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Ralf’s 4-3-3 experiment and attacking ambitions

A breakdown of Ralf’s positive changes against Middlesbrough and options to try it going forward against similar opposition...

Manchester United v Middlesbrough: The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

A day may come when Ralf Rangnick’s transparency in press conferences will leave any writing on Manchester United’s tactics obsolete but it is not this day. There are bits from his interview for the Blizzard in 2015 that could answer some new questions on Manchester United’s season after a FA Cup loss to Championship side Middlesbrough F.C.

When asked about the Red Bull way, here’s what he had to say:

Much of the pre-match talk was dominated by the return of Paul Pogba — one of United’s most talented individuals — and how he’d fit into the midfield with Bruno Fernandes. Even the greatest doubters of the two midfielders working together would admit that a line-up involving the two superstars would add ‘maximum possibility’.

The sample size of Middlesbrough isn’t going to convince anyone, especially when it comes at the back of a loss where over 70,000 fans had to endure the biting cold on a day where Old Trafford’s catering system failed to provide any reprieve at half-time. United also registered a single game expected goal value of 4.2 as this excellent visual suggests.

United registered an expected goal value of 5.03 against Southampton in the 9-0 victory and 4.78 against Leeds United in the 6-2 victory; two of their biggest wins in the last couple of seasons. Freak results happen and this game affirmed the magic of the FA Cup. It also affirmed why variance governs cup competitions.

Besides a short period during Project Restart, United have struggled to hold onto long spells of possession without the vulnerabilities in transition. However, in recent games, Ralf Rangnick’s getting closer to this non-reactive/pro-active ideal.

It started after a little switch in set-up against Aston Villa. The formation often morphs into a 4-5-1/4-3-3/4-2-3-1 at various phases but the underlying change is that the central areas are no longer being bypassed with ease.

This writer believes that despite the imperfections of the set-up, United aren’t skirting the line by including the two midfield stars in what is nominally a 4-3-3.

The team defence has improved since the switch and Scott McTominay’s inclusion ahead of Nemanja Matic and Anthony Elanga’s defensive endeavour in the wider areas are also part of the reason for this. Much of the same defensive scheme was present in the cup game, which saw United mostly dominate proceedings besides a rocky six-minute spell but more on the little details later.

Let’s look at the other principles that were on show.

If you want a summation of everything Ralf Rangnick wants, this little sequence is it:

You’ve got Paul Pogba in what will be referred to as the half-back role, Marcus Rashford wide and Diogo Dalot in the half-spaces. There’s a little overload on one side before a switch of play that’s followed up by this:

It’s another trident but with Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw replicating the trick.

To make this system work, the three players on either side will have to provide cover when any two of the three commit forward and make sure they’re not clogging up the other’s space.

These tridents were running like clockwork throughout the 90 mins and a lot of credit has to go to the two fullbacks.

To most, the idea of this new shape probably looked a bit like this in the build-up:

You’ve got Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes on either side of Scott McTominay in those half-back positions but more often than not it was Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw running things from this zone.

Here’s Luke Shaw warming up in the 2nd minute of the game:

Here’s Diogo Dalot warming up 2 minutes later:

We know Luke Shaw is capable of these passes but Diogo Dalot’s been the big surprise of the season. He’s been putting on a show with his wide array of passes for a little over two months now.

Friend of The Busby Babe, Aaron Moniz, has provided a timely visualization of the Portuguese international’s improvement:

It’s never been overtly clear what type of full-back Dalot is until recently. He didn’t clock many games at Porto before getting the big move and the idea was that he’s this attacking full-back who’ll get to the byline and deliver crosses and that he could do a job on both flanks but it’s clear that, for now, his big strength is playing these passes from deeper areas.

Here’s a little floater:

Under pressure? No problem. He can laser it with his right and left foot.

Here’s an incisive one for his compatriot.

This doesn’t happen without Rashford’s run and what’s also noticeable here is Paul Pogba covering for any potential turnover.

Here’s a whipped one from a sequence that led to a penalty.

This time Pogba’s the one who’s made the run forward. Dalot’s covering for any potential turnover. Also noticeable is how different this is to the Villareal game. In the game against the Spaniards, the two fullbacks were narrow but there was a chasm between the attacking and defensive unit.

In the same sequence, Luke Shaw’s picked up a position in the half-spaces with Jadon Sancho wide. This makes room for the pass to Paul Pogba. Clockwork.

Here’s Luke Shaw in the second half:

United did this over and over again. For lack of a better word, United played some liquid football for 90 mins. There were scything through Middlesborough with ease. Perfect rotations on both sides. Perfect off-ball runs to stretch them.

