Manchester United have been fantastic against the Premier League‘s “Big Six” this season.
The Red Devils have endured a middling campaign overall, where they find themselves still stuck outside the top four. They have consistently failed to take advantage of Chelsea’s many slip-ups and get themselves back into the Champions League places, yet whenever they have faced an elite side they have been phenomenally competitive.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already completed United’s first-ever Premier League double over Chelsea, plus the first league double over Manchester City in a decade, and he’s got the chance to seal league doubles over Spurs and Leicester (who are not traditionally a ‘Big Six’ side but are having a season worthy of that status) having won both first meetings this term.
The only sides he failed to defeat were Arsenal and Liverpool, where he drew at home and lost away. Beyond that, United have been incredibly successful in the crunch matches, so the obvious question remains: why? What has made Solskjaer‘s side such an effective big game force? We’ve had a look.
EXPLAINED: Man Utd's big-game tactical blueprint that helped them end a 59-year wait. 🤓 pic.twitter.com/K6xMfR00kz
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 15, 2020
United have lined up in one of two formations in big games this season: for six of the first seven ‘big’ games they used their default 4-2-3-1 shape. But in their last three contests against Liverpool, Chelsea and City they have used the 3-5-2 system that they first unveiled against Liverpool back in December.
The use of 4-2-3-1 is self-explanatory; it’s the way they usually play and they’ve simply tweaked it into their big-game style (more on that in a second) but the way they have turned to 3-5-2 is quite interesting. It began as a weapon to stop Liverpool‘s full-backs from marauding and dominating the game.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are a phenomenal duo. Alexander-Arnold in particular is so often the chief outlet for Liverpool‘s attacks that it made sense to use it to deny him any space. The Englishman has played 420 balls into the box so far this season in the Premier League; he is a phenom. Yet in terms of teams he has played twice, United have held him to the second fewest balls into the box (25, Wolves are first with 21) and are one of only two sides to hold him to zero big chances created (the other being Watford).
So the 3-5-2 is effective at stopping threats from out wide, which is why it ported so well from Liverpool to Chelsea, where it nullified Pedro and Willian as attacking options; and then City where it shut down Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Joao Cancelo.
It’s not just the shape, of course, but the way it is deployed. The style. Now under Solskjaer, United love to play fast, fluid football. They surge forward on the break, which is what they do effectively, because they tend to play without the ball in big games. They cede possession to the opposition and defend deep.
Now, when you defend deep the space is always out wide; that’s how “parked buses” are broken down by attacking sides. This is where United implement the 3-5-2 to block off that width and force poor crosses and passes that are easily dealt with by the mass-ranks of defenders inside their box. All three centre-backs plus two defensive midfielders; five bodies is hard to get through. United routinely avoid engaging their opponents with a high or mid-block press, opting instead to defend their penalty area.
United turned to this because of Liverpool, true, but it also functions as an effective system to analyse. In the 4-2-3-1 United indeed played on the break, but the structure was a more rudimentary “get men behind the ball and let Marcus Rashford and Dan James lead the break.” Indeed, Rashford scored or assisted seven of the 10 goals United scored in big games when playing a 4-2-3-1.
He was fundamental to its operation, and given he’s been injured for the last three big games United turning to the more cohesive 3-5-2 has worked well to cover for his absence.
But this is not a stencil Solskjaer takes out and traces for every match; there are differences based on opponent. For instance against Liverpool both full-backs played high to keep Alexander-Arnold and Robertson away from the final third as much as possible.
Meanwhile as Chelsea also play a back three, against them the forwards split-wide even more than usual and Fred played further forward to combat midfield metronome Jorginho more directly. That pushed more creative burden onto Chelsea‘s lesser creators.
Then against City in the derby win at Old Trafford, the wing-backs played asymmetric roles. Brandon Williams was deployed high as usual, combating the creative Cancelo and stopping him from advancing into the final third to create overlaps with Foden.
On the left, because Oleksandr Zinchenko was no real threat in attack, United ignored him and left Aaron Wan-Bissaka on an island to cover Sterling and the full-back did just that. Wan-Bissaka made a massive eight tackles in the game, often chasing Sterling right down to the by-line. As a result his average position was considerably deeper than Williams’ to the point where United’s 3-5-2 looked almost like a 4-3-3.
In terms of attack, the 3-5-2 provides amble opportunity to utilise their pace and movement up-front. The two strikers split wide to run into the channels between centre-back and full-back (James found particular joy doing this against City). That half-space is actually where United’s open play goals in these four 3-5-2 games have come from. Even their free-kick against City came in this channel.
The 3-5-2 has allowed United to dominate both City and Chelsea in environments United don’t often dominate (Old Trafford against City, Stamford Bridge against Chelsea). It also allowed them to compete with a rampant Liverpool side several orders of magnitude better than they are, even though in the end they only drew and narrowly lost those games.
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So why haven’t United beaten Arsenal? Well, jokes aside that they have predictably struggled with teams below them in the table (amusing, but Arsenal were above United for their first encounter of the season) the actual answer is more about their shape.
In the first game injuries meant that they had Axel Tuanzebe playing left-back in a 4-2-3-1. And not being a left-back he made a catastrophic error with a square pass right into the path of Bukayo Saka who easily fed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score. Meanwhile, the second game where they lost 2-0 at the Emirates was perhaps most illustrative of why United have turned to 3-5-2 as their shape.
They lost 2-0 but almost all the danger came down their left-channel where Nicolas Pépé spent the entire game brutally torturing Luke Shaw. Playing a 4-2-3-1 meant that Shaw had little help from Rashford (who in this shape has to be a one-man army in attack, remember) and so was just ripped apart as Arsenal’s record signing put in one of the rare displays this season to remind you of his full talent.
Both games against Arsenal involved the Gunners exploiting United’s left-back situation, which is another strength of the 3-5-2. Neither Shaw nor Williams are elite performers (though Shaw certainly has elite talent) but by pairing them up on the left side of United’s defence, they can form a stable barrier to prevent opponents from raiding down that side.
United were so open at the Emirates it’s no surprise they got cut to bits; but in a 3-5-2 they surely would have been able to put a lid on Pépé’s dominance, thus drawing more Arsenal players forward and enabling a more effective counter-attack for themselves.
Looking at United’s rumoured transfer targets for the summer, could this season be the last time we see the 3-5-2? It exists as a tremendous weapon to maximise the effectiveness of United’s squad, allowing them to use their defensive full-backs to shut opponents down and funnel the ball into a zone where they have the numerical advantage.
But part of that works because they have two workers in midfield with just one artist. Bruno Fernandes has added so much since joining the Red Devils and he thrives in that attacking midfield role. And whilst you can theoretically see Jadon Sancho slotting into James’ forward role (as Rashford will likely take Anthony Martial’s slot, giving United scary depth up-top), where would rumoured target Jack Grealish fit in?
For playing the majority of opponents, having Grealish and Fernandes in the same midfield would make United so, so much better. But in big games where they use a counter-attacking 3-5-2; there may be no room in the starting XI for the man with the giant calves.
At first glance that seems fine as football is a squad game, but how do you convince a star to join your club if you cannot guarantee he will play in the big games he craves? A conundrum for next season, perhaps.
For now, United have found their big-game ballista in the 3-5-2 and it’s going to let them shoot the Premier League’s mighty dragons out of the sky.