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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Why the back three should remain an option

Three at the back isn’t Solskjaer’s preferred formation, but it’s an important tool to have at his disposal

Tranmere Rovers v Manchester United - FA Cup - Fourth Round - Prenton Park Photo by Richard Sellers/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Manchester United have been lining up with three at the back more and more recently. Each time they do it, the fans reaction is always the same when they first see the lineup.

A back five again?!? Groan. Is he nuts? I’m tired of this defensive football from this clueless manager. Those are the typical lines I’ll hear whether it be on Twitter or from fans at the pub before kickoff. It seems these days that when people see five defenders listed on the team sheet, they think it’s overly defensive and United are just trying to sit back.

Here’s the thing, a back three and a back five are the same thing. It’s just a matter of how high you push your wing-backs up. If you have them sit all the way deep and defend it’s a back five. If you push them high up the pitch, not only is it a back three, but it’s actually a very attacking formation.

In United’s case, it doesn’t take long to figure out whether Solskjaer is dropping his fullbacks deep or pushing them up the field.

Here’s how they lined up against Liverpool.

That’s clearly only three men at the back, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young sitting higher up the pitch. I tried to pull a screen grab of the lines in action but it took over a minute for the fullbacks to drop deep enough to even be in the same frame as the defenders.

Here they were a few games ago against Chelsea.

This is a Chelsea goal kick and look at how high Wan-Bissaka is.

Here’s one from when United are in possession.

Wan-Bissaka is level with Fred and further ahead of Nemanja Matić. Brandon Williams is all the way forward putting himself in the front line.

If someone tells you this is a defensive back five, that’s a good sign that they don’t actually watch the matches.

Earlier this season, Nathan Heintschel wrote about how a move to a back three could prevent predictability in a United team that had become stale. Months later, the back three is once again emerging as a very good rotation tool for United. So whether you like the back three or not, you better get used to it.

Three at the back isn’t Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred method of playing but given the injuries and the squad he has now, it’s become a necessity.

At the start of the season, this would have been Solskjaer’s preferred lineup.

Anthony Martial would play a bit of a false-9 role where he’d drop deep to get the ball. Once he got the ball he could play it down the wing to Dan James.

Or he could play it to Marcus Rashford making a run into the space vacated by Martial.

Of course, if you have a midfielder who could pass like Paul Pogba, you can play that ball directly from midfield.

But then four games into the season, Pogba went down with an injury. To make matters worse, so did Martial.

That caused a problem. Marcus Rashford was the only player who could fill in for Martial at center forward, but playing with his back towards goal isn’t his strong suit. That left no one to play in Rashford’s vacant position on the left. United used a combination of Dan James, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Juan Mata. All of whom are midfielders in a role that requires you to be more of a forward.

Unsurprisingly, United struggled. Their only wins were a pair of 1-0 victories over Leicester City in the Premier League and Astana in the Europa League, as well as squeaking by Rochdale on penalties in the League Cup. Their only goals were a Marcus Rashford penalty, and a pair of Mason Greenwood goals in the cups.

Without Pogba, the midfield wasn’t creating anything for the attack, culminating in a dreadful performance against Newcastle. Solskjaer needed to change something so he did.

He deployed a back three against Liverpool, pushing his fullbacks high up the pitch so they could press Liverpool’s fullbacks and make them sit deeper.

The move worked, and should have resulted in a win. They stuck with the formation for a trip to Partizan and for the first hour of the League Cup, but with Martial back they were ready to revert back to the preferred 4-2-3-1.

That plan lasted a mere few games before an injury to Scott McTominay required another shakeup. With only one fit senior midfielder Solskjaer brought back the three at the back formation against Sheffield United. Only this time, he lined the team up in a 3-4-3.

It didn’t work. It didn’t come close to working.

The lack of a number 10 — as well as Andreas Pereira and Fred being a spineless midfield combo — prevented United from maintaining any possession of the ball. In this game, that back three became a back five. And it stayed like that.

United would change things up after only an hour and come storming back into the game. McTominay returned a game later and United enjoyed their most successful period of the season.

There was still one glaring problem. The midfield still lacked creativity and the number 10 position had become a black hole for United. For Solskjaer, it was back to the drawing board.

With a few tactical tweaks, and some inspiration from Liverpool, Solskjaer took the onus of creativity off his midfielders and put it on his fullbacks. Swapping Dan James with either Mason Greenwood or Juan Mata gave Wan-Bissaka space on the flanks to make overlapping runs and join the attack.

This was — keyword was — an area of weakness in Wan-Bissaka’s game, but by opening up space for him, he’s since flourished.

Since Boxing Day Wan-Bissaka has two assists, and an expected assists (xA) per 90 of 0.31. That’s higher than every right back in the league not named Trent Alexander-Arnold.

He’s putting them on a plate for his teammates.

It’s just that sometimes... his teammates weren’t finishing them.

They really don’t make them much better than this...

The addition of Bruno Fernandes certainly looks like it solved United’s number 10 issue, but before he could come in, the injury bug struck again. Marcus Rashford went down, likely for the season, leaving a big gap on United’s left side.

With Wan-Bissaka able to provide width on the right, Solskjaer moved Dan James over to the left. But playing as a second forward coming off the wing isn’t really James’ game. Even more problematic was that by January, James was simply out of gas. He badly needed a break but the lack of depth meant he couldn’t get one.

