For the first time after lockdown, Solskjaer deployed four narrow central midfielders in a diamond formation. The system change – one that a small but significant number of supporters have been clamoring for for months – immediately produced one of United’s finest European victories since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, with RB Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann beaten by five unanswered goals. The display of the second half was particularly impressive.
And yet the setup was relatively straightforward. Nemanja Matic sat at the base of the midfield as a fulcrum, point of reference and lifeblood of United. He was responsible for recovering the ball. Fred had a similar job on the right side of the central midfielder and was excellent out of possession. Last season he was a surprisingly efficient presser for United and the security Matic provided allowed him to harass opponents with greater freedom.
Paul Pogba was on the left side and looked a lot more comfortable than when he was part of a deep double pivot, which is a role he doesn’t particularly like. And last but not least, Donny van de Beek started out as No.10. It wasn’t Van de Beek’s most memorable or effective performance, but Paul Scholes-esque’s early late shots into the box. repair could turn one of United’s biggest weaknesses – creating good scoring opportunities – into strength.
It was brilliantly effective. So effective, in fact, even Solskjaer might wonder why he didn’t try it sooner. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but today I think it worked,” he tentatively admitted at his post-match press conference. “The work off the ball was incredible. Nemanja, Fred, Donny, Paul – all four of them worked their socks. This is the basis of the team: if you can work and win the ball in good situations, you create chances.
What is most striking about the setup is how well it suits many Solskjaer players. To see that, look at United’s first goal scored by Mason Greenwood. Not only does the move start with Fred winning relatively high possession in central midfield, but the goal is scored by the burst of Pogba forward who dribbles straight to the Leipzig defense. It’s a run he’s rarely able to do as part of a deeper twinning in Solskjaer’s usual 4-2-3-1 system.
Then there is Greenwood. The 19-year-old may have scored 20 goals in just under a year since his breakthrough as a wide forward under Solskjaer, but his future lies in the middle. The minutes spent on the right in the most formative years of his career are therefore somewhat wasted. If the diamond became a regular thing, he would be able to spend more time in the job he is meant to be rather than the one he will someday grow up to be.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are similar players regardless of the system. Both prefer to cut from the left and shoot with their right. Under Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 only one can play as a wide attacker and even then they are slightly further from goal than they would like. A diamond setup with two center forwards isn’t perfect either as it doesn’t suit both Rashford and Martial all the time, but it allows them to alternate roles more easily.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of them all is Van de Beek, who made his first Premier League or Champions League start on Wednesday night after joining £ 35million over the summer. Some fans have been frustrated by the debate around his lack of playing time. It’s okay for players to take the time to adjust, after all. Van de Beek will most likely have a very successful career at Old Trafford in the fullness of time.
But whatever happens with him in the short or long term, there is no ideal way to fit him into Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1. If he starts regularly in this configuration, that of Pogba, Bruno Fernandes or the defensive stability of United must be sacrificed. This may not be the case with diamond, however. A midfielder of Matic, Fred or Scott McTominay holding, then Van de Beek and Pogba behind Fernandes because the No. 10 is achievable, at least in theory.
If there is a weakness in the diamond, it is on the flanks. Any width must come from the full backs. Luke Shaw has been excellent against Leipzig and is generally underrated as an attacking full-back, but cannot cover an entire flank in the same way that Alphonso Davies or Andy Robertson do regularly. Meanwhile, despite gradual improvements, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s offensive power remains limited.
Even so, Wan-Bissaka’s superhuman ability to defend individual situations is a tremendous force in a diamond setup. If United stick to this system, opponents will target their full-backs and free space on the flanks. Leipzig tried time and time again on Wednesday night, but Wan-Bissaka interrupted Angelino’s advances at every turn, effectively blocking one of Nagelsmann’s few avenues of counterattack.
Overall there is a lot to like. United can still fend off against teams that defend in a narrow and deep way, limiting the space in which all of Solskjaer’s attentive midfielders enjoy working, but every tactical setup has inherent flaws. The goal is to find one that works well with the players available to you. Solskjaer may have done it now. The question is whether he is reverting to his old ways or whether diamonds are forever.
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