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Why Manchester United must shift to a 3-5-2 formation

Monday 30th July 2018

After the joy that arguably the greatest World Cup brought, pessimism has surrounded Manchester United fans. There has been all the talk of the manager being disinterested, players being unhappy, the board not delivering and much more. All too familiar in Jose Mourinho's third season. Manchester United are in crisis. Or not? The third season syndrome has struck the self-proclaimed Special One everywhere he has been, but at each club, he has won the league prior to the expected implosion. The Portuguese manager is yet to achieve that feat with the Red Devils...

Something tells me it will be different this time. I don't see Mourinho getting the sack this season. Instead, I am optimistic about the Red Devils' future; especially after the game against AC Milan. Manchester United set up in a 3-5-2 after two games in a 4-3-3. The team just looked far better on the whole, against notably tougher opposition, too.

First and foremost, the Red Devils lack a proper right-winger, left-back and right-back to play the 4-3-3. The formation may get the best out of Paul Pogba, but the wingers drift in and the full-backs largely fail to deliver. Mourinho must continue with the 3-5-2. It plays to his strengths.

Let us go through the set up:

The back three shielding David De Gea will be Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof and hopefully, Harry Maguire. If not Maguire, either Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Timothy Fosu-Mensah or Axel Tuanzebe could stake a claim for that left centre back spot. Daley Blind would've been perfect for that position, but he has since moved to Ajax. The lack in quality highlights United's need to invest.

Smalling looks clueless in a back three, Rojo is inconsistent and Jones is, well Jones... The trio is error-prone and simply not good enough to be starting for Manchester United. Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe still have to develop, although time is on their side, they're not ready yet. That is why Mourinho has prioritised a centre-back over full-backs and a winger. It all makes sense now, as to why the club is ready to pay £60million for Maguire. To play the 3-5-2, United only need one quality signing compared to two or three to play in the traditional 4-3-3. The board has to spend less money. Everybody wins.

Anyway, Lindelof and Maguire will be the ball-players from the back. Both had excellent World Cups and should kick things up a notch in the Premier League. Maguire played on the left of a back three and looked comfortable defending the wide areas. His performances in the Premier League and now the World Cup prove that he is ready to take things up a notch. Bailly is Manchester United's best defender, by far. The Ivorian just needs to stay fit and consistent. That back three can easily lead United to #21.

Luke Shaw still has a long way to go before becoming an elite left-back. His defensive attributes need to be worked on; but he is excellent going forward. The Englishman has been an offensive spark in all of United's pre-season games, something that Ashley Young just doesn't offer. His overlapping runs can cause havoc for any right back; his delivery is decent too, plus he doesn't mind having a pop at goal himself.

Mourinho could get the best out of Shaw by using him as a left wing-back. The ex-man Southampton will keep the width and can focus more on the attack, having an extra centre-back to cover for him. Youngster Demi Mitchell would provide suitable backup.

What happens to Young, you ask? Simple, he plays as the right wing-back. He played on that side a few times last season and looked far better when playing on his stronger side. He is right-footed and takes no time to deliver a good cross in. On the left, he takes far too much time to cut back on his right. By that time, Young is marked and so are the target men in the box. Fosu-Mensah, Antonio Valencia and Diogo Dalot, who could also play on either flank, (when both return from their injuries) will all provide competition for places.

The wing-backs United posses are athletic and will have no problem covering up ground. This system will resolve United's biggest problem - the lack of width. The wing-backs will have the license to push forward while attackers like Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard can play the inside forward role; positions in which the pair flourish most.

Coming to the midfield, there are two ways it could go. Either the mandatory midfield three with Nemanja Matic, Fred and Paul Pogba or with two sitting midfielders and a number 10. Whichever way you look at it, the midfield set up will be similar. Matic at the base, Fred playing the box-to-box role and Pogba pushing towards the final third. The trio is well balanced, is dynamic, has goals in them and will shield the defence.

Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Periera and Scott Mctominay all provide enough cover. Andreas Periera has generated a huge buzz with his performances in pre-season playing as a deep-lying playmaker. The Brazilian's vertical passing in between the lines is something straight outta' Michael Carrick's playbook. Periera and Fred will certainly increase the tempo of the link up play, backed by defenders who are good on the ball. Pogba will receive the ball in more advanced roles. We all know what he will do then, don't we?

Upfront, Alexis Sanchez will play off Romelu Lukaku. The Chilean has made the most of the summer off and looks sharp. One can hope he replicates his 16-17 Arsenal form next season. He will have complete freedom, he can drop deep, make runs in behind or into the channel as per his wishes. Sanchez doesn't like to keep the width and likes to get involved in the build-up; this will be perfect. Even for Lukaku, he will have someone to play alongside with. Many-a-time, the Belgian was left isolated and instructed to win long balls and hold it up. Now, he'll have a partner in crime.

On paper, this setup will enable Lukaku to get more service and score more. Marcus Rashford isn't a left winger nor a striker. His best position is just playing off the front-man. In this formation, he'll thrive. Just like he did for England. Juan Mata can also play the second striker role with ease. His best season for Chelsea was playing as the false 9 or the central attacking midfielder. It just makes sense.

The Spaniard is also having a good pre-season and always offers movement and quality on the ball. Lingard could also play the role of the inside forward, if required. Then, there is Anthony Martial. He can practically play all across the front-line (except on the right), but his future remains unclear.

This setup nullifies United's biggest weaknesses, adds more strength to the spine and will get the best out of almost everyone in the squad. It allows for plenty of rotation and requires every squad player to play a big part. It also doesn't require out-of-the-world signings and is a system that the Red Devils have played before. It is high time that something changes at Old Trafford. Perhaps a change in formation is the key?

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Vedansh Nathani

Manchester United fan from India. Follows almost all sports - football and pro-wrestling in particular. Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are some of his favourites.


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