We are finally at the point where we can look ahead to a Manchester United match. It’s within touching distance.
For literally the first time all season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has his full squad available for selection (okay — Phil Jones missed the inter-squad friendly with an injury but, come on). That means the midfield will no longer pick itself based solely on who’s available, and Solskjaer now has tactical decisions to make.
These will by no means be easy decisions. Unlike the number 10 role, where Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira have played themselves out of contention, Nemanja Matic, Fred, Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba, and Bruno Fernandes have all made very good claims for their inclusion.
This plethora of options has lead to shouts from many fans — and some media members — for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to deploy a diamond midfield as a means to accommodate as many of them as possible with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial up top.
That’s probably not the best idea.
Deploying the diamond would be losing the plot here. It comes back to the question, do you want to put your best 11 players on the field or put out your best team? The answer should always be the latter.
Given the inconsistencies and drawbacks of Mason Greenwood and Daniel James — and the great form of many of the midfielders — there is certainly an argument that the diamond would feature United’s best 11 players.
But that would come at the expense of the collective.
Last season the diamond was utilized a few times by Solskjaer, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, to mixed results. United had big wins over Tottenham, Leicester City, and Arsenal in the FA Cup, but failed to beat the likes of Chelsea, Huddersfield, and Cardiff. A closer look at the performances tells us these matches weren’t much to write home about.
I’m not too fussed about anything after the Arsenal match, where injuries and personnel availability dictated the tactics more than the manager. But in the first three matches, when Solskjaer did have his full squad to choose from (just like now), are a major concern.
United’s underlying numbers in those matches are far lower than the rest of Solskjaer’s initial run before injuries set in.
When United played the diamond last year, it was to play Mourinho Ball: stay organized, absorb pressure, try to nick a goal. It worked, but United didn’t win those games because of playing great football. It’s a style that relies on the counter attack, but doesn’t even utilize it as much as United have utilized the counter this season.
Playing that way away to Tottenham (United’s first opponents after the restart) ordinarily might be okay — though probably not against a Mourinho team — but it certainly wouldn’t fly in other matches where United have already been criticized for relying on the counter attack too much this season.
Why can’t United generate an attack with the diamond midfield?
The diamond requires Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to shift from their left wing and center forward positions where they’ve excelled this year, to playing as split strikers.
That’s a big change. Those roles are not similar and don’t utilize the skills that make Martial and Rashford great.
This season United have deployed split strikers, either as part of a diamond or with a back three, against Liverpool (H), Partizan (A), Chelsea (League Cup), Liverpool (A), Tranmere, City (League Cup 2nd leg), Chelsea (A), Everton (A), and Manchester City (H). We can throw that Tranmere match out since United should destroy League Two opponents, but if we look at the underlying numbers of all the other games, there’s once again a stark drop in those games compared to the rest of United’s season.
Even those Partizan numbers stand in stark contrast to United’s averages in the Europa League (15.89 shots per game, 1.68 goals per game). Now, some of this has to do with the quality of opponent, though United did also use their regular 4-2-3-1 in four matches against Chelsea, Everton, and Manchester City this year, where they had increased possession, shots, and xG (45.75% possession, 13 shots/GM, 1.76 xG/GM, +0.67 xG/Diff) while conceding roughly the same amount of shots (15.75).
If the underlying numbers don’t tell you that United lack creativity, just look at how they’ve scored all their goals when playing with split strikers.
Yikes. Just four of 10 (and that last open play goal didn’t really come from a split striker formation) goals coming from open play. United’s attack really struggles when they deviate from their regular formation.
You can argue that this is partially the result of Rashford and Martial never actually playing as split strikers together and that’d be fair. They’ve only done it twice in their careers — last season against Tottenham and Leicester — which, again, were United’s worst attacking displays in their initial run under Solskjaer.
A big reason for this is because Martial and Rashford both prefer to operate from the left. By definition moving to split strikers means one of them has to play on the right hand side. That’s typically Rashford and it’s clear he can’t play there.
Once United started picking up injuries last season Rashford was often deployed as either a right winger, or the right-sided striker in a two with Romelu Lukaku. That’s also when Rashford’s goals started drying up. He scored just three non-penalty goals and had no assists when playing on the right last year.
There are two different ways to play the diamond. The first is with a narrow midfield and both your strikers playing more centrally. This then requires the fullbacks to push up and provide the width for you.
This is how United tried to play against Everton, but when Everton started exploiting the gaps, United had to drop their fullbacks back. This left the job of covering the flanks to the midfielders, which Scott McTominay really struggled with.
With United’s fullbacks pinned back the width ended up being provided by Bruno Fernandes, who attempted more crosses than any United player that day, which is certainly not the best use of his talents.
In the second half, United switched to the other way of playing the diamond (and the way they played last season against Tottenham and Leicester). This way is when you push both of your forwards out wide, essentially playing them as wingers, while the head of the diamond pushes up to essentially play as a false-9.
This gives the head of the diamond plenty of space in which to operate, and allows the midfielders and wingers to run in behind into space.
The question is: why would you play this way? Bruno Fernandes is probably capable of playing that position, but Martial excels at it.
Why would you move Martial from his best position to one that asks him to play in a completely different way? Especially when that means moving Rashford over to the right, a position he really doesn’t thrive in.
Playing the diamond may make selecting from the five midfielders easier (actually it makes it really simple) but why do that at the expense of your attack?
Three at the back, or the diamond midfield, can be a nice tool to bolster your defense and hit teams on the counter, but they’ve almost always been used by Solskjaer to cover up holes made by injuries, or against clearly superior teams. That won’t be the case on Friday.
This is a United team that shouldn’t be scared of anyone, let alone José Mourinho’s Tottenham. When the teams first met in December, Tottenham were at full strength. United didn’t just beat them, they thoroughly outperformed them, holding Tottenham to just eight shots and an xG of 0.54. Barring Dele Alli’s fantastic effort, United didn’t let Tottenham near their goal.
They did that playing their regular 4-2-3-1. Three days later United beat Pep Guardiola’s City playing that same 4-2-3-1, but in a completely different way. That’s the beauty of Solskjaer’s system — United can play different styles from the same formation, but the key is putting your players in the best position to succeed.
This season, Solskjaer has only turned to a split striker formation when he’s missing players through injury. Every time it’s been deployed either Rashford or Martial has been out injured. The one exception was against Partizan when Martial had just returned from injury and Solskjaer could now finally give Rashford a rest.
In other words, it’s a last resort.
In just Premier League matches, per Understat, when playing the 4-2-3-1 United have an xG of 1.65 per 90 and an xGA of 0.92. When playing any formation with split strikers the xG drops to 1.15 and the xGA rises to 1.32. Simply put, the 4-2-3-1 is United’s best formation.
Play your best team. Play Rashford and Martial in their regular positions. It makes the team better, even if that means one of the deserving midfielders has to sit on the bench.
Let’s not try to fix something that isn’t broken.