Why Manchester United should play 3-4-1-2

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The current dialogue around Manchester United is boring. Every week, it’s the same story in the media, whether or not they win, lose or draw. It’s obvious that Manchester United are not at their best, but very few are discussing tangible ways for the Red Devils to fasten their seatbelts and shift the car into overdrive. So with that, today we take a look at why Manchester United should shift away from a back-four, and into a 3-4-1-2. Don’t get us wrong, United need to drill several loose bolts. But, a change to the formation may help to mitigate several of their greatest issues.


In possession of the ball, Manchester United have not been woeful. It’s the work off the ball, and the organization and leadership around their off-the-ball structures that are letting them down. A 4-2-3-1 is the type of formation that can make up for a lack of stellar defensive organization and leadership, covering necessary holes around the pitch. That is, if deployed with the right personnel and the right combination of players. Manchester United have everything they need to be a top four team, even one that could challenge for a title. But if players aren’t being used correctly, and are combined with others that expose their weaknesses all the more, it becomes very difficult to develop a winning formula. This is why a 3-4-1-2 could be the best approach for United.

First off, United’s organization at the back, from transitional moments to set-pieces to when they simply get tired and lazy, has not been good enough. Harry Maguire, as the captain and leader of the team, is the one who often gets the raw end of the stick. Meanwhile, United’s only capable defensive midfielders in Fred and McTominay are made into scapegoats, when they usually shepherd the ball out of dangerous areas when deployed together. It’s an entire team organization, work effort and accountability problem, where massive spaces are opening up simply because they are not willing to work off the ball collectively. Even Bruno Fernandes, who we’ve always praised for his off-the-ball transitional phase work effort, has been more concerned about the faults of others than about playing for the team. Having an extra defender in the team, and playing Fred & McTominay as a midfield two in behind Bruno will be a key way to inspire greater defensive solidity, and cover more central holes that seem to so easily open as players step out of position.

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McTominay simply cannot cover an entire midfield all on his own alongside Paul Pogba, and other players like Harry Maguire then feel the need to abandon their position to help, only to open up new spaces for exploitation. At the weekend, we chose to focus our analysis of the match against Southampton on the tactical brilliance the Saints showcased in possession. But Manchester United made them look superior as a result of their insufficiencies in defending Southampton’s progression. By focusing more on Southampton’s positional patterns, which weren’t that difficult to spot, United would have claimed victory, or at least held the control Ralf Rangnick desires from his team.

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Further up the field, a 3-4-1-2 would also be an excellent way to get the best out of Edinson Cavani’s tireless work ethic, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack thereof. In fact, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used the formation in one of his final games in charge of the Red Devils, and it was one of their best performances of the season by a country mile, in large part due to the combinations of the front three. They pressed excellently well from the front in the shape, with greater connectivity between the lines and wing-backs pushed high up the pitch to allow United to have that expansiveness in an otherwise narrow formation. Narrow formations are what Ralf Rangnick wants to deploy, but his experiments so far with the 4-2-2-2, and a 4-2-3-1 with only one true defensive midfielder, have not worked to great effect.

Beyond the combination of McTominay and Pogba, there are other combinations in Rangnick’s team that simply don’t work. Maguire and Shaw have many strengths in possession, but they can’t get in line, stay in line or hold their position for long enough without wanting to bulldoze into their opposition. If they were waiting in line at a Tim Hortons, they would simply never reach the counter. Neither are particularly brilliant when it comes to defensive awareness and how to situate themselves on a football pitch to stop their opposition from finding space, and this massively hurts the Red Devils. Put those two together on the same side, particularly without Fred’s work ethic to win the ball ahead of them, and you get what could be described as a disaster. Fred should be restored to the team until United sign someone with the capabilities of Declan Rice or Wilfred Ndidi, and an extra defender will naturally help to mitigate those defensive concerns as Shaw and Maguire get drawn out of position.

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Then there’s Jadon Sancho, who United fans all want to see perform well and continue his recent run of form. There’s an argument to make that a system without wingers would not really benefit a winger. That’s a fair assumption to make. Promisingly, Sancho played excellently well in a Lucien Favre styled 3-4-2-1 at Dortmund, that shifted into a 3-4-1-2 in and out of possession. As Marco Reus dropped in deep to pick up possession or defend lower on the field in transition, Sancho and Thorgan Hazard stayed high up the pitch, readying themselves to receive or counter. He would have no problem playing as one of the front two, even if the best role for him would be as a wide man. Just about every other player would fit this system better at this current time, and so there’s no reason to sacrifice that in the quest to get the best out of the former Dortmund man…as much as I love Jadon Sancho. Marcus Rashford for example would work excellently well as one of the front two, where he can drift in and out of a nine’s position. Jesse Lingard also played wonderfully as a ‘ten’ on loan at West Ham last season, even at times as the ‘1’ in a Moyes’ styled 3-4-1-2. Then you have Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who could see a resurgence as a right-centre-back, where he can showcase his expert 1v1 defensive skills. Across the board, this seems like a formation that would massively benefit Manchester United. In fact, it already did earlier in the season, in a match that cost Nuno Espirito Santo his job at Tottenham.

Throughout this quest to get better, Manchester United also need to focus more on their opposition. I’m positive they have analysts working all week, studying the minutia of their upcoming opponents and helping players prepare in training. But when it comes time for the game, massive holes always seem to open up, as the opposition find innovative ways of breaking through the Red Devils. A greater focus on the opposition, in organization, leadership and tactics on the day will massively benefit the team. So too would a change in formation to a 3-4-1-2, as United find their footing and identity under Rangnick.

So there it is! Why Manchester United should play a 3-4-1-2. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and our new Tactical Theory series, which displays many articles like this. Also be sure to follow on social media @mastermindsite via the links below, and check out our subscription options to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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