Football Features

4-2-3-1 or a Sir Alex special? How Man Utd could line up with Jadon Sancho

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 9:15, 24 June 2021

Manchester United appear to be closing in on the signing of Jadon Sancho, for real this time!

After an entire summer of beating around the bush, United finally look ready to quit their mucking about and jump into the hedgerow. Well, step tentatively into the hedgerow. They’re finally making “improved” bids for Sancho (according to Sky Sports) rather than whining about the price Dortmund are setting like last year, and a transfer finally seems inevitable.

But how could United line-up should they finally land their man? Given the way they negotiate transfers this would likely be their only deal of the summer so we will be looking at multiple potential line-ups for the current United squad with Sancho (and only Sancho) added. How could they look? Read on and find out!

The New Normal

Manchester United’s standard XI has a great big hole at right-wing. It’s a hole United have plugged at times with Mason Greenwood and Daniel James, neither of whom are optimal options. Jadon Sancho is more than optimal.

United build play through Harry Maguire and in this instance, Paul Pogba. The key to this system is to get the ball to Bruno Fernandes between the lines of midfield and defence but with Sancho in there is now another world-class playmaker to hit.

With Fernandes central and Sancho wide (he and Rashford are both capable on either flank) the ball simply has more places to go that can result in a killer ball or shot being produced. Defences will be stretched out having to handle both Fernandes and Sancho and that means someone is going to be either 1-v-1 or even unmarked. With all this extra playmaking you can expect Edinson Cavani to feast up top.

The Change-up

One thing Manchester United could always use more of is fluidity. Their usual 4-2-3-1 can be a bit stilted at times (a frustrating byproduct of the formation itself) and being able to switch to 4-3-3 would make United so much more dangerous. But of course you need two brilliant wing threats for that and United didn’t have that, until now.

The goalkeeper and defence are the same as always but now the ball can hit a midfield trio that is better set to create passing triangles and speed the ball up rather than slow it down. Scott McTominay is not the ideal choice to play pivot here, and really United would be better served looking to the transfer market to sign a proper defensive midfielder (or praying Ethan Galbraith develops at lightning pace). But he’s the best choice United have because he can at least run, tackle and shoot superbly.

McTominay’s dynamism would allow Pogba to sit and spray passes if he wants, but equally the Scot could hold while Pogba and Fernandes drive forward alongside each other and look to find the wingers in the final third.

Again Rashford and Sancho can play on either flank, and Sancho’s creativity would unlock the goalscoring potential of both United’s no. 10 and Mason Greenwood. Both young forwards are dangerous when they move off the ball but don’t do it enough, and you have to imagine that is partly because United have never had consistent creativity from the wide positions. That changes now.

The Old-School

Of course Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could opt to throw it back to a classic Manchester United formation: the 4-4-2. Sir Alex Ferguson used this shape to great glory and success in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Sancho is the man to unlock its potential now.

United’s defence can handle the shape, and their central midfielders are all dynamic enough to deal with the demands. In this case Fernandes and McTominay have the duties, with the Portuguese midfielder getting to embrace his full skill-set. What United never had was an elite winger to make the shape work.

Sancho and Daniel James are both able to play on either flank and in crucial Sir Alex style, are two very different wingers. While James runs off the ball with extreme pace and is a good finisher, Sancho prefers to play on the ball with dexterous dribbling and creative passing and crosses (and also good finishing).

With them out wide, the production line would be consistent for Rashford and Anthony Martial up-front, both forwards capable of dropping deep to link with midfield, drifting wide to double-up with wingers, and pushing in behind defences. They’d need to train together in the shape for a while, but it could prove deadly in certain games!

No Bruno? No Problem!

Part of Man Utd’s problem since Bruno Fernandes has arrived is that while he is world-class, he is the best player on the team by far and opponents have started to realise this and man-marking him. Moreover, Solskjaer always has to start him, because who can be as creative as him? Well, Sancho.

So now United can field a 4-3-1-2 alternative if they want to rest Fernandes. Defence same as always, but now as they’re moving their best winger infield, just scrap wingers altogether. Pogba gets to embrace his inner-Pirlo and strut about the base of midfield picking out the kind of impossible passes that only he can do. His bodyguards and runners are McTominay and Fred who play ahead of and alongside him in an almost strictly defensive capacity.

Rashford and Martial are again up-top, splitting wide to provide width when needed but also a target in the box. Then the whole thing flows through Sancho playing No. 10 with supreme authority. The Englishman has the dribbling skill and creative prowess to be the hub of the attack, and that’s what this shape makes him.

Operation Rest Rashford

Marcus Rashford needs a rest. Come on. Seriously. It’s been like six months that he has been very obviously playing through pain. “We can rest when we retire,” was Rashford’s comment on his physical health back in April, but he absolutely does need a rest now, not in 10 years.

But United have so often had to keep playing him because they needed his pace, creativity and goalscoring ability. Well, Sancho brings all of that to the table too.

So, if United do actually decide for once to give their wonderful child-saving forward a break, they can play their standard 4-2-3-1 but move Sancho into Rashford’s role on the left, and then Greenwood comes into the right-wing position that he’s shown himself capable to play on many occasions.

It’s not optimal, sure, but getting Rashford some much-needed rest is more important than optimising the starting XI.