There is much to look forward to when the Premier League returns. On the 19th of June, Tottenham Hotspur will be facing Manchester United in one of the highly-anticipated ties. Champions League places will determine much of what the future holds for both sides, two managers who seem perenially confined to the trial room will be judged once again, and emblematic stars of both clubs will be making a return from an extended period on the treatment table.
However, the returning Paul Pogba and his new team-mate Bruno Fernades’ partnership will be the cynosure of the football world. There has been much conjecture on the potential partnership from dismissing the effervescent Pogba entirely to the oversimplified suggestion that good players will find their own solutions.
Solskjær has consistently shown the acuity for problem-solving, and he can look to Gareth Southgate and Julian Nagelsmann to solve the Pogba-Fernandes conundrum. Michael Cox when analyzing the England national team starting XI for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, stated that despite the pre-match line-ups showing a 3-5-2 system, England were 3-3-2-2 in execution. Of course, what we see on paper is rarely what is played out on the pitch.
Liverpool and Manchester City use a 4-3-3, but they are very different in execution with players given very different roles and responsibilities. Taking that into account, United’s best side with all the players available will probably have to take this 3-3-2-2 shape with player responsibilities closer to what we saw with Julian Nagelssmann’s Hoffenheim side, which was seen as a 3-1-4-2 on paper but could just as easily be considered a 3-3-2-2 with players taking up many positions.
Hoffenheim had certain players that were essential to this system. Kevin Vogt was charged with most of the build-up, a player just as adept at playing in midfield as he was in a back-3. United have one of the best ball carriers in the league in Harry Maguire, who rose to fame for his performances in the said World Cup for his ability to carry the ball.
Maguire ranks on top in pretty much every metric in the United side when it comes to possession and passing (FBref). His dribble success rate is only lower than Nemanja Matic at 81.8%, with Matic at 86.4%. His partner for most of the run-in has been Victor Lindelof. Besides the mishap earlier in the season against Crystal Palace, Lindelof is usually seen sweeping danger when Maguire makes his darting runs while also taking part in progressing the ball forward. Lindelof ranks extremely high on the dribbled against stat with a 92.3% tackle success rate when going up against a dribble with the next best being Aaron Wan-Bissaka at 59.7%.
Eric Bailly has recovered from injury and is the most boisterous of the 3 and has been guilty at times of breaking his defensive line to intercept play but if United are to dominate games, a player with Bailly’s mobility will be crucial to holding a high-line, especially considering David De Gea’s aversion to coming off his line. The back-3 will allow him to make those crunching tackles, knowing that he has two players covering him.
Moving onto the midfield, Nagelsmann only used one recognized holding midfielder and two energetic wing-backs to help in the second phase of build-up, which allowed the two attacking midfielders and two forwards to wreak havoc. Nemanja Matic was part of a side that won the Premier League with a back-3 under Antonio Conte. He’s used to receiving the ball under pressure, and his dribbling ability would make him ideal for the holding role. His lack of mobility shouldn’t be a problem with the protection of the back-3 and the two energetic wing-backs offering protection.
Much will be said about Fred and Scott McTominay. While the two have had great seasons, neither has the positional discipline or the ball-retention abilities that Matic offers and are better when rampaging from box-to-box and stopping the opposition’s best players.
Shaw has been used in multiple roles this season as a centre-back, left-back and wing-back. He has been key to Solskjær using numerical superiority in different areas of the pitch. Pass the ball in tight spaces and retain possession is crucial to perform the many roles.
Wan-Bissaka is also a predominantly defensive full-back. He was the best dribbler last season from a full-back position in the league, and his penchant for tackles and interceptions is well-known. He has been United’s primary ball-winner, whether that’s by pressing high, stopping counters or simply nullifying the opposition’s best winger in one on one duels. Bissaka and Shaw are well-suited to flanking Matic.
With that, we’re left with Pogba, Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Pogba is another player who has excelled when played in a back-3 system with Juventus. Pogba has been denigrated since his move back to United because of mismanagement. In Juventus, he was the most advanced midfielder in a side that had Andrea Pirlo as the deep-lying playmaker with three other centre-backs also responsible for the build-up. Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio were also often paired together to pack the midfield and Pogba would only come into play higher up the pitch.
This isn’t to suggest that Pogba can’t play in a deeper position, but this would be a criminal waste of a player whose best attributes shine when playing in the left half-space. He’s more like a Ronaldinho than the players that he’s often discriminatorily compared to due to his size and engine. Pogba could also be used in this position as an alternate build-up option like Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Sebastien Haller during his time at Frankfurt. David De Gea’s long passing stats have always been relatively good.
Fernandes, on the other hand, would be allowed the license to roam, make third-man runs, press from the front. He would be an upgrade on Jesse Lingard, who was often tasked with performing these roles when Solskjær first took over and one of the players in that 2018 World Cup side for England, who came out with much praise playing this role alongside Dele Alli. Lingard also played this role perfectly for Jose Mourinho in a famous game against Arsenal when he opted to play a back-3. Lingard scored two on goals on the day, forcing Arsenal to concede the ball in build-up and providing the finishing touch as well.
Fernandes isn’t a dribbler not unlike Lingard and uses quick one-twos and his awareness to keep the ball moving. They’re both excellent distance shooters, but Fernandes’ ability from set-pieces and his eye for a final pass and generally riskier passes are something that Lingard lacks in his arsenal. Fernandes is far more comfortable playing a little deeper, having played as a centre-back in his formative years before playing as a box-to-box midfielder in Italy.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are coming off what will be their best seasons and would complete the attacking-quartet. Rashford is the explosive one, stretching defences, taking shots from range and making runs in behind. Martial is the composed finisher, better with his back to goal but not the best at winning aerial duels. Pogba will be important when it comes to those aerial duels as mentioned earlier.
The two have a fantastic relationship on the field and are capable of creating chances on their own, but with two creators alongside them, it could cause defences nightmares. Martial likes to come deeper and link with the midfielders and forwards while Rashford likes to make runs into the box from his inside-forward position.
United also have some reliable options of the bench in precocious talent Mason Greenwood and target-man and box-poacher Odion Ighalo. They have a tactical outlet in speedster Daniel James to cause multiple problems. United will be able to attack with 4 or 6 players depending on the phase of the game and can sit in a tight block when required. They will also carry a serious set-piece threat with many players towering over 6 feet.
The doubts about Fernandes and Pogba blossoming won’t be new to the United faithful. The same was said about Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, who’d go on to form two-thirds of one of the greatest attacking tridents in Premier League and European football history.
This system will allow United to adapt to their opponents while also letting them take control of games while being on the front foot. The occasional surrender of possession was allowed even during Ferguson’s best days. United have never been defined by a style as much as their principles.
They were capable of playing pure defensive football, possession football or thrilling counter-attacking football, and therefore must be considered the most tactically complete side of the Premier League era. This is how Michael Cox described Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United from 2006-2009 in his book – The Mixer.
This is the task that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is faced with in the coming weeks and he has the players at his disposal now. Mourinho was reprimanded for enervating the squad and Solskjær has done his part in bringing some youthful exuberance to alleviate the fugue state that the club found itself in since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. With his signings having settled down and key players back, the propitious fixture list that Solskjær is left with will determine if he can take United back to the summit of English football.
Written by Suwaid Fazal | Feature Image via Getty Images
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