This all came to a head in United’s 2-0 loss to Burnley. James was ineffective off the left, causing Martial to essentially have to play both his own center forward role and Rashford’s wide forward role. That’s an impossible task for one player. The team was broken.

For those scoring at home, that’s two players Solskjaer built his team around and twice those players went down with injuries. In just over half a season he needed to build the team for a third time.

Enter the back three.

The back three that United have been playing is not your traditional back three with three classic center backs. Instead, Solskjaer moved left-back Luke Shaw to left center-back, a role Shaw has never played before. Just like he’d taken inspiration from Liverpool earlier in the season, there was an element of Gareth Southgate’s England here with how the England boss used Kyle Walker in a back three.

Shaw playing as the left center-back gives United flexibility, and adds an element of unpredictability to their attack. Wingers are usually preoccupied with marking the opposition’s fullback or wing-backs, leaving space in the channel that Shaw can exploit with an underlapping run.

Shaw making these runs adds a layer of unpredictability to United’s attack. Defenders don’t know whether it’s going to be the wider Williams or the more narrow Shaw getting forward.

The beauty of the formation is in the coverage that United have when they do get forward. When Shaw makes his runs, Williams hangs back. If Shaw then gets caught forward in a change of possession, Williams simply drops back, while the rest of the formation simply shifts into a 4-2-3-1 formation.

By doing this, everyone stays in the roles they’re typically accustomed to, limiting the chances of a miscommunication or mistake. Similarly, if Williams gets caught high up the pitch, the same rotation can happen.

And we haven’t even touched on the biggest benefit of the back three.

Prior to McTominay’s return, playing with a back three enabled United to play their best 11 available players, in their most natural positions. That’s right: there’s no more need for Andreas Pereira or Jesse Lingard!

United’s midfield three stays the same (Matić, Fred, Bruno), they still get width and production from the left side, and Martial can stay central.

That just leaves the other forward spot between James and Mason Greenwood. James would likely have the upper hand here as the role plays more to his strong suits: protect the ball, run at defenders, draw fouls.

We saw this in the second leg of the League Cup against City when Greenwood started up top next to Martial. He was completely ineffective over the first 45 minutes and gave way to James who excelled there in the second half.

Greenwood’s struggles in one game are by no means a problem — he’s 18, there’s a learning curve and he’s not going to play well every game — but the role in that formation requires a lot more attributes to his game that just haven’t been developed yet.

With the addition of Ighalo, Solskjaer is far likelier to exclusively use Greenwood in the role he played against Watford and the role he’s played most of the season. On the right side of a 4-2-3-1 where he makes late runs in from the wing, allowing him to solely focus on getting to goal scoring areas and putting the ball in the net. You know, the thing that he excels at.

With the return of Scott McTominay, Solskjaer now had three fit senior midfielders for the first time since August. To make things more complicated, three of his best 11 players now were defensive midfielders. How was he going to proceed?

Against Everton, Solskjaer opted to play all three in a diamond midfield.

This was a questionable choice given the skill set of the three midfielders. It’s very narrow, requiring the fullbacks to really get up and provide width. Granted, they already do that to some extent, but with McTominay not exactly being a creative player, it just plugs another uncreative player into the middle of the park. Just because all three are fit, doesn’t mean you have to play all three.

Creatively it may not be any different than the back three, but coverage wise it is. If the fullbacks get caught up high, or when United just have to fall into defensive shape, someone is going to be in an unnatural position. This was something that Everton exploited.

I’m not against the diamond, but you have to have the right personnel to play it. When Paul Pogba returns, United can be very dangerous in a diamond.

For most players their responsibilities in this formation would be very similar to what they already are in a 4-2-3-1 or the 3-4-1-2. When United lose the ball they can easily fall back in to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 with everyone falling in to a position they are more or less familiar with.

In the match against Everton United struggled to create, and struggled to contain Everton when playing in a diamond. That’s because simply changing a formation isn’t as easy as it sounds. Minor tweaks cause different players to have different roles, roles that may not suit their game. This United team is built on organization and everyone knowing exactly what to do.

In the first leg of the Europa League tie against Club Brugge, United lined up in what was either a 3-3-3-1 formation, a 3-4-2-1 formation, or a 3-4-1-2 formation. I’m not really sure what it was because the players clearly weren’t sure either.

Andreas Pereira was probably supposed to the second midfielder next to Nemanja Matić, but too often Matić was left alone while Pereira was in line with Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard. Sometimes Lingard looked like he was supposed to be on the left of a three, sometimes he looked like he was supposed to be in a two with Mata behind Martial, sometimes he was right up there next to Martial. It was a mess.

Brugge and Sheffield — the two games United didn’t play with a number 10, and the two games where they looked completely tactically lost.

That’s why the 3-4-1-2 should stay around. With United’s lack of depth it gives them some options for rotating the squad. Need to rest Greenwood? Go to the back three. Need to give Dan James a game off? Slot Greenwood or Ighalo up front and play that back three. Need to rest one of the fullbacks? Just play the regular 4-2-3-1.

For the first time all year United are starting to get a little depth. That’s giving them options. They no longer have to throw the same team out there every week. Instead, they can look at their opponent and choose the best XI for that particular game. United haven’t won a single Premier League game this year when they’ve started an unchanged XI. It’s nice to not have to do that anymore.