Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can’t ignore a back three as Manchester United’s blueprint for success.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt a chill at the Emirates Stadium. But it wasn’t because of the cold wind whipping through north London on Sunday.
Solskjaer had been caught cold by Arsenal head coach Unai Emery deploying a back three to stifle his free-scoring Manchester United side. The result was a 2-0 defeat, Solskjaer’s first loss in the Premier League since replacing Jose Mourinho back in December.
Emery’s tactics worked wonders early on, as the Gunners went 1-0 up when Granit Xhaka’s wind-assisted shot deceived David de Gea between the sticks.
At least Solskjaer knew what to do. He simply needed to ditch the flat 4-4-2 he’d sent his players out in originally in favor of his own 5-3-2 setup.
Moving Ashley Young from right-back to central defender and pushing left-back Luke Shaw up onto the flank achieved the switch. The effect was immediate as United produced the better chances.
Unfortunately, those chances fell to Romelu Lukaku, who endured an off day amid his recent purple patch in front of goal. Lukaku wasted two golden one-on-one opportunities against Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno:
The Belgium international had already spurned a great chance when he turned a terrific cross from Shaw onto the bar with an empty net at his mercy.
Shaw’s quality delivery showed why Solskjaer needed to push his full-backs further forward. Both Shaw and Diogo Dalot had the pace, energy and technique to test Arsenal’s vulnerability at the back.
Their raiding runs briefly kept Emery’s wing-backs, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and the buccaneering Sead Kolasinac, hemmed in.
There was more to changing formation than just letting wing-backs run riot. The tactical tweak also allowed United to even up the midfield battle.
Prior to the change, Nemanja Matic and Fred had found themselves outnumbered by Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil in the middle. Arsenal made the numbers advantage count with some slick early passing, as well as by quickly swarming on any attempt United made to counter.
Fred and Matic were isolated because Paul Pogba was playing a nominal left-sided role. It rendered the Frenchman largely anonymous during the initial exchanges.
He became more involved once Solskjaer moved some pieces around. Going with three central defenders, plus wing-backs, meant Pogba could return to central areas, where he had Fred and Matic for cover, allowing him the freedom to run and press high.
Changing shape had enabled United to up the tempo of their play, and it was a credit to Solskjaer’s ability to react to a match getting away from his team:
United still trailed at the break, but Solskjaer’s men were firmly in the ascendancy thanks to the adjustment that had freed his best players.
Then a funny thing happened early in the second half. Solskjaer blinked.
Rather than standing firm with the formation that had helped gain momentum, United’s stand-in chief reverted to type. It meant returning to a back four, with Young moving out to full-back, Shaw dropping off and Pogba shuttling out toward the left.
There wasn’t much to recommend the decision, even after Lukaku went close (and missed) again. Overall though, United regressed from a fluid and swift force going forward to a predictable unit the Gunners found easy to contain.
With Pogba marginalized, the visitors couldn’t move the ball quickly enough between the lines. Back to having a man over in the middle, Arsenal had no trouble forcing United into funneling play into wide areas.
Dalot may have had room on the right, but his deliveries rarely found a target. It didn’t help Lukaku and strike partner Marcus Rashford were outnumbered by Arsenal’s three center-backs, none of whom had to worry too much about Pogba playing closer to the front.
The latter’s penchant for tucking in also left Shaw with too much to do out wide. He soon found his forays forward smothered by Maitland-Niles, who grew into the game when faced with less perceptive movement.
United had lost cutting edge in attacking areas after going back to a more familiar shape:
Solskjaer tried to restore some impetus by bringing on Anthony Martial for Dalot. Another striker, Mason Greenwood, was brought off the bench for Matic, but it did little to alter the pattern of play.
United’s mistake was willfully foregoing the benefits a back three offered.
Not only did it turn Solskjaer’s full-backs into dangerous attacking outlets. It also brought balance to a lopsided midfield dependent on Pogba enjoying time and space.
Playing three at the back and pushing Shaw and Dalot into wide areas meant Solskjaer could still fit three into midfield and deploy two up top.
Those things are a major bonus since Pogba needs two minders to take the ugly chores off his plate and leave him free to create.
The other benefit is Solskjaer can double up from his platoon of gifted forwards, including Lukaku, Rashford, Martial and Alexis Sanchez.
There’s too much to endorse United playing a back three for Solskjaer not to turn to it more often. It can be the X-factor for a club still competing to finish in the top four, win the Champions League and lift the FA Cup.