Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the polar opposite to Jose Mourinho in most senses but has taken a leaf out of his predecessor’s playbook: the standout wins of Solskjaer’s and Mourinho’s tenures as manager of Manchester United featured a back three with a full-back at centre-back.
United vanquished champions-elect Chelsea in April 2017 with two of their most influential performers – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – on the bench and with Matteo Darmian tucked inside. Ander Herrera stalked Eden Hazard and the split striker duo of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford rumbled Chelsea’s defensive trident.
Solskjaer’s second Arc de Triomphe in Paris had Luke Shaw back in a back three, Scott McTominay mimicking – and injuring – Herrera, and Rashford and Anthony Martial embarking on a Tenet-style temporal pincer movement. Just like against Chelsea, Rashford got the winner.
Even if Harry Maguire and the permanently prone Eric Bailly were fit United would almost certainly have reverted to their wing-back system; Solskjaer used it three times against Chelsea last season and twice against Manchester City and Liverpool, losing just twice with the bespoke shape. Paris Saint-Germain’s Gaullacticos command such respect yet beyond their formidable forwards there was nothing intimidating about a side devoid of Marquinhos and Marco Verratti.
United mastered the balance between defence and attack before and after the pivotal entrance of Paul Pogba midway through the second-half. Irrespective of David de Gea’s saves, they could have won with greater ease. Though that would not be in keeping with United’s knack for crowdpleasing crescendos.
“We made a little change,” Solskjaer explained. “We’ve got players that can play split strikers and we thought they could do some damage.
“Axel, in his first game in 10 months, and Alex [Telles]’s debut. So we don’t really want to play a back four, so we played a back three, or back five, call it whatever you like, and I thought it worked well.”
The absence of Maguire and Bailly was anything but a hindrance. Tuanzebe has been match-fit for a number of weeks and Solskjaer entrusted him with starting against Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino last year until he was injured in the warm-up. With Tuanzebe and Shaw either side of the vigilant Victor Lindelof, United had quick defenders to keep Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria in check down the channels.
Mourinho unwittingly planted the seed for Darmian as a centre half by settling on him as a left-back during a nine-game winning streak in 2016-17. Darmian formed a back three whenever United were on the attack, granting right-back Antonio Valencia permission to venture into the final third. Shaw has a different role in that he is tasked with carrying the ball out of defence and he was inside PSG’s third when he found Martial to procure the penalty.
Shaw has that licence as Aaron Wan-Bissaka can shift across to provide extra security. His duel with Mbappe, like Tuanzebe’s, was one-sided and time and again he backed himself to thwart the Frenchman with those Inspector Gadget legs.
Wan-Bissaka is not a natural pick at wing-back, such is his usual hesitance in attack, and the idea of using him as a centre half in a back three has been mooted. Solskjaer has instead converted Shaw into an auxiliary centre half for special occasions, maintaining the balance with a left-footer rather than leaving United lopsided.
Mbappe ensured Wan-Bissaka was often absent in attacks but that was offset by the adventurous Alex Telles on the other flank. Telles’s three passes into the final third found their intended target and he provided three crosses from open play on his United debut. Telles’ corner-taking was struck with a specialist conviction seldom seen from a United player.
Telles had the benefit of his compatriot, Fred, nearby. Mourinho once said a squad is incomplete without a Brazilian and is an admirer of Telles’ front-footed approach that alerted United when he was with Galatasaray in 2014. Ed Woodward reiterated on his conference call on Wednesday Telles had been tracked ‘as part of our recruitment process for a long period’.
Fred enjoyed his ‘breakthrough’ performance in the PSG comeback 19 months ago and his axis with Scott McTominay was impressive last season until the Scot was injured on Boxing Day. The left-foot-right-foot balance has the fastidiousness of a Louis van Gaal selection but Fred was a superb conduit between the defence and the attack. He hit just six stray passes, drew two fouls, embarked on four dribbles and tallied a 100 per cent success rate with his balls into the last third.
Pogba’s presence put PSG on the back foot but he does not have the alacrity of Fred’s breakaways, hence the Brazilian’s start over United’s starriest player. McTominay is more aggressive and mobile than the 32-year-old Nemanja Matic and is starting to play deeper again – where he is best suited.
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Daniel James was the wing man in the split striker set-up last season as Martial or Rashford were injured, but an attacking troika of Martial, Rashford and Bruno Fernandes was far more menacing. Two of them scored and