The 4–3–3 and the Holy DM. How does a defensive midfielder improve United?

Image 1: Midfielders linked with a move to United, From left: Ñíguez, Rice, Camavinga, and Goretzka

anchester United ended Premier League season 2020/2021 in second place, many fans, analysts, and pundits argued about the positions Manchester United needed to strengthen if they wish to close the gap on Manchester City. The three stand out positions were the right side of attack, a center back and a defensive midfielder. The two former positions are now filled by Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane, and the latter is still void.

In this article, we’ll discuss why United need a defensive midfielder and what it brings to them tactically. In addition, we’ll discuss the proposed/rumored change to the 4–3–3 that many fans are urging manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær to adopt this season. Let’s begin.

Why a DM and what does this position improve?

Unfortunately, in midfield, there’s an imbalance in the profiles available at Manchester United. For a club as big as United, this is very poor. It is a remnant of the past recruitment structure, which is improving under the new regime. United, currently, only have one true defensive midfielder and he is at the wrong side of 30, not in terms of quality but in terms of stamina and endurance. A DM restores balance of profiles — reason one.

Two: The imbalance in midfield leads to players playing in an unnatural positions, for example, Pogba (to a lesser extent now), McTominay, Fred, Donny, etc...In turn, this makes United unstable in midfield and fragile. Yes — there are incidents where the instability can be ignored and United can get away with it. There are other times where it just happens that certain teams’ weaknesses (i.e. Leeds, City, etc.) play into the strengths of the pivot profiles available. However with the recruitment of a DM, more players will play in their natural positions and do their natural jobs — reason two.

Third: United get accused of being a moments team, which is implying that United can’t sustain attacks and pressure for large segments of play. This observation comes from United failing to create high volume quality chances, sustain pressure and pin oppositions in their half. This happens due to 2 things: One, Left sided attack, and two, a lack of a DM.

The first part was solved — hopefully — by the addition of Jadon Sancho. The second part is still not solved due to the lack of a DM. The McFred pivot have a tendency to get by-passed easily in large space. This is because they commit into tackles — especially Fred — early instead of jockeying/guiding an opposition player to non-threatening areas of the pitch before making tackles or delaying them for the team to fall into the defensive shape — reason three. Here’s an example of over-committing and attempting a tackle early instead of keeping the pressure to push the player wide — not the best example, sorry about that.

Example of Fred over-committing

Four: Due to the inability of United’s current pivot to do reason three efficiently, the last line becomes vulnerable. If you refer to the gif above, you’ll see that the Fulham players are running at an unprotected backline. This incident happens very often when United are playing vs. low block teams. Figure 2 is another example of Fred engaging in a challenge and losing out, which leads to Liverpool players running free at the backline. McTominay was already high up (tendencies) and so there was no cover behind Fred. Thus, the pivot is by-passed easy.

Figure 2: Over-committing led to by-passing pivots & leave last line vulnerable.

Luckily when facing lower table oppositions, the probability of them scoring is low. However, teams with good forward lines will punish United. A DM lowers the number of these incidents significantly by positioning, jockeying, timed tackles, and ability to retain possession — reason four.

Five: Manchester United’s buildup is too one dimensional. They are left side dependent. This is more than missing a right winger. It has to do with United’s best passers and progressors being on the left hand-side (i.e. Shaw, Maguire, Pogba, Rashford, etc.) of the pitch. United’s leading progressors from the defensive third are Shaw, Lindelöf, Maguire, Fred, Fernandes, and Pogba — in that order. Thus, United can’t use the right hand-side to progress (i.e. AWB, Scott) or centrally (i.e. Scott, Fred), which makes it too easy for oppositions to press United in certain areas of the pitch to block all their progression attempts.

The game vs. Liverpool in may 2021 at Old Trafford is a great example of how a team can press Shaw and United’s progression is diminished, and not only that, you can cause many turnovers in dangerous areas that leads to big chances. The Liverpool game was explained extensively in my article — A Game of Transitions and Set-pieces.

Figure 3: 3D — 2–4 buildup. Fred a press trigger and Shaw is closed down

Many have — rightly — pointed out that the DM doesn’t have to be the progressor. There many examples of teams who don’t use the DM as the main guy to progress the ball. For example, Liverpool use their fullbacks. This is true but you have to take into account that both Liverpool’s Fullbacks can progress the ball, as well as their CBs and their DM Fabinho. As such, if a team tries to cut a fullback, they can recycle to the other fullback or diagonally or through the center quickly.

