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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: The diamond worked

Solskjaer adds another tool to his tactical toolkit, and shuts this writer up

Manchester United v RB Leipzig: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

I wasn’t going to write a tactical analysis for Manchester United vs. RB Leipzig but when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whips out the diamond formation and rubs it all over my face for 90 minutes I don’t really have a choice, do I? Seems like over the last week Solskjaer has been trying to silence all of his doubters and Wednesday night he came after me personally.

It’s no secret that I haven’t been a fan of the midfield diamond formation. I think I’ve made that crystal clear.

My issue with the diamond has been two fold. Our strikers don’t play well as a split pair — Mason Greenwood is ineffective in two, and neither Marcus Rashford nor Anthony Martial are effective on the right side — and the formation itself is inherently defensive.

United had some success with the diamond during Solskjaer’s caretaker run, with three notable games. Tottenham away, Arsenal away in the FA Cup, and Liverpool at home. But remember how those games actually played out.

Nine of those shots against Tottenham came in the second half when United reverted back to a 4-2-3-1. Spurs had an xG of 1.80. It was one of David de Gea’s best games in a United shirt. It was full Mourinho ball. They did the same thing against Arsenal, scoring on two counter attacks that came from full field runs made by Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba. Against Liverpool all they did was sit back and defend.

Fans want the diamond midfield as a means of getting Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, and Donny van de Beek on the pitch at the same time. But that’s not how it works. The formation is a very defensive one. It’s a formation designed to sit back and absorb pressure, then try to hit opponents on the attack later.

You can’t do that with Bruno, Pogba, and Van de Beek. Solskjaer is still reeling from that 6-1 loss to Tottenham. He’s still reeling from the leaky defense in the first month of the season. His priority is shoring up the defense, and that starts in midfield.

In the first month of the season United let players run free at their back line. It doesn’t matter who your centerbacks are, if you let attackers run straight at them you’re going to have problems. (Just ask Dayot Upamecano how he felt about Marcus Rashford running straight at him).

You need midfielders who will focus on protecting the back line and not let opposing attackers do what they want to do.

United went in to the RB Leipzig match with basically the same plan they’ve had the last three games. Keep it tight and close for an hour and then blow them away with the firepower you can bring off your bench. Solskjaer wanted to rotate his team a bit to keep Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford fresh. He still doesn’t have a right wing so the diamond made the most sense — especially given the opposition.

Defensively it allowed United to shift between a diamond and 4-3-3 formation.

RB Leipzig are a team that like to press you, and come directly at you. By playing the diamond Solskjaer was able to keep his team compact, and clog the middle. All 10 outfield players are visible in this frame.

That compactness prevented Leipzig from going up the middle, forcing them to go laterally side to side. That slows everything down and allows the defense to keep its shape and be prepared to defend.

As such, Leipzig couldn’t even sniff United’s goal. They took seven shots in the first half that combined for a paltry 0.23 xG. In other words, none of those shots were even close to being a half chance.

United stayed organized the entire way. They weren’t going to stretch their compactness by pressing, so for the most part they didn’t. Occasionally they’d come at Leipzig with a soft press, but that was more focused on making the visiting side do things they didn’t want to do rather than actually winning the ball back.

And sometimes they’d come at Leipzig far more aggressively.

This was the key. Changing it up. Never letting Leipzig get comfortable as they never knew what they were going to get. United may not have pressed them much (124 times) but they were successful a whopping 37.1 percent of the time.

But the diamond has its drawbacks and United were quick to find that out. It’s very hard to generate an attack.

Leipzig like to press ferociously, making it hard for your defenders and midfielders to get comfortable. There are two ways to beat that.

You can play long and over the press — but that requires your forwards to be far up the pitch. Against PSG they were, but against Leipzig the front three needed to drop deeper to maintain that compactness. With the forwards deep, if you tried to play long...’re just giving the ball right back to Leipzig to come attack you again.

So you have to play out from the back. As much as Pogba running around doing this may annoy you or make you nervous, it’s the only way to break through this team and maintain some semblance of possession.

When you play like this though, you also need your forwards to provide an outlet for the defenders and midfielders to get the ball to. Once they have the ball, they have to be able to hold play up so their team can get forward.

Donny van de Beek struggled in this area. Off the ball, he was incredible. His work rate was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. A lot of what he did doesn’t show up in the stats — like cutting off a passing angle and thus preventing a pass from being made. Or this play, where he comes from the wing to help Nemanja Matić in delaying a potential Leipzig break, allowing his teammates to get back into position and forcing a long wide pass to give United even more time to set their defense.

But on the ball he was less impressive. United bought him for a variety of reasons, one of which is his passing. On Wednesday he was very passive, slowing down this potential break started by Victor Lindelöf and allowing Leipzig to get in position.

But more than that he just seemed a little too eager to go backwards with the ball.

United’s defense was under constant pressure. They were looking for relief. If they get the ball up to you and you give it straight back to them you’re just... inviting them to be pressed even more! That’s what makes stats like this a bit misleading.

United only had 44.8% possession while Van de Beek was on the pitch. Nice to retain possession, but most of the time he wasn’t relieving any pressure or building up to any attacks.

Van de Beek may have struggled on the ball, but the real culprit of all this was Mason Greenwood.

This game gave the exact reason you put Mason Greenwood in this starting XI. This a pure center forward’s run and a pure finish (it comes off a press, not through buildup).

