Manchester United have a big problem, and no it’s not their upcoming brutal run of fixtures.
Well, it’s not only their upcoming run of fixtures. Yes, in addition to United’s brutal gauntlet of games that includes them visiting Leicester City, Atalanta and Tottenham Hotspur plus a mega home tie against Manchester City; they have another problem, or problems, depending on how you look at it.
The problems are Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire, their starting centre-backs.
They’re both injured.
Maguire left the field injured during United’s 1-0 home defeat against Aston Villa with a calf injury that was said to keep him out for a few weeks. With Leicester looming on the horizon there is still no timescale on his return.
Then Varane, United’s big defensive signing and their top-performing centre-back so far this season, left France’s Nations League final early with an injury. United have released a statement confirming that “he will be out for a few weeks.”
Raphaël Varane has been forced off after 42 minutes in the Nations League final.
Man Utd's other first-choice centre-back Harry Maguire is also currently out injured. 😳 pic.twitter.com/6kEsQlc0hZ
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) October 10, 2021
This is a huge, huge issue for United. Maguire is their captain and they were obviously missing his influence against Aston Villa, Villarreal and Everton. Kortney Hause’s Villa winner, a stoppage time header at Old Trafford, would surely not have happened with Maguire on the field. And the way Villarreal and Everton carved United open on the break had the Red Devils crying out for Maguire’s leadership.
Then Varane is just a patently ridiculous defender. Watching him patrol the United back-line, cutting passes and crosses out and just generally holding the ramshackle side together at the back has been very impressive, even though it’s made him look less cool and composed than we’re used to seeing him for France.
United’s failure to sign a defensive midfielder, a true holding presence at the base of midfield, has long been a source of consternation for fans and the way teams can easily counter on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side is the result.
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However, with Varane and Maguire at the back, United at least possessed the defensive prowess to cover most of those counters. Without them, things could get exceedingly dicey. But they can’t just give up, so how can Solskjaer cope without his two studs?
Well, first let’s look at his main defensive options. United are lucky to have four specialist centre-backs to pick from, but unlucky that they all come with pretty significant weaknesses.
Pros: Lindelof is a proven centre-back at international and European level. He is captain of Sweden and has played very well for the Red Devils previously. He is particularly excellent when United are defending in a low block and is a very elegant and skilled passer of the ball.
Cons: Lindelof struggles in any sort of high line. He often makes rash decisions to close down opponents without the athleticism to get there in time meaning he pulls the United defensive shape to bits all by himself. He’s also very soft and prone to being bullied in the air.
Pros: An absolutely relentless athlete with the kind of aggressive defensive instincts that makes him a nightmare for opponents to handle. No sooner have they taken a touch than Bailly is at the back, putting a foot in to dispossess. He can also run with the ball well.
Cons: Bailly’s doesn’t always pick the right moments to be aggressive, leading to him conceding fouls or leaving space behind him in the same manner as Lindelof. He makes erratic decisions in his choices of clearance technique and tackling. He’s also injury prone so the brutal schedule ahead of United could well result in him joining Varane and Maguire on the treatment table.
Pros: Jones was a great centre-back, once. A supremely aggressive defender who could hold his own in the air and on the deck. Moreover he excelled at dribbling out from the back and was a capable passer.
Cons: Jones didn’t play a single game last season and managed just eight appearances the season before that. He is injury prone in the extreme and it’s almost impossible to imagine how far his abilities have fallen off in that time. Putting him in would represent a colossal risk, even if it would at the least be very interesting and go some way to justifying him not letting Raphael Varane have the No.4 shirt this summer.
Pros: Athletic, dynamic, focused and skilled. Mengi is a young centre-back lacking only height to have everything you could want to have on a young centre-back checklist. He has immense potential.
Cons: He has almost zero first-team experience. He played once in the Europa League in 2019/20 and managed nine games on loan at Derby last season before injury struck him down. This could be a huge moment where he seizes his chance and proves he can be a starter, but he is exceedingly raw and given the scale of the games involved, Solskjaer may err on the side of caution.
How can Man Utd line up without Varane and Maguire?
So those are the four main options, what on earth can Solskjaer do? The most obvious answer is to put Lindelof and Bailly in, but that is a combustible combination that could lurch out of position at any moment, rend the whole defensive shape asunder, and cost United a goal. And against this kind of opponent, one goal might be enough.
This would also almost certainly prevent Paul Pogba from playing in a pivot spot, meaning that United would severely miss his creativity in the middle third of the pitch. These problems when combined make this a very risky choice, even if you could possibly ask Aaron Wan-Bissaka to play deeper and offer cover to his shaky centre-backs.
Is there another way? Well, given United didn’t sign a defensive midfielder and that each one of those teams coming up on the fixture list absolutely will rip the Red Devils to bits on the break, and given Lindelof does perform well in a rearguard, the best solution is to just try and counter-attack on opponents instead. United need to return to the 3-5-2 formation that brought them so much joy in 2019/20.
A back three of Lindelof, Bailly and Luke Shaw with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles as wing-backs seems to be the best possible solution. This way United can still deploy Paul Pogba as one of the central midfielders, making full use of his creativity without having to worry about the defensive gaps he can leave being exposed as there will be three centre-backs to cover.
Moreover, it keeps Bruno Fernandes in his key central position and allows United to rotate in attack. With just two positions to fill they can use Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Cristiano Ronaldo and the returning Marcus Rashford in whatever combinations they wish to that will keep everyone fit, firing and in-form during the hectic schedule.
Jadon Sancho is a player that can be deployed in either of the attacking roles or even as a sub for Bruno Fernandes. He will miss out more than most for the few weeks United need to play this system, for sure, but he will remain an effective force off the bench should United wish to switch it up either in terms of tempo control or even formation.
It’s an imperfect solution, but the bizarre cocktail of United failing to sign a true defensive midfielder in the summer as well as both of their starting centre-backs getting injured right before the club embarks on the most brutal run of fixtures they’ve had in years, means that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cannot afford to be picky.