of during his time at Leicester City. Victor Lindelöf would feature on the right side of the backline in a similar role to Azpilicueta since both players are capable of, and have played, fullback when needed. Finally, the return of Axel Tuanzebe from loan at Aston Villa is the original spark for this thought experiment. Tuanzebe has exhibited versatility throughout his career as a centerback, fullback and even a holding midfielder when pressed into action.

Things start to get tricky when looking at wingbacks.

At Chelsea, Conte used Marcos Alonso on the left and Victor Moses on the right to great effect and both players were used to pressure opposing backlines, score goals and track back when stopping the counter. Alonso and Moses’ ability to overlap on the wings was devastating for opponents who scrambled to cover the wingbacks. The duo’s ability to thread passes meant Hazard, Willian and Pedro would have the space to create from all around and inside the penalty box without recompense.

Wan-Bissaka is a force on the right side of United’s defense, but the Spider has yet to really affect the attack. While the Englishman started his career in the Crystal Palace system as a winger, his inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s system repressed his attacking abilities in favor of becoming one of the most dominant tackling machines in English football. AWB’s pace and tenacity means he can cover an entire third of the field, but he will need to occasionally lace up his shooting boots to optimize his role in the system.

The left wingback role is one of the wildcards for United if Solskjær chooses to employ a system like this. The optimum lineup pictured above featured Luke Shaw by default, but with the left back out with an injury, the role would fall to Ashley Young or, perhaps, the likes of Diogo Dalot or Brandon Williams. Young’s own history as a winger for United doesn’t make him the worst choice on the offensive end, but his positively dreadful performances as a defender over the last several seasons negates any silver linings in the opposing half.

Instead, the role should probably fall to Dalot or Williams who put in solid shifts during Europa League matches but haven’t been utilized otherwise this season. According to whoscored.com’s assessment, Dalot’s tendencies to shoot from range and cross the ball would make him a threat for the opposing side, but he is very much a work in progress at 20 years old with limited playing time for United. Speaking of youth and limited playing time, Williams just made his debut for United’s first team this season and is very much an unknown quantity compared to his peers on the first team. However, Williams’ play against AZ Alkmaar was encouraging — especially considering United’s long-term answer at left back is still not solidified.

Notably, when Dalot features for United, he is often on the right side, therefore, another wrinkle that United could try if there was an injury to one of the center backs or if Solskjær wanted more offensive creativity on the right wing, would be to play Dalot as the right wing back and move AWB to center back. AWB’s ability to man mark means he can swallow up the attackers that slip past Dalot while the Portuguese defender is further up the pitch.

The Midfield

The major deficiency that United must contend with when emulating Conte’s 3-4-3 is who will play the Kanté role? Frankly, Kanté is probably the best holding midfielder in the world and he eliminated the majority of threats to the center of Chelsea’s defense. The Frenchman’s ability to cover box-to-box as well as laterally meant that he could push up and press or drop back quickly for additional coverage when Chelsea lost possession. United simply do not have a player that can achieve the same output as Kanté, but Scott McTominay represents the Reds’ best option at the position thanks to Nemanja Matić’s current role as a mummified corpse and Fred’s brain-melting incompetence as a forward passer. What McTominay lacks in talent, he makes up for with work ethic. The Scot won’t match Kanté, but he will do a job and play box-to-box while having the level of aggression necessary to challenge an opposing counter attack.

Speaking of Matić, the Serbian was Kanté’s partner in the midfield during Chelsea’s run. However, 2016 was a long time ago in regards to so many things, and Matić can’t be trusted to run an errand, let alone run the other half of a midfield pair. Hopefully, with fingers and toes crossed, the role would consistently fall to Paul Pogba if the mercurial talisman can return to health and form for United’s push to finish the season with dignity.

Harkening back to my previous comment about nuance and obvious things left unsaid, we will skip all the surrounding narratives about Pogba and just focus on his innate ability to deliver dimes across the pitch. Whether he’s called to play the ball centrally to the forwards or switch the field laterally to open space on the wings, Pogba is capable of making the necessary pass and his absence in the squad has been an enormous one. His return to health should be marked with trumpets and parades after what we’ve witnessed in the center of the pitch for the last month and a half.

