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Tactical Analysis: Can Manchester United switch to a 4-3-3?

Does the formation change suit this side?

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Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

No phrase in football has become more annoying to hear than ‘Double Pivot.’ It’s right up there with ‘low blocks’ as terms that weren’t really part of the lexicon a few years ago but are now completely overused and often misused by people who are trying to make themselves sound smarter.

Over time, the term has come to be strongly associated as meaning “playing with two defensive midfielders.” Yes, the way Louis van Gaal and David Moyes played it it meant two defensive midfielders but for the most part that’s just not the way it works.

Just because you’re playing a double pivot, that doesn’t mean you can’t run forwards. No coach has ever said that — “Ah, they’re just anchored to sit deep.” That’s not the way it works and people who watch the game and analyse it properly will realise that you have different roles in the team. It is not always that you have two sitting midfielders there to protect the back four, that is not the case.

Those aren’t my words. Those are the words of Scott McTominay as he wrote in The Athletic. McTominay is one of the reasons United fans are over the double pivot. He makes up half of the ‘McFred’ pivot, which is far too average a midfield if you want to be serious about competing for Premier League titles.

For that reason - among many others - United need to sign a top quality holding midfielder this summer. Given the abundance of good attack minded midfielders United currently have in their squad, should a defensive midfielder come in, many fans would like to see United switch to a 4-3-3 formation so they could get the best out of both Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.

This isn’t FIFA, and in real life this team would be hilariously overrun. That doesn’t mean United can’t play a 4-3-3 but the formation itself is far more complicated than just ‘defensive midfielder plus two box to box guys.’

There are different ways you can play a 4-3-3 with the success United had when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first came in, and Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 with ‘free eights’ being the two most often brought up. Both have the same principals but accomplish them in different ways.

On Friday, Twitter erupted in cautious celebration when ESPN’s Rob Dawson reported that Solskjaer was looking to switch the team’s setup to a 4-3-3 this season.

Color me a little skeptical here. ESPN is not exactly the most reliable of sources and Solskjaer has been very meticulous in setting up the club so every level of the academy plays the same way as the first team to help players get ready for the next level. Since arriving at the club he’s set up every team in a 4-2-3-1. That doesn’t mean it’s out of the realm of possibility though, especially to use a rotational formation.

Therefore, it never hurts to ask “what if?” Looking at what United currently have in their squad and based on the assumption that they sign a top class defensive midfielder, can they shift to a type of 4-3-3? What kind of players would they need in each spot for each variation?

Ultimately if they could make the switch should they? Would it really benefit them?

The 4-3-3 from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s caretaker period

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived at the club in December 2019 he set the team up in a 4-3-3 and we all know how the club did in those first few weeks.

The thing about a 4-3-3 is, you still need to protect the middle of the pitch and this formation wasn’t too different from the 4-2-3-1 that Ole would install at the start of the next season.

Marcus Rashford played up top with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard and Jesse Lingard playing as narrow wide men. Fullbacks Luke Shaw and Ashley Young would push up to provide the width.

In midfield, Pogba, Ander Herrera, and Nemanja Matic would start in a triangle with Pogba having the freedom to get further forward. When he did this he’d often end up playing in a de-facto number 10 position.

When Pogba pushed up though, we’d often see Herrera dropping in next to Matic in midfield. A double pivot!

The key to this formation was balance. Ashley Young provided the width on the right which allowed Jesse Lingard to tuck inside and handle the defensive duties of the number 10, similar to the role he played for England in the 2018 World Cup. Behind him Ander Herrera served as a shuttler who did all the running and dirty work of a box to box midfielder breaking up counter attacks and hiding Nemanja Matic’s lack of pace. The formation ‘worked’ because you had two people covering the defensive duties for Pogba.

Fast forward to today. Assuming United sign that defensive midfielder they’d still need someone to fill that Ander Herrera role.

Bruno Fernandes plays a similar role when playing for Portugal. He keeps possession, doesn’t take as many risks with his passing, and provides some creativity. He’s got the energy to do the running that Herrera brought to the role, and he’d be an improvement on Herrera going forward, but defensively he’d be a downgrade there.

Most importantly, is this the best way to use Bruno Fernandes?

The logic here would be dropping Bruno deeper would help with the ball progression and having Jadon Sancho up top would still give you a creator high up the pitch. It might not be the best version of Bruno, but if it makes the team better then it’s a net win.

Fred would be most like for like replacement to step into that Herrera role. He’s got the energy and the defensive ability needed. His passing leaves a little to be desired but it’s good enough to be a shuttler.

But if Fred steps into that role that leaves the massive question of... where does Bruno Fernandes go? Sure he could go into the Lingard role coming off the right but Lingard’s primary purpose was to do the dirty work to free up space for Rashford and Pogba. Bruno can do that but it’s such a waste of his talent.

Adding Fred into the midfield gives you the balance you need, but forces either Pogba or Bruno out onto the wing (similar to what we in the latter stages of 2020-21 with Pogba). That also means you only have two more spots in that front three to fit in the likes of Rashford, Greenwood, Martial, Cavani, and Sancho.

All in all, it doesn’t exactly seem like the best use of United’s talent. It’s also worth remember that while Rashford and Pogba thrived in this formation, Anthony Martial only scored two Premier League goals under OGS in 2018-19. Jesse Lingard had a great game against Cardiff but never scored again. Is it really a good idea to revert to a formation that only really benefitted two of your front four?

Even if United have better players now then they did then, it just doesn’t seem like the best way to maximize all their talent.

Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 with ‘Free Eights’

When people say they want a defensive midfielder to play behind Pogba and Bruno (or Bruno and Van de Beek) the formation they’re thinking of this one. De Bruyne and David Silva are two incredibly creative players and Pep managed to fit both of them into central positions with freedom to get forward and attack. The dream is for United to replicate that with Pogba and Bruno.

This formation is far more complicated than just have a defensive player provide coverage and let the creative players have freedom to push forward. It’s arguably even more complicated than the previous 4-3-3.

This formation was all about the creation and protection of space and who would be assigned to which space. The most important aspect of that, was protecting the middle.

Fernandinho was not left to protect the middle of the pitch on his own. Someone still was going to sit next to him and help protect that area of the pitch. Whereas United helped Matic out by dropping a midfielder next to him (Herrera), City found one from elsewhere on the pitch: Left back.

When City were in possession right back Kyle Walker would tuck inside to form a back three with the two centerbacks. Meanwhile their left back - either Oleksandr Zinchenko or Fabian Delph would tuck into midfield next to Fernandinho to essentially form the double pivot.

This is why Pep deployed midfielders Delph and Zinchenko as left backs. In possession they were playing the same roles they were used to. It’s also why Gareth Southgate called Delph into the 2018 World Cup squad as a midfielder and deployed Kyle Walker as a right center back, these were the same roles they were playing for their club!

Can United replicate something like this? Actually, they can. In fact they have the perfect player to do so.

Luke Shaw.

Shaw playing in a bit more of a central role wouldn’t be too foreign for him. When Shaw played as a left centerback in a back three, he often stepped into midfield to create more of a three man midfield.

When he went forward on his famous underlapping runs, he’d often end up in the position of a second holding midfielder, where he was pretty effective.

Dropping into the middle next to the midfielder isn’t too dissimilar from some of the positions we saw Shaw take up last season during Project Restart.

And to top it all off, we recently saw what Shaw can do in transition from the middle of the pitch.

Now, after watching Shaw emerge as one of if not the best left back in Europe this past season you may be wondering ‘is this the best way to use Luke Shaw?’

That’s a totally fair question and one of the big drawbacks to this system.

That takes us to the front line. Every system needs someone to provide width. In Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3, as well as most 4-3-3’s that job falls to the fullbacks getting forward. But as we saw, Pep’s fullbacks very much do not go forward. One went to midfield and the other tucked in with the centerbacks.

Beyond the width, those free eights need space in the middle of the pitch to work their magic. To create all this space, Pep went against the common trend of using inverted wingers, and simply played Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane on their natural sides to provide the width. With Sterling and Sane playing high and wide, De Bruyne and Silva had plenty of room in the middle of the park to do their thing.

This allowed De Bruyne and Silva to operate the half spaces, pull defenders in close to them, and then play ball in towards Sterling and Sane who could fire cutbacks in across the six yard box for tap ins. City scored a ton of tap ins that season. Occasionally Sane and Sterling would get more narrow, but then De Bruyne and Silva would just shift out wide to provide creativity from wider areas. There was always balance.

This would be very difficult for United to replicate. For starters, they need their wingers to stay high and wide. When Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial play on the wings, they both constantly drift towards the middle. That would create a log jam in the middle and ruin everything.

New addition Jadon Sancho is the most natural winger they have but playing him high and wide and forcing him to hug the touchline is a massive waste of Jadon Sancho. He’s at his best operating in the half spaces just north of the box.

If your wide players come narrow that would force your eights to move out wide to give them space and cover the space. That’s really not where you want Bruno, Pogba, or Van de Beek.

On the left you’d run in to another problem. Pep’s system required him to have a left footer on the left side of the pitch. With Luke Shaw having to tuck into midfield, the only other left footed attacker United have is Mason Greenwood. Left wing is most certainly not his best position.

That brings us back to Luke Shaw. Maybe having him tuck into midfield isn’t the best way of using him? Perhaps you think about having him high up the touchline to provide you with that width? It’s a novel - if not radical - idea but would then require you to use a player like Fred as your left back who then tucks into midfield (Alex Telles would be horrible in this role). Once again you’re ending up with that extra defensive midfielder on the pitch, and not a lot of attacking spots for all your attackers.

Oh and did I mention the fouls?

City’s style of play left them heavily vulnerable to counterattacks. Luckily Fernandinho was a master of the tactical foul. When adjusted for possession Fernandinho committed 2.38 fouls per 90, a truly astonishing amount and among the most for midfielders in the league. Yet he was only booked seven times.

It’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to replicate the job that Fernandinho did these days without constantly having your name taken.

When push comes to shove United can’t do this unless Nemanja Matic has suddenly found the fountain of youth or they sign a top class defensive midfielder. OR if they suddenly have really high expectations and think that James Garner could fit into that role. Based on his few appearances in 2019-20 Garner already seemed to have the technical and tactical chops to play in the Premier League, it was more an issue of physicality. Now that he’s grown, United could be considering him as an option for this season.

If United sign a proper defensive midfielder this summer they’ll have the pieces in the squad to support either version of the 4-3-3, but both of them would require them to take some of their best players out of their best positions. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense and would probably be detrimental to the team as a whole.

On the surface, sticking with the 4-2-3-1 seems the best way to maximize the talent that they have in the squad. Then again, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Kieran McKenna are smarter men with me and they wouldn’t be putting in a change like this without a plan.

Just sign a holding midfielder who has some passing ability so you’re not overly reliant on Paul Pogba and it’ll all be good.