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Tactical Analysis: How do Manchester United replace Scott McTominay?

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Matić? Tuanzebe? Garner? A different formation?

Manchester United v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed on Friday what we had all been fearing. Scott McTominay’s ankle hasn’t healed and he’ll be unavailable for the next few weeks. If you had told me 11 months ago that I would be writing that sentence I’d have laughed in your face.

But alas, that is the state of Manchester United right now. McTominay has been one of the best players for United this season and a lynchpin of their midfield. His injury leaves a massive hole in the middle of the park and it’s certainly a question as to how United are going to fill it.

The answer isn’t as simple as you may think.

For a second, let’s assume everyone besides Paul Pogba is fit. The obvious answer, for Solskjaer, would be to throw Nemanja Matić in there next to Fred. It’s safe to assume that that is not the answer that any fan would want, with most suggesting that perhaps Axel Tuanzebe should be deployed as a defensive midfielder next to Fred.

Either way, neither of those options are really a good fit.

For starters, we need to understand how United actually play. United’s base formation this season has been a narrow 4-2-3-1 that looks like this.

There are two different types of 4-2-3-1. You can play it very conservatively and have both midfielders playing as defensive midfielders, essentially a ‘double six’ (Think David Moyes when he’d deploy Michael Carrick and Phil Jones in central midfield). Or you can maintain your shape defensively, but when in possession, play with one number six and give the other midfielder a much freer role, essentially playing as a number 8.

United play the latter way and there’s been a misconception this season that McTominay is the defensive midfielder in the pair. He’s not. Whether it’s been Pogba or Fred next to him, McTominay has been playing as the no. 8, given the freedom to push up forward, but also having more pressing duties with Pogba or Fred sitting deeper. Remember, in preseason Solskjaer was talking him up as a replacement for Ander Herrera — this is the Herrera role.

When United have possession it’s often McTominay getting more advanced depending on where Untied are attacking from. When they come down the right, it often looks like this. (Please excuse the low quality animations).

Daniel James gets the ball out on the flank and Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushes up for the overlap. When the ball goes deep, it’s McTominay who drops to the corner of the box to create a triangle between him, James, and Wan-Bissaka. Fred pushes towards the middle of the field, but will sit deeper to protect the back four (this is also how Fred/Pogba end up with all those recoveries — United’s forwards, fullbacks, and McTominay pressure the opposition and they then cough the ball up to the waiting midfielder).

Even when the ball goes down the left, it’s not Fred getting forward, it’s still McTominay, albeit in a different way.

When United attack down the left side, Marcus Rashford typically looks to cut inside, either by himself or to play a one-two with Anthony Martial. When Ashley Young comes down on the overlap, it’s typically Rashford who will remain at the top corner of the box. Martial then comes to the near post to create the triangle.

When the ball gets deep, it ultimately looks like this.

Andreas Pereira ends up being the player in the middle with James lurking for a back post run. Interestingly, McTominay will usually drop to just above the box, covering that middle area of the field.

Look at Fred — he does get further forward and close to Young and Rashford, but not as far forward as McTominay. He stays on that left side, to provide extra cover for the fullback who has vacated that spot. This was especially true against Brighton when Fred covered for young Brandon Williams.

Slotting in Matić or Tuanzebe would mean either moving Fred to the no. 8 role or playing with two defensive midfielders, the latter of which against Sheffield United is not only overkill but would leave you severely lacking up front. Most fans probably don’t think moving Fred over would be a big deal, but getting in and around the box is really not his game.

Fred’s shot chart from his Manchester United career.

Fred has just settled into his role and his game is coming around because of it. Would you really want to change up his role after the progress he’s made?

So what are Solskjaer’s options?

Tuanzebe or Matić

Again, I’m assuming that no one wants to see Matić step on the field for United, and we dodged a huge bullet there when Solskjaer said Friday that Matić is “fit, but probably not match fit.” That’s a bit vague and leaves the door slightly open to us seeing him, but to be fair we don’t even know what his injury is. It’s entirely possible that Matić’s recent absence has been less from injury and more from Solskjaer just banishing him from the squad.

(As our editor Brent Maximin said, “notice how those stories about senior players having doubts about Solskjaer have all dried up since Matic has been ‘injured’?”)

Tuanzebe was in Dubai last week and returned to full training this week. It could be a little too soon for him to play 90 minutes, or he could be fit. If he’s fit, I’d love to see him play, but as a defender instead of Victor Lindelöf and not as a midfielder next to Fred for all the reasons I just mentioned.

Andreas Pereira

I’ve heard Andreas’ name get thrown around here and there and let me tell ya, I couldn’t hate the idea more. Pereira is praised for his work-rate and defensive abilities as a number 10, but there’s a huge difference between defending from the front and defending from the midfield.

As a forward, Pereira just needs to force players into doing things they don’t want to do, or lead them into a trap with the full backs and midfielders. As a midfielder, you don’t have that option. Instead of having 5-6 players behind you, you have 2-3. José Mourinho started Pereira as a number 6 last year against Brighton and had to yank him off at halftime. It shouldn’t be tried again.

Change the formation

With so few options perhaps it wouldn’t be too radical for Solskjaer to change things up and go with more of a 4-1-4-1. Fred would sit behind two attacking midfielders, such as Pereira and Jesse Lingard, playing more as dual number 8’s.

NOW I KNOW I just suggested playing both Lingard and Pereira at the same time, which pretty much nobody wants, but hear me out. Playing in a 4-1-4-1 splits the creative duties between the two of them. It also allows them both to defend more from the front — their strong suits — while still having cover. Most importantly, this was the exact role that Lingard excelled at for England at the 2018 World Cup.

That World Cup seems like ages ago, especially for Lingard, but maybe he can find his game when he’s back in that role.

James Garner

Yes. Do this one. It’s the one everybody wants and it’s the one reason why (assuming Garner does play) that I’m okay with McTominay getting injured. Injuries are how academy kids really break into the first team. It’s rare for managers to give them an extended run in the team when senior players are available, but when they’re not — this is your chance, kid.

With the U23s this season Garner has been playing as more of a number 8 so he could easily step in and play that role next to Fred. Of course, he could also be completely out of his element and get over run. We really can’t be sure until we give it a try.

That’s the thing about young players. We’re never sure until we actually try it. There’s always a reason to doubt whether or not a kid is ready for the big time. Remember, Louis van Gaal was so unsure about Marcus Rashford that he didn’t see a single first team minute until Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, and Will Keane picked up injuries.

Solskjaer literally has nothing to lose here. If things go bad and Garner is out of his element he can shrug and say “I had no other options, every one is injured!” Or Garner can prove that he is ready. Even if he doesn’t light the world on fire he can prove to be trustworthy and thus become a valuable squad player the rest of the season. Especially as we head into a very busy part of the calendar.

Go ahead Ole, you have nothing to lose. Give a full debut to Garner. Maybe he’s ready, maybe he’s not, but it’s the move that makes the most sense for the team. You’ve spoken all season about wanting your players to take risks with the ball, it’s time for you to take one yourself.