For this to have worked the way it did, the two trios on each side have either developed some instinctual chemistry or been working on the training ground. This was a really impressive attacking performance from the Reds.

Now, some might doubt that this can’t be a regular occurrence because not every player from the two triumvirates perfectly fits these zones and there’s some truth to that.

In recent seasons, Liverpool and Man City have shown what the end product is like but it is possible to not follow that template so rigidly and get relative success.

The big fear is that United will look something like the graphic from the tweet below.

This was evidenced earlier this season in the game at Old Trafford against Villareal in the Champions League group stages.

Here’s an explainer of the counter to the argument I’m making from Vybhav Badri:

Ajax are one side that has mastered the sort of rotations we witnessed from United in the game against Middlesbrough, where players on each flank are expected to be comfortable in all zones.

It’s important that the two advanced midfielders and fullbacks are comfortable in all three zones. It’ll be the half-spaces and the half-back area primarily for the midfielders. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba’s ability to pick passes from any area and from any angle makes them invaluable here.

It’s the half-back area and wide areas primarily for the fullbacks. We know Luke Shaw is comfortable in all three zones after taking a big leap in the final third and wide areas last season. This is the one area where Dalot needs to show some improvement.

He should’ve probably go for the first time cross in the clip below. Perhaps, with practice and more game time, he will.

For the wide players, as long as they’re comfortable wide and in the half-spaces, they should be fine and they mostly are.

The Liverpool side that won 4-3 against Manchester City in a famous game that betokened their rise as a European superpower for the coming years were showing early signs of how they can compete without the full artillery.

There was no Virgil van Dijk, no Alisson, no Trent Alexander-Arnold and no Fabinho in that game. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was slightly advanced, Loris Karius was in goal, Dejan Lovren partnered Joel Matip, Joe Gomez was at right-back, Emre Can (not a true holding midfielder) played as the holding midfielder — often swapping with Gini Wijnaldum — and Andy Robertson had only recently become a regular.

The reason they were so competitive was because of their team defence, which brings us to the second half of the third principle.

It’s imperative that the two wide players track back in this set-up. Rafael Varane wouldn’t have bothered pinching the ball so high up if Marcus Rashford didn’t track back.

Anthony Elanga’s inclusion has also been vital for two reasons:

a) he’s done well himself.

b) he’ll force the two star wingers in Rashford and Sancho to up their game out of possession.

It’s important to acknowledge that Marcus Rashford has been cheating for a few years.

Marcus Rashford was given leeway to not track his man to go on these incredible sprints in attacking transition for the last few seasons. It seemed deliberate but this sort of freedom makes sense if you’re a younger Cristiano Ronaldo or Kylian Mbappe. Players who can get you around 50 goal contributions in a season for that compromise.

Marcus Rashford is a good player but it’s fair to say he isn’t that good. Cheating is still a valuable tactic and Marcus Rashford should be encouraged to do it but not to the extent he has in the last couple of seasons.

The gif from earlier is a perfect counter-press that is made possible because of Rashford’s defensive diligence.

Here’s why he’s almost perfect for Ralf Rangnick and whoever comes through the door in the summer:

Rashford wasn’t successful here but that intensity is exactly what Rangnick is looking for.

If the two wingers do their defensive duties, there isn't a lot to worry about. United played a perfect first half and followed all these principles to a tee.

So what happened in the second half that allowed Middlebrough to get back in the game?

Did the wingers stop tracking?

Not really.

Did the two midfield superstars become wasteful and leave acres in transition?


Did these perfect rotations in possession and out of possession go out the window?

Sort of.

We can now get into what happened between minutes 56 and 63.

In a strange turn of events, Jadon Sancho found himself in the number 10 area. He was probably just waiting to get back into position because post minute 63, he was back to the wing but there was really any communication before he found himself here and Bruno Fernandes was either not aware or expecting Sancho to go back to the left. By the time Fernandes realized he should probably track back, it was already too late. Boro had now carved their first real opening.

For 56 minutes, they didn’t offer any real threat. This happened once again in the lead up to the controversial goal before United got back to peppering Boro’s goal and not letting much come the other way.

Why did Sancho move to the central area? This writer has no idea but the coaching staff will probably just remind him to not do it again in the coming games and if a player is not in a familiar position, just remind the others to take them up for a minute or two before going back to their regular positions.

If United want to continue with this set-up with the same players in the coming games against Burnley, Leeds and Southampton, this writer does not think it’s worth all the hue and cry.

Fred is most likely going to come back to the side because he's also been in good form. So has Anthony Elanga and they’d be well worth their starting place. United don’t need to get an xG value of 4.2. A little over half of that will do because Premier League teams will provide sterner tests.

If Ralf Rangnick wants to put out a team that adds maximum possibility, this is it.