Here are Liverpool’s defensive third progression rankings based on 19/20— Thank you, Omar (@placeholder1966).

  1. Trent Alexander Arnold
  2. Andrew Robertson.
  3. Virgil Van Dijk
  4. Joseph Gomez
  5. Fabinho

Gomez and Fabinho played significantly less minutes (1000+) than the first 3 yet, they still ranked in the Top 5. The point here is while TAA and Robertson — who already provide 2 different directions of progression — are the main progressors, Liverpool’s entire back 5 (4backline + DM) contribute a lot to ball progression from defense to attack. Firmino or the other 2 midfielders don’t have to drop deep to receive the ball — as Fernandes, Pogba, and sometimes Martial/Greenwood are forced to do at United. Refer to Liverpool’s fullbacks prog pass map below.

Figure 4: TAA and Robertson progression passes map.

Another aspect of buildup, the ability to change the buildup structure given the pressing shape of the opposition. When Nemanja Matić plays, United always revert back to the 3–1 buildup structure — refer to figures below — but when he is not in the team, it is always 2–4 as seen in the figures above.

Figure 5: 3–1 Buildup structure with Matić.

In 20/21, United used the buildup structure 2–4 more often and the 3–1 was abandoned — not entirely — but it was not used in the defensive third areas of the pitch. It appeared randomly where it seemed it was coincidental rather than by design. Like in the example below, Fred drop between the CBs when RLC and Lookman push up towards the CBs together. An intelligent DM knows when to drop and when to not as well as providing passing angles to his CBs when they are pressed — reason five.

Figure 6: 3–1 buildup shape with Fred.

Six: In games where opposition have a 4-4-2 low block, having 3 competent passers on the ball is what United needs to break the opposition’s 1st 2 lines without needing their creative midfielder (Fernandes) to drop in front of the 2 banks of 4 to receive the ball, as we have seen in the Europa League final vs. Villarreal. Refer to figure 7.

Figure 7: United left side dependent and struggling to reach Fernandes so the CAM drops.

Currently, the only 2 competent passers in United’s first line Maguire and Lindelöf who are usually in 2v2 due to the buildup structure. Refer to figure 5. Competent passing is not about distance, it is about tight space and breaking defensive structures.

Unfortunately, McTominay shies away from passing in tight areas or tight spaces so he automatically passes backwards to the CBs or sideways to his CM counterpart, just to be safe. McTominay is a good carrier of the ball due to his physique and upper body strength, subsequently he tries to carry the ball forward when he has space and he is good at recognizing that. However, most teams in the PL don’t afford that space because they come to defend only & counter vs United. Thus rendering one of McTominay’ s better abilities — progressive carrying — useless. Then, they play on his weaknesses which is progressive passing, and defending large spaces vs. opposition players.

Fred is better than McTominay at passing progressively upfield. However, Fred’s execution is erratic, while he has the right ideas his execution fails him. This is why Fred and McTominay operate and pass much better vs opposition that give them a lot of space to hit. They also defend much better when United are in a compact block vs. teams that are better than United at retaining the ball (i.e. Man City).

Leeds United were the perfect opposition for McTominay, and Fred. They afforded him a lot of space to carry and run into their box because of their man marking system. One of the major reasons McTominay in both games vs Leeds at Old Trafford shone the most and was up for Man of the Match. Same goes for Fred — except for the carrying and physically shrugging players off him part.

Of course there are other aspects that need to be discussed like body orientation when receiving, resistance to aggressive press and others but this is not a profile analysis article of Fred and McTominay — they are not bad at by the way, they just need to improve a lot.

Fred and McTominay have their good attributes and bad ones just like other players. However, United are forcing them play a role they can’t fully accommodate yet. They both want to move from box to box, and not screen in front of a backline.

Therefore, United need a defensive midfielder that provides the defensive duties required while also being a competent on the ball passer to connect the defense to midfield to the attack.

Summary of the issues that a DM solves for United:

  1. Restore midfield profile balance
  2. Frees players to play in their natural positions.
  3. Maintain pressure on opposition by improving ball retention.
  4. Minimize counter attack incidents.
  5. Protects the backline from players running at them directly — screening.
  6. Add different dimensions to buildup (not just the left side).
  7. Improve United’s robustness vs different pressing systems.
  8. Improve the team’s ability to break down low blocks via the center.

Who should Manchester United sign? A question that always gets asked…

Figure 8: 3 most important aspects in central midfielders; progression, passing, and defending. DMs < 25 years old across Europe.

