Why Manchester United should play a 4-3-3 formation against Tottenham

United have been far from convincing this season and much of that can be attributed to their failure to dominate in midfield. Switching to a 4-3-3 formation could be the answer.
 Brendon Netto
 Analysis | Premier League
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Not many Manchester United fans would contest the notion that their side were second best against Liverpool last Sunday despite picking up all three points at Anfield. Following their dismal showing in their opening game of the season at Goodison Park where they were beaten by the game’s solitary goal, United have gone on a six-game winning streak albeit in an unconvincing fashion. Something has to change when Tottenham visit Old Trafford tonight.

Apart from their 4-0 thumping of Wigan, United have looked vulnerable without possession and careless with it in each of their games. It must be acknowledged that their misfortune in the defensive department has had a crippling effect on the squad as their defenders continue to spend more time on the treatment table than on the pitch. The fact that they competed right until the end of last season and have started this one in winning form is testament to the character of the team.

Vidic is the latest United defender to succumb to injury

However, their defence isn’t the only area in which the Red Devils have been repeatedly exposed at the start of the current campaign. They have been overrun in central midfield in nearly every game. Galatasaray too managed to win the battle in the middle of the park for long periods during their Champions League fixture at Old Trafford.

Deploying Paul Scholes in midfield has helped proceedings to a certain extent but the aged midfielder is a liability when United don’t have possession. He has the skill and vision to orchestrate proceedings and get the team playing but does not have the legs to track back and close opponents down with the required intensity anymore. With most teams playing a three-man midfield against United, it often leads to Scholes and co. being outnumbered.

The Scholes and Keane partnership could tackle the best midfields

Perhaps it’s time Sir Alex accepts the fact that he does not have the midfielders to play a two-man midfield and come out on top against most teams. He doesn’t have a Scholes and Roy Keane midfield duo or a Bryan Robson and Paul Ince partnership. The United midfield will be facing the strength and pace of Moussa Dembele once again after his recent visit to Old Trafford in a Fulham shirt. Despite losing to United 3-2, Dembele was the most influential player on the field and completely bossed United’s midfield pairing.

The United boss has always loved playing wingers but a 4-3-3 formation may be the order of the day for his side. When Cristiano Ronaldo became a prominent figure in the United team, the manager regularly employed a 4-3-3 system which brought great pace and fluidity into the team’s performances. Scholes is still the best passer in England but backing him up with two other central midfielders to do all the running would free him up to do what he does best.

Scholes must be free to orchestrate proceedings

With Antonio Valencia being a doubt for tonight’s game following an ankle injury and Nani disappointing in recent outings, the fixture against Spurs could be the perfect opportunity for Sir Alex to utilize this three-man midfield system. Furthermore, the system worked remarkably against Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup as United dominated the midfield for probably the first time this season.

There are two ways in which United can set up in a 4-3-3 system:

Option 1 – This formation has a lot of advantages especially in the final third. The Old Trafford faithful would finally be treated to watching Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie playing upfront together. Shinji Kagawa would be able to retain his favourite position in the hole between midfield and attack. With such an impressive strike partnership ahead of him, the Japanese should be well equipped to cause all sorts of problems for the opposition’s defence.

Rooney and Van Persie could finally feature upfront together

The midfield has a very solid and accomplished look to it as well. Michael Carrick would play the role of anchor-man. His primary job would be to get the ball and feed it to either one of the midfielders ahead of him. Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva are both excellent when bombing forward and that’s another reason why this system works in favour of the personnel’s strengths. The wing-backs would stride forward to provide width to the attack while Carrick covers for them.

Tom Cleverley or perhaps Anderson could be the player who provides the energy from midfield. This role involves doing a little bit of everything. Tracking back, closing players down, drifting wide and making the occasional forward run as well. Meanwhile, Scholes is left to take care of the job he is most accomplished in; distribution.

With a midfield trio of Carrick, Scholes and Cleverley, you would imagine that United would do a fair job in retaining possession. Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie upfront ensure that there is no shortage of firepower whatsoever. Finally, the adventurous nature of both wing-backs makes sure that the width which would normally be supplied by the wingers isn’t eradicated from the system entirely.

Option 2 – This system resembles the previous one in many ways. Carrick’s job as well as that of the wing-backs remains the same. Scholes retains his role as well. However, Kagawa drops back into a central midfield position while Rooney and Nani or Welbeck flank Van Persie on either side.

This system sees the wide strikers offer some width in attack as well and does not demand the same level of ambition in getting forward from the wing-backs although they will still make runs on the outside when the forwards tuck in. In attack, Kagawa can run into the space behind Van Persie and operate from there.

Option 1 would probably get the best out of the attacking trio of Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie but option 2 remains a viable strategy as well. Both formations are built around the main principle of dominating proceedings in the middle of the park. The fact is that the 4-2-3-1 system either sees Kagawa too far ahead to get involved in midfield or too deep in which case Van Persie is left isolated upfront like he was against Liverpool.

A three-man midfield could be the answer to United’s problems and with the defence down to its bare bones, dominating in midfield is all the more crucial. Sir Alex has to change something to ensure victory over a transitional but dangerous Spurs team and packing the midfield could be the perfect remedy.

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