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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Why the midfield diamond?

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Solskjaer got cute with his team selection against Everton, and it didn’t work

Everton FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The buildup to Everton vs. Manchester United was always going to be unique. For basically the first time since August, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had three fit central midfielders to choose from with Nemanja Matić, Fred, and Scott McTominay.

The focus before the match was primarily on whether Solskjaer would stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation he’s used most of the year, as well as the last two homes games against Watford and Brugge, or if he’d revert to the back three he’s used in the past few away games. Either one would only require two midfielders.

Recently returned McTominay is a fan favorite, and started the season as first choice, but with Matić and Fred both in great form, dropping either of them would have been harsh.

Instead of making that tough choice, Solskjaer got cute. He opted for something new — deploying all three in a midfield diamond.

I have just one question: why? Why choose this game to deploy a midfield diamond?

The diamond midfield requires the fullbacks to push up high to create width. The midfielders then step over to cover the fullbacks and prevent counters.

This isn’t anything new to how United have been playing recently, but Everton are a team that like to push their fullbacks up high, similar to what Watford did last week. United countered this last week by keeping their wide players wide, and not having their fullbacks push up as much.

Asking their fullbacks to bomb forward against Everton would just invite the same trouble. Additionally, United had to deal with two strikers up top, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. They both like to run in behind the defenders, and the team pumps balls into the box for them. They’re a legitimate threat, and if United were worried about this then it seemed like there was one logical answer: the back three. This way United could still get their width and have three players back to deal with Everton’s forwards.

Going to the diamond seemed like an attempt from Solskjaer to shoehorn McTominay back into the side without dropping Fred or Matić. That was a questionable decision right from the start. This isn’t the personnel to try and play a diamond midfield with. When Paul Pogba comes back I’m all for trying that out, but not so much with these three.

The idea behind playing a diamond is to give Bruno Fernandes room to freely operate and create, while also keeping your strikers (Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial) central. Thus, your most dangerous players should be getting the ball in dangerous areas.

The two opposing center backs will typically pick up the forwards, thus requiring a midfielder to latch on to Fernandes. When that happens, it opens up space for the middle to be attacked by an onrushing midfielder.

United did this a few times last year — with Jesse Lingard playing the attacking midfielder/false-9 role — and had some success with it. The difference of course, is that this is the guy United had attacking that space:

Against Everton, they had this:

Most of the time it was Fred attacking those spaces. He’s coming off a two goal performance against Brugge, but that’s not going to fool any of us into thinking he’s gotten much better at shooting. Yet Fred was often the furthest midfielder forward.

Here Matić gets a shot that rings off the post.

It’s a great effort, but did you really think Matić was going to score when the ball fell out to him? This is where you want Bruno to be, instead it’s Fred forward, Matić and McTominay at the top of the box, and Fernandes the deepest midfielder. A few minutes later, it was Matić again.

It’s another half chance. At the time, I said United should keep shooting at Pickford because he’s the type of keeper that will spill one up for you. Eventually, he would.

Early on United did play some sequences that are exactly what you’re looking for when playing a diamond. McTominay gets the ball out to Greenwood who’s wide but cutting inside. Aaron Wan-Bissaka overlaps to provide width, and Luke Shaw breaks forward to provide width down the left. They get it to Martial who shoots wide.

Here Martial drops deep to win a header. He flicks it on into space for Fred who’s able to play a great cross in for Greenwood.

Unfortunately, those were the only two shots United got from inside the box in the first half.

Right off the bat, Everton took advantage of United’s fullbacks bombing forward and the midfielders being in roles to which they’re a bit unaccustomed.

McTominay can’t handle this pass, and suddenly Everton are going the other way.

This isn’t McTominay’s fault. Playing with his back to goal and receiving passes like this isn’t his game. It’s a bit unfair to ask him to do that after being out for six weeks.

A few minutes later Richarlison went through.

Everton broke in three times in the first seven minutes. United needed to adjust or they’d be run off the field. That adjustment came from much more selective runs forwards from the fullbacks.

After the first 10 minutes the fullbacks stopped pushing up. Everton oddly stopped playing through balls and it looked like United were “controlling” or even “dominating” the game. But they weren’t doing anything with that possession. In the 20 minutes between Matić’s second shot and Bruno’s goal they took just three shots. Bruno’s goal was the last shot they got in the first half.

For all the control United had, they nearly went into the half 2-1 down following this chance from Richarlison.

This is where the diamond become an issue. United are very well organized here but there’s just a little miscommunication between McTominay and Wan-Bissaka. Wan-Bissaka is playing narrow, because United needed their fullbacks to help the center backs deal with the through balls.

