Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, shine on you crazy diamond. The Manchester United manager is celebrating not only his first home win of the season at the fourth attempt, not only six points from two games against last season’s finalists and semi-finalists on his return to the Champions League, but also the discovery of a new tactical set-up which actually appears to suit his players.
For the first time post-lockdown, Solskjaer deployed four narrow central midfielders in a diamond formation. This change of system – one that a small but significant number of supporters have demanded for months – immediately produced one of United’s finest European wins since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, with RB Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann smashed by five unanswered goals. The second-half display was especially impressive.
And yet, the set-up was relatively simple. Nemanja Matic sat at the base of midfield as United’s fulcrum, reference point and foundation stone. He was tasked with winning the ball back. Fred had a similar job on the right-hand side of central midfield and was excellent out of possession. Last season, he was a surprisingly effective presser for United and the security provided by Matic allowed him to harry opponents with greater freedom.
Paul Pogba was on the left-hand side and looked much more comfortable than he does when part of a deep-lying double pivot, which is a role he does not particularly enjoy. And last but not least, Donny van de Beek started as the No 10 . It was not Van de Beek’s most memorable or effective performance but early Paul Scholes-esque late runs into the penalty area could transform one of United’s biggest weaknesses – creating good goal-scoring opportunities – into a strength.
It was brilliantly effective. So effective, in fact, even Solskjaer may be asking himself why he did not try it sooner. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but today I think it worked,” he tentatively admitted in his post-match press conference. “The work off the ball was incredible. Nemanja, Fred, Donny, Paul – all four of them worked their socks off. That’s the basis of the team: if you can work and win the ball in good situations, you create chances.”
What’s most striking about the set-up is just how well it suits many of Solskjaer’s players. To see that, look at United’s first goal scored by Mason Greenwood. Not only does the move start by Fred winning possession relatively high up in central midfield, but the goal is made by Pogba’s burst forward dribbling directly at the Leipzig defence. That is a run he is rarely able to make as part of a deeper pairing in Solskjaer’s usual 4-2-3-1 system.
Then there’s Greenwood. The 19-year-old may have scored 20 goals in a little less than a year since breaking through as a wide forward under Solskjaer but his future lies through the middle. Minutes spent out on the right in the most formative years of his career are therefore somewhat wasted. If the diamond were to become a regular thing, he would be able to spend more time in the position that he is destined to fill rather than in one that he will grow out of one day.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are similar players whatever the system. Both prefer cutting in from the left and shooting with their right. Under Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1, only one can play as a wide forward and even then, they are slightly further away from goal than they would like to be. A diamond set-up with two central strikers is not perfect either as it does not suit both Rashford and Martial all of the time, but it does allow them to alternate their roles more easily.
The biggest beneficiary of all may be Van de Beek, who made his first start in either the Premier League or the Champions League on Wednesday night having joined for £35m during the summer. Some fans have been frustrated by the debate around his lack of playing time. It’s normal for players to take time to adapt, after all. Van de Beek will most likely have a very successful Old Trafford career in the fullness of time.
But whatever happens with him in the short or long-term, there is no ideal way to fit him into Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1. If he starts regularly in that set-up, one of Pogba, Bruno Fernandes or United’s defensive stability must be sacrificed. That might not be the case with the diamond, however. A midfield of either Matic, Fred or Scott McTominay holding and then Van de Beek and Pogba behind Fernandes as the No 10 is workable, at least in theory.
If there is a weakness to the diamond, it is on the flanks. Any width has to come from the full-backs. Luke Shaw was excellent against Leipzig and is generally underrated as an attacking full-back but cannot cover an entire flank in the same way that Alphonso Davies or Andy Robertson regularly do. Meanwhile, despite gradual improvements, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s attacking output remains limited.
Even so, Wan-Bissaka’s superhuman ability to defend one-on-one situations is a huge strength in a diamond set-up. If United stick with this system, opponents will target their full-backs and the vacant space on the flanks. Leipzig tried it time and time again on Wednesday night but Wan-Bissaka shut down Angelino’s advances at every turn, effectively locking off one of Nagelsmann’s few counter-attacking avenues.
Overall, there is a lot to like. United may still come unstuck against teams who defend narrow and deep, limiting the space that all Solskjaer’s attack-minded midfielders like to work in, but every tactical set-up has inherent flaws. The point is to find one which works well with the players at your disposal. Solskjaer may now have done that. The question is whether he reverts back to his old ways or if diamonds are forever.
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