The Forwards

Creating stability in the central areas of the pitch with the back three and midfield, coupled with the opportunities to overload the wings with attacking defenders, United can begin to work with their forwards who sport lethal pace. In his first two months of his Premier League career, Daniel James has been one of the bright spots of the United campaign — a reality that brings great joy to me after I basically adopted him in a feature from the beginning of the summer. On the other side, Marcus Rashford, who is on a rickety roller coaster of form right now, still can disrupt the defense even if he doesn’t have the same finishing abilities of a Willian or Hazard.

Finally, at the head of the formation, is the bull in the china shop center forward that was played to great effect by Diego Costa. This is a position that United do not have a substitute for after shipping off Romelu Lukaku in the summer. However, if current reports are to be believed, United could fill this role in the January window if they continue to flirt with Mario Mandžukić. The Croatian forward might be on the back half of his career, but it’s been a career of playing a physically imposing role at the top of the attack while using his height advantage against scores of defenders. Mandžukić’s role in the 3-4-3 is to consume all of the attention of at least one opposing center back which, in turn, will open up space for an additional attacker to have an open look or run at goal.

Another guy that could fill the Costa role would be a certain Swedish deity that joked about rejoining United in the winter window. Zlatan Ibrahimović could flourish in the role as he is not necessarily required to cover a large portion of the pitch. Instead, he would play close to the opposing backline and his size and finishing abilities will still warrant a defender on him at all times — two of the many positives we highlighted in a separate feature about Ibra’s possible return to Old Trafford.

Both Mandžukić and Ibrahimović would serve short-term solutions in the role as outlined by Conte in Michael Cox’s book The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines.

“Diego [Costa] knows that in my idea of football, the forward must always be a point of reference for the team. I don’t like them to move around the pitch, I like them to stay there because you are a forward, you are committed to score the goals, stay in the right position. You are a forward, not a midfielder or a defender.”

The wild card in the attack is Anthony Martial; one, because his availability rests on a knife’s edge thanks to his injury history, and, two, because, when healthy, he is one of the best forwards available to Solskjær. Martial’s versatility warrants consideration as a wide attacker in the 3-4-3, or even as a strike partner in a 3-5-2 if an additional midfielder is required to cover from box-to-box. Martial loves a give and go and the potential of one-two combos with a Mandžukić or Ibrahimović could mean a lot of created chances.

Immediate Implementation

Solskjær’s adoption of the three-man backline involves considerable risk thanks to the injury woes that have plagued his side and prevented him from playing his preferred 4-2-3-1 effectively. Below is a projected 3-4-3 featuring the players that would be available as of the international break.

Despite the faint traces of bile you’re tasting as you look at the lineup, it still warrants consideration against United’s direct competition in the bottom and middle of the table (SAD). With the stable of defenders relatively healthy right now, Solskjær would be right to stick to a four or even five man backline like he played in Paris a lifetime ago when up against top opposition. Otherwise, presenting opposing teams with a different look while overloading the wings could open new opportunities for chance creation.

According to understat.com, United are three goals short of their expected goals for which would swing their season points total by seven. The advanced analytics suggest that United should be in the top four, currently, and the team as it’s constructed just needs to find new avenues for changing its fortunes.

The defensive numbers for United have been solid as United rank first in expected goals against as pictured below. That’s why I think that if Solskjær is serious about fixing things, he needs to be more flexible tactically.

Before the injuries piled up on United, the 4-2-3-1 was effectively stalled or outright beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers (not a great team), Southampton (really not a great team), West Ham United (a meh team) and Crystal Palace (an over-performing team). Those sides did not present United the opportunity to counter attack and, instead, invited the Reds to fail at unlocking 10 men fronts over and over again.

Is it a risk asking your defense to shoulder so much responsibility? Yes. Is it worth shaking things up to overcome malaise? Also, yes.

Solskjær can absolutely run out his preferred system when going up against opposition that commits numbers forward, but, in the interim, the once One True King of the North can perhaps save the season and his job by throwing caution to the wind and trying something radically new.

Even if it fails, as Solskjær collects his things from his office at Carrington, at least he and the adults in the supporters groups will know that he gave it his all, went down swinging, and did not just slam his head into the same wall repeatedly like his predecessors.