Manchester United once again showed tactical versatility in Wednesday night’s 5-0 Champions League win over RB Leipzig, with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer setting his team up with a midfield diamond in what was effectively a switch to a 4-4-2 formation.
United have been known as a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 side for a number of years, while Solskjaer has also switched to a back-three system on occasion when a particular game requires it – as was the case against Paris Saint-Germain at Parc des Princes a week ago.
But with midfield the most well stocked part of United’s current squad, Solskjaer has been tasked with finding a role in the team for Paul Pogba that plays to his strengths and hides any weakness.
The diamond system, which deployed Pogba to the left, enabled him to play with the benefit of a second creative midfielder, with Donny van de Beek in the ‘number 10’ role. 90min rated the Frenchman 8/10 for a strong performance in his first start for nearly four weeks.
Ordinarily, United lining up with two attack-minded midfielders, whether it be Pogba and Van de Beek, Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, or Van de Beek and Fernandes, would mean only one defensive midfielder. In a three, the onus might be on Pogba to both attack and defend. It is not that he lacks the discipline for it, but it restricts what he can do on the ball.
Yet operating in a diamond for the visit of Leipzig gave United two more defensive-minded midfielders in Nemanja Matic and Fred, with the latter covering and patrolling areas all over the pitch, despite initially lining up on the right of the foursome.
With Matic providing shape and solidity at the base and Fred doing most of the tougher legwork without the ball, Pogba was freer to do what he is best at. He did also cover in front of Luke Shaw, but there can be no doubt that he is most effective on the ball and looking to attack.
It is worth noting that the graft in France’s midfield at the 2018 World Cup was largely done by N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi, leaving Pogba to play more creatively in tandem with Antoine Griezmann, who occupied the ‘number 10’ role for Les Bleus.
Any midfield diamond system relies heavily on very good full-back to provide the width that might otherwise be lacking. Shaw got forward to provide support on the left against Leipzig, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka has the legs and stamina to do it and is developing his attacking game. United also have Alex Telles as an option, and the Brazilian might have played but for coronavirus.
Solskjaer won’t necessarily stick with the diamond – sometimes it might only be necessary to have one defensive midfielder in favour of another forward, for example – but it gives United another tactical option and clearly benefits a player in Pogba who hasn’t always had the right platform.
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