From what we discussed above, Manchester United need someone who is a progressive passer and proficient defensively. You refer to the figure above and look at the names that combine these two attributes.

United are linked to Rice, Camavinga, Neves, Goretzka (using United), Ñíguez and now Tchouaméni.

I get asked a lot about who I would want as a DM? From the list of names linked to United, I would take Tchouaméni or Camavinga — personal preference.

If you want a statistical break down of which DM profiles across Europe fit United, I suggest reading Ninad Barbadikar’s article: Finding a number six for Manchester United. It is a wonderful read.

The rumored (and advocated for) 4–3–3 formational change…

On July 16th, it was rumored that Solskjær want to change formation from the 4–2–3–1 to the 4–3–3.

Solskjær considers the signing of a new centre-back this summer to be an important component in switching to a 4–3–3 formation #mulive [@TelegraphDucker]

Many United fans got excited as this is how they want to play and I quote: “finally, we’ll play free flowing attacking football”. Many fans are still under the perception and thinking that a 4–3–3 formation is considered more attacking than all the others.

This issue here that it is a wrong perception of how formations work. First, the initial formation don’t dictate how a team plays. It is more of a reference or a basic shape. Second, any formation from the 10 known formations (i.e. 4–4–2, 3–5–2, 4–2–3–1, 4–3–3, 3–3–1–3, 3–3–3–1, etc..) can be setup to be attacking or to be defensive. Third, it depends on the manager’s ideas and most importantly the player profiles at the manager’s disposal.

In the context of Manchester United, they don’t have the players in their starting XI to play the 4–3–3. They need a holding midfielder (DM), which they don’t have. Then, they need either both fullbacks to be attack minded or 2 free 8s. If both fullbacks are attack minded, they need the midfield to be an industrious midfield that works hard, win and retain the ball then recycle it wide to the fullbacks.

Manchester United neither have an entirely industrious midfield nor do they have 2 fullbacks that not only can attack but also create at high volumes.

Figure 9: 4–3–3 with existing XI + DM.

Figure 9 is the hypothetical 4–3–3 in possession that United fans imagine. Simply, this is a recipe for disaster. United will concede like no tomorrow on the counter as there’s no defensive cover to the front 5. Pogba and Fernandes don’t do defensive cover. Same issue with Donny.

Figure 10: Another 4–3–3 setup.

The issue with this setup is Rashford is not a natural winger, he’s a wide forward. The other issue Shaw and AWB are not used to playing the inverted fullback role.

Figure 11: Another 4–3–3 variation

Drop Rashford for James. Now you have 2 natural wingers on each side of the field. Then move the DM up with the fullbacks centrally. The fullbacks have to be coached into playing inverted. This is probably the closest United can go with their current players to a 4–3–3 in possession and even then they’ll have to change how many of their players play stylistically. Fernandes is more restricted. FBs are not attacking anymore. Wingers holding width and creating from wide — no problem for Sancho but harder for James.

Solskjær moving to a 4–3–3 is highly unlikely with the current profiles and especially Matić being the only DM available at the club — for now.

Manchester United are an attacking team in their current setup. A midfield that contains Fernandes and Pogba as well as a front 3 of Rashford, Sancho, and Greenwood/Cavani requires a DM and change in the fullbacks’ style of play. If not, then you are asking for trouble on the counter pretty much against any team.

Conclusion

Manchester United desperately need a DM as this position solves many problems for them both out of possession and in possession. It makes them a more robust and a multidimensional team, thus much harder to stop.

It frees many players from filling roles that may not provide them a platform to thrive. Furthermore, it eases Solskjær’s job in delicately balancing United’s midfield three as currently it feels like he is performing a heart surgery. Any small mistake, it will all stop working.

The 4–3–3, as we have seen, is not ideal formation for this United team. They are missing profiles that can play in that setup. Thus suddenly changing the setup will cause more harm than good.

EXTRA.

Exercise for the reader to apply next match vs. a low block.

  1. Count how many times the CBs pass to the CMs and how many times the ball goes forward instead of backwards or sideways.
  2. Count how many times United goes left instead of the center.
  3. Count how many times the CMs chose to pass wide to the fullbacks or sideways to each other or backwards instead of breaking the second line.
  4. Count how many times one of the CMs dropped beside or between the CBs to progress vs a 4–4–2.

***Note: The CMs don’t always have to pass forward, there are many times where it is not feasible. However, if the match ends and your CMs have only attempted a pass between the lines 2–3 times when you have 65% possession, then this is not a great sign.

Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed this article. :)

Abdel Rahman

Just a guy interested in football.