Premier League full-backs drastically changed in recent years. As football became more attacking focused, full-backs promptly adapted. Most of the successful clubs across England and Europe have full-backs who actively participate in the attack (as well as defense.) However, Manchester United did not reshape to reflect the changing times despite players able to move forwards. Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is facing the task of adjusting United’s look. The following is how full-backs’ roles will develop under Solskjær.
Current Look: Both Following, Only for Support
Through this season and last, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka featured together most frequently when fit. The pairing added support in attack but usually would not make attacking runs. They held back and focused on defense. As a result, Shaw and Wan-Bissaka only assisted seven goals in all competitions last season. Seven assists are not good enough for modern full-backs.
This look allowed free-roam for a center-midfielder in the pivot. This style benefits players like Pogba and Matic, since Pogba gained space without defensive responsibilities and Matic stayed back dipping in between the center-backs. It also provided more touches for the attacks, because United depended on them to push the attack forwards. However, it is overly predictable.
The current full-backs’ instructions do not make them dangerous enough on offense. Opposing sides lack the feeling of threat from United’s full-backs on the flanks. The reason for this being that neither Shaw nor Wan-Bissaka registered a single goal in the Premier League last season. However, since the addition of Alex Telles, Manchester United attack from deeper positions, as seen in Option 1 below.
Option 1: One up, One following
Alex Telles tends to play in forward positions when given the opportunity. However, despite Wan-Bissaka’s improvements, he is still uncomfortable in the attack. This creates an imbalance on the left side of the pitch. This disproportion opens up an opportunity for the opposition to counter. To stop them, one of the center midfielders need to drop and hold off the attack until Telles gets back into the defensive position. Surprisingly though, the majority of leaks on the counter have come from Wan-Bissaka’s side due to his indecisiveness.
This option only works for the short-term. It should be a phase for Wan-Bissaka to learn how to attack from wide positions as a full-back. While it is in effect, it benefits the Fred and Mctominay midfield duo. Both players need to be able to defend if called upon, which Fred and Mctominay do well. In this system, the forwards would be forced inside and required to play as target-men. The target of using this option is to teach Wan-Bissaka how to attack and to use Fred and Mctominay to their fullest capabilities. Given that this works well, United should use one of the following options in the long-term.
Option 2: Both in Wide Attack (More Pressure on CMs)
Assuming that United stick to developing their full-backs, pushing both forwards can do wonders for the attack. This system would allow either full-back to move into the offense and cross balls in from the outside. Not to mention, that they would take attention off of the wingers and provide more space for Bruno to work within the middle. The overlapping full-backs stretch the pitch out from side to side.
This system relies on the full-backs’ ability to get back into the defense when possession is lost. If they stay too high then the countering side can easily go atop of them. As an added measure to prevent counter-attacks both midfielders need to defend. Assuming Pogba were to leave in the summer window, this opens the door for Donny van de Beek. United would preferably deploy van de Beek (a box-to-boxer) with Fred or Mctominay who both focus on defense but can add to the attack. The issue with this system is that United need to be strong in defense. Reinforcements in the transfer market like Dayot Upamecano and Max Aarons would help greatly. This system works and would accommodate Ole’s attacking preferences well, but requires work to be effective.
Option 3: Inverted Full-Backs
Inverting the full-backs creates a 3-4-3 formation in attack. The full-backs push wide (acting as midfielders) and the wingers would be pushed high in the attack. For this system to work, the wingers would supply the majority of the balls from wide areas, while the full-backs supplied chances and made runs. This option is the most versatile since the full-backs can go either direction for their runs and still have cover on the flanks. One of the midfielders would drop back and the other would roam the midfield while supplying Bruno.
The advantage to this system over the current form is that it takes some of the responsibility off of Bruno Fernandes. However, it puts a large onus on Rashford and Greenwood to create scoring opportunities. Both being originally strikers are more apt to finishing chances than starting them. Personally, I believe this system is not going to be effective for United. It demands that the wingers become better passers and the full-backs to improve in possession play and shooting. While possible, United ought to focus on developing the full-backs’ crossing and attacking awareness to open chances for the front three to finish off.
Glory Glory Man United.
Written by CJ Szaz.