And this game also showed us all the reasons Greenwood isn’t ready to play week in week out for this team. He really doesn’t offer you anything in build-up play. He was incredibly passive on the ball and all too eager to go backwards with it.

Outside of shooting, Greenwood seems to be afraid of using his right foot. He’s being closed down here but he leaves Aaron Wan-Bissaka no choice but to go long — where Greenwood isn’t — so he’s giving the ball right back.

Here we’re trying to launch a final attack before halftime. The initial pass is behind Greenwood but he never even turns to toward goal or faces his defender. There’s no thought of taking the player on 1v1 (which is supposed to be a strength of his). Loft it into the box off your stronger foot? Nope. It’s just a square ball back to Fred, half over.

This is the Greenwood conundrum. You want him in there because he’s the best finisher at the club. If you’re going to create one chance, you want it falling to Greenwood. But on the other side, how many chance are you not creating because Greenwood isn’t contributing to the build-up. In modern football you need all 10 outfield players to contribute, if one can’t contribute, you’re at a disadvantage.

At halftime United had managed four shots with an xG of 0.37. Their other three shots all came in a one minute burst from two Luke Shaw set pieces. They just got Greenwood his one chance — and he took it as you’d expect him to.

I don’t mean to be picking on Greenwood here. Martial offered no outlet or holdup play in the first half either, but the ball just kept finding Greenwood and for good reason.

Just look at the players’ average positions in the first half. United are exceptionally left heavy, Leipzig are exceptionally right heavy.

That makes sense. Pogba is on the left side. Anthony Martial is on the left side. That’s where United are dangerous.

On the flip side, if you’re RB Leipzig which flank do you feel United are weaker on defensively? The one with Wan-Bissaka and Fred, or the one with Pogba and Shaw? Hmm. I wonder which one they chose. Check out the areas of play in this match.

United want the ball on the left because that’s where their best players are, Leipzig want the ball on the right to attack United’s weaker area. If you’re United and want to break the press and start a break where are you going to try and go? The other side of the pitch where no one is! That’s where the ineffective Greenwood really hurt them.

And that’s where Solskjaer made his move. He took off Greenwood and brought on Marcus Rashford. Now with someone looking to run behind the Leipzig defense, (Martial weirdly doesn’t run in behind, he likes to run at defenders), you didn’t need your patient build-up play. You just needed to quickly hit the ball into space.

This was the ultimate difference in the match. When going up the middle didn’t work for Leipzig, Julian Nagelsmann had no plan B. On the other side, Solskjaer had his plan. He’d play the diamond for an hour, keep things tight, tire Leipzig out a bit, hope that maybe a chance falls to Greenwood and he takes it, then bring on Bruno and Rashford to go and win the game.

He could have changed that plan when he had a 1-0 lead. He could have brought on McTominay for Pogba, Daniel James for Greenwood, some like for like subs, to go a bit more defensive and kill off the game. Leipzig were never threatening that goal, and 1-0 at home in the Champions League is a great result.

Instead he stuck with his plan and brought on the artillery. After Bruno came on United completely flipped things around and had 54.4 percent possession. Having the ball is the best defense. Scoring some more goals is nice too.

It’s the third time in the last four games that pairing Pogba and Bruno off the bench has changed a game for United. It’s not just Pogba on his own, it’s not just Bruno on his own, it’s the two of them together that take United to a different level.

Over the last four games Solskjaer is showing us his ability to change games with his substitutions. Where was this before? Well he’s never really had this opportunity before. It’s hard to really change a match when your options on the bench are Jesse Lingard, a tired Juan Mata, Brandon Williams, and Ashley Young.

Now Solskjaer’s got the ability to bring the likes of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, or Mason Greenwood off the bench. It’s a huge game changer.

The most important takeaway from this match goes back to what I said earlier about our forwards not being able to play the diamond. Marcus Rashford is becoming a viable option on that right side.

His first two goals came as the right striker. When Edinson Cavani came on United switched to a 4-3-3 with Rashford going down the right. He was instrumental in running the break to set up Martial’s penalty.

And he picked up his hat trick coming off the right wing. Not to mention the goal he scored against PSG last week. Yes his decision making still needs some work (frankly he should have had four goals but didn’t shoot one time) but if he’s becoming a productive option on that right side that’s huge for United.

Suddenly United will have options. They don’t have to just play a 4-2-3-1. They can play a 4-3-3 if they want. They can go to the back three if they need to. They can use the diamond. Most importantly these options allow them to mix and match players.

Last season Solskjaer was managing one game at a time. Sure you could swap Mata and Brandon Williams in for the Europa League but the rest of the team was basically dictated by who was available. Now? He’s got the flexibility to look at not just his next game but the next three games. Do I want Fred to play six games in a row? Do I want him in there for Everton? Okay, so do I rest him vs Arsenal or Istanbul? Can I sneak a break for Bruno in here?

When you have two games a week for the entire season but your top players only have to start two of every three of those games, that’s a huge advantage.

Solskjaer is going to keep his focus on defense right now. He’s going to keep an extra more defensive midfielder in the team because that 6-1 is still on his mind and he wants to make clean sheets a habit.

But you can now go into a match knowing that, if it’s not really working — if they don’t manage to create that chance for Greenwood — Solskjaer has a plan. He can change the players and the shape, and in turn change the game.

It’s good to have options.