Manchester United's many problems are disguising an issue on the pitch
Alexis Sanchez has struggled to adapt, and the formation may be a factor (Photo: labelled for reuse by Wikipedia)

Manchester United's many problems are disguising an issue on the pitch

There is not one thing to blame for United's current struggles, but one element that doesn't get highlighted too often is the restrictive formation that is stifling the team.

Craig Millar

Alexis Sanchez arrived in Manchester last January in what was hailed as a real coup for the red half of the city. Arsenal's best player had looked certain to join Manchester City, but United entered the fray and managed to seal a very surprising deal.

The weekend just gone was another disaster for United, and Sanchez was given a watching brief as West Ham United inflicted more misery on what is fast becoming a beleaguered bunch of footballers.

That Sanchez wasn't even on the bench is both surprising and unsurprising at the same time.

Surprising that a player of his quality cannot make the squad, but hardly surprising given his form. He has probably had one decent game for United, in the FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham Hotspur.

It's a stingy return on the exorbitant wages he is picking up. 

It's not Sanchez's fault though. When he arrived he took Anthony Martial's place, and the Frenchman was flying. Martial went into a sulk at losing his place, and when he was given opportunities he failed to produce his earlier form.

It's not Martial's fault either. For all his undoubted talent, he is a confidence player. Shorn of his earlier confidence, he couldn't just turn it on when he wanted. The game revolves around ten outfield players though, not one or two individuals.

To get the best out of everyone, you need to play them in their correct positions, but you need to provide them with the platform they need to do what they do best. 

This is where United have failed as a whole over the past 18 months because the 4-2-3-1 system that Jose Mourinho deploys most regularly is not working. Even when he tweaks it to a 4-3-3, the result is pretty much the same.

Defensive midfielders anonymous

Both variants are restrictive the way Mourinho sets up, and they stifle what creativity is in the side.

Taking 4-2-3-1, you would think that having two players 'sitting' and protecting the defence you have solidity. Not with United, you don't. They are basically doing nothing.

Whether it's Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Hererra or Paul Pogba as a pairing, it does not work. They do not support the attack, and as a screen, they don't do their jobs either.

None of them are bad players, quite the opposite. But the system requires the width going forward to come from the full-backs, as the wide attackers, such as Sanchez or Juan Mata always come inside.

When full-backs push on, gaps are left and those holding midfielders don't plug those gaps. They stay centrally come what may, and United are often exposed down the flanks. So they are pretty much doing nothing.

Antonio Valencia gets criticised for not taking on a player in the final third, but he is pragmatic. He knows if he does and a move breaks down, he is exposed. So he is always available but errs on the side of caution.

Interestingly enough, the last time United played West Ham, they played the same 3-5-2 system and Valencia did attack more than he has done in quite some time. He was driving at his opposite number - successfully on many occasions - because he knew he had defensive cover.

He is a lot more intelligent than some fans give him credit for.

On the opposite side, Ashley Young will attack and often to good effect. He can get caught high up the pitch though. Luke Shaw is being asked to do something that he is not adept at doing in this setup.

He is not able to beat a man. He can drive past a player, but invariably he can't beat the first man with a cross. He is getting better, but he is still learning his trade as a defender, and he is out of his comfort zone when asked to create.

And why should the full-backs be integral to United's attacking play anyway, when you have a Sanchez a Martial or a Marcus Rashford in the side? 

Sanchez was a proper player at Arsenal in a similar system, but Arsenal were nowhere near title contenders and his best period was when they played Santi Carzola and Aaron Ramsey as the two defensive midfielders.

Neither of them could defend, so they created and provided a platform for the luxury players. Very pleasing on the eye, but they were flat-track bullies. When they came against the 'bigger' teams, they got found out time after time.

In the final years of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure, he went largely with a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 system. In fact, it was pretty much a hybrid. When United went forward, the wide players were attackers, but they had to get up and down.

When United didn't have the ball, they would be protecting the full-backs, but it is the central three that helped make the system work.

Work as a unit

In his final season, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and the much-maligned Tom Cleverley were the central three. Paul Scholes, of course, played his part. Carrick would generally sit deep, but the three players went as a unit.

They attacked together, and they defended together. No matter where United were on the pitch, there were bodies. Supporting, helping and being available for a pass or to help with a tackle. 

Rarely do you see that happen now. When you do, it is gung-ho, nothing to lose stuff like Crystal Palace away last year. What shape did United end up with that night? Lord knows, because it was a case of throwing men forward.

Who got the winner that night? Matic, with an absolute peach from just outside the area. Unless it's a corner, he normally doesn't venture much further than the centre circle.

And that is where the forward players are woefully left to produce magic. Without support centrally and not just from the full-backs, they are often up against a brick wall. They receive the ball, and either have only Romelu Lukaku to hit or need to go on a Maradona type run.

Against West Ham, the system was much better or should have been. The slight issue with Shaw not being able to create was one drawback, but the strange selection of Scott McTominay at centre-half was another.

Yet the off-field circus was probably the biggest reason, allied to the omission of both Sanchez and Jesse Lingard (and his captain, not his "second" captain). No matter what system, and what tactics United play with, right now the chances are they will get beat or fail to perform.

Pogba wasn't wrong when he recently said United need to attack more, though he was wrong to do it via the media.

It's a collective thing. They need to attack and defend in numbers, and they aren't right now. They haven't for some time. Relying on individuals to win games won't work too often and has contributed to some dire performances and results.

As experienced and successful as Mourinho is, he may have his work cut out to turn this around. Nothing he tries is having a positive outcome, but maybe he would do well to heed Pogba's words and just go for it.

Give players a licence to get forward, but remind them of their defensive responsibility. In other words, work your socks off.

It doesn't matter what the formation is, or the line-up, each and every player represents Manchester United because they are outstanding footballers and as such, they have a duty to perform. To take risks. To win football matches. 

That's the only way to remove the criticism and get headlines for the right reasons.  


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