Man Utd have conceded 11 goals in three Premier League games in 2020/21 | Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Manchester United need to do something different when domestic football returns after the international break because simply carrying on with more of the same is really not an option.
‘More of the same’ is what saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team lose 6-1 at home to Tottenham in a humiliating affair last weekend. Overall, they have conceded 11 goals in just three Premier League games so far – that number probably ought to be much higher as well.
United have been hopelessly cut open at the back by Crystal Palace, Brighton and now Spurs. Sluggishness going forward has only exacerbated the problem because leaking goals through a porous defence makes it far more difficult to win games.
The system as it is, doesn’t work for the personnel involved and Solskjaer has to make a change, otherwise it will be his job on the line sooner rather than later.
The United manager must find a way to hide the weaknesses in his defence that have been brutally exposed. Harry Maguire lacks pace and is close to useless when opposing forwards run at him with pace, while Eric Bailly clearly needs more help to clean up his erratic ways.
The most obvious fix is switching to a system with three centre-backs, which Solskjaer has used on occasion in the past. Putting Maguire in the middle of a three will effectively ‘hide’ his lack of mobility – it is a sign of how bad it is that hiding an £80m player should even be a consideration.
Man Utd have to try and ‘hide’ £80m Harry Maguire | Alex Livesey/Getty Images
If Maguire had ‘legs’ on both sides of him, United won’t be as vulnerable to pace. Chelsea did similar with David Luiz during their 2016/17 season, restricting the ways in which other teams could take advantage, while also inflating his strengths. That obviously worked very well.
For Bailly, just having an extra body centrally will leave him less exposed.
It is a more robust defensive structure than United have currently using, especially if Nemanja Matic continues to be deployed as a holding midfielder, at least initially.
But if Maguire and Bailly are two of the centre-backs, who would the third be? It is safe to say that Victor Lindelof hasn’t covered himself in glory in recent months and probably deserves his spell out of the team, while Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones are hardly viable options.
Eric Bailly & Maguire need a third centre-back to play with | DeFodi Images/Getty Images
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a rarity as a full-back whose defensive qualities massively outweigh his attacking ability, would be a strong contender. He has the pace and mobility to lighten some of the burden on Maguire, who first emerged as a noteworthy player after thriving in such a system with England.
The other alternative to pulling in Wan-Bissaka, who would struggle with the attacking demands of playing as a wing-back, would be Axel Tuanzebe. The home-grown talent is well liked by Solskjaer, having been first alternative centre-back at the start of last season, and is finally expected to return to fitness after the international break. If he can stay fit, he could be like a new signing. Big if.
A back-three system means wing-backs and that could be the perfect way to get the best out of new signing Alex Telles. Luke Shaw offers very little in the way of going forward, but Telles is known for attacking output. He scored four goals from open play for Porto last season and got 12 assists – in four years with Porto, he twice led the team in assists and made 81 direct goal contributions overall.
That kind of creative output is also key in terms of Edinson Cavani, who is noted for his movement and penalty area instinct but needs service from his teammates. Even though Anthony Martial will still be expected to lead the line most of the time – after his suspension, of course – that could prove to be a key dynamic between the veteran Uruguayan striker and Telles.
Right wing-back could be a problem in such a system. United recently got rid of the only player who was an obvious fit for the role when Diogo Dalot joined AC Milan on loan. As mentioned, it isn’t suited to Wan-Bissaka, with alternatives including Timothy Fosu-Mensah or teenager Ethan Laird. Brandon Williams would be the most obvious fit for now, but must work on his final ball.
The only way United could avoid looking within for a right wing-back would be to take advantage of the extension to the domestic transfer window. The international transfer window may be closed, as are deals between Premier League clubs, but business with EFL teams is till permitted for nine days.
Norwich full-back Max Aarons is a player United have been linked with before, although anyone signed at this stage would be ineligible for the Champions League group stage because that registration deadline has already passed. It’s far from the ideal option, but it is still an option.
Max Aarons is technically still available in the transfer market | Visionhaus/Getty Images
In this proposed back-three system, United would be looking at three centre-backs, flanked by wing-backs, a holding midfielder, two creative midfielders, a central striker and perhaps a freer auxiliary forward who could play between the lines or drift into different areas.
A re-arranged side could therefore look as follows in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 formation:
Goalkeepers & Defenders
GK: David de Gea
RWB: Brandon Williams/Timothy Fosu-Mensah
RCB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka/Axel Tuanzebe
CB: Harry Maguire
LCB: Eric Bailly/Victor Lindelof
LWB: Alex Telles/Luke Shaw
DM: Nemanja Matic/Fred
CM: Paul Pogba/Scott McTominay
CM: Bruno Fernandes/Donny van de Beek
SS: Marcus Rashford/Mason Greenwood
ST: Anthony Martial/Edinson Cavani
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