When Leighton Baines gives the ball over to Andre Gomes, McTominay picks him up because that’s where midfielders usually need to be. In a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 Baines would be tracked by the winger or wing back. Instead, McTominay leaves him open for a second and that’s all Baines need to put a dangerous ball in.

With United’s fullbacks not pushing up the pitch, for the second week in a row they were going to need to make a halftime adjustment to find width. The reaction this week was similar to last week: have your front players push wider.

With Greenwood and Martial wider, there was now more space in the middle and it was on Fernandes to push into it to try to occupy the center backs. If he did that and dropped off into space, Martial and Greenwood could run into the openings.

They got the opportunity to show this right away. Martial stays wide, and Bruno gets the ball with his back to goal pulling the Everton defenders with him into space. Martial doesn’t help him out, though. Instead of running into the space, he stays put until Bruno plays a ball deep down the line.

Martial should have had a leg up on the fullback, but because he starts his run so late he doesn’t get much of an advantage.

Bruno’s skill is such that he doesn’t even need to touch the ball to create these spaces. By simply dropping into the space, he commands the center back to follow him, leaving Greenwood a chance to go clear through.

A better first touch and Greenwood is in alone here. The little misstep costs him less than a second, but it’s enough for Everton to get back and defend the break.

But just like the first half, these moments were too few and far between. Martial staying wide had the exact consequences you would expect.

There’s no one in the middle. In order to fix that, the midfielders need to push up. As soon as that happened, Everton started to play direct again and looked to hit United on the break.

They did it...

...whenever they could.

Herein lies my biggest problem with the diamond. United didn’t have the right players to play it, and because of that they took their best players out of the game. Remember, you play this formation so that your most dangerous players (Greenwood, Fernandes, Martial) get the ball in dangerous positions.

Take a look at the touchmap for Anthony Martial via whoscored.

And Mason Greenwood.

How about Bruno?

Bruno is all over the field, as he should be. But United struggled to get Martial and Greenwood involved away from the wings. Those are their goal scorers; if they’re not involved, United’s chances of scoring are obviously lower.

And of course, all that open space in the middle led to Fred.

Behind Bruno, Fred is the one who most consistently got the ball in dangerous areas.

Look, I’m basically the leader of the #FredHive and even I will tell you that’s not what you want.

With 15 minutes to go Solskjaer finally made a change, brining on Odion Ighalo and Juan Mata for McTominay and Greenwood and reverting back to a 4-2-3-1. Within a minute, this happened.

Mata’s creativity also would lead to United’s best chance of the match.

The 4-2-3-1 brought much needed balance to United. Over the first 75 minutes in the diamond, United created an xG 0.39. In the final 15 minutes their xG was 0.74. Defensively, they also shored up, allowing just one shot from open play over the final 15 minutes (albeit, it was a big one).

Other than “should I start the crappy Andreas Pereira or the even crappier Jesse Lingard?” Solskjaer has barely had a selection dilemma this year thanks to United’s threadbare squad. In fact, when you look at the difference between Pereira and Bruno, Solskjaer deserves immense amounts of credit for even keeping United competitive in the first half of the season.

This week he finally had options and either panicked or got too clever for his own good.

Is it better to play your eleven best players, to play or your best team? It’s a question that has plagued managers, especially international ones, forever.

The answer should be your best team. If five of your best players are defensive or attacking midfielders, it’s probably not a good idea to play them all at the same time. On Sunday Solskjaer re-arranged his team so he could get three more defensive midfielders into the team.

It was a mistake. A mistake many managers, whether they’re good, bad, or mediocre, have made before and will continue to make. You just have to hope he learns from it.

For all the possession that United had, they really struggled to create anything, and they certainly left the door open on the other end.

The general consensus was that this was a game of two halves, with United the better side in the first half and Everton in the second. At halftime Everton’s xG was 0.94 to United’s 0.33. It’s the same story, for all that dominance in the opening half, they didn’t create much and let some better chances go against them.

Which brings me back to the original question. Why go to the diamond?

Daniel James being unavailable plus Ighalo and Mata probably not being fit enough to start after playing 90 minutes in the Europa League on Thursday essentially ruled out the 4-2-3-1. But Solskjaer still could have went with the 3-4-1-2 that’s been working recently. It would have checked off all the boxes: let Bruno roam in the middle to create, provide width, and leave enough players back to deal with the two strikers.

Solskjaer would have had to leave out a midfielder, which is fine. Having depth is a good thing.

Instead he got cute, and while United weren’t bad, they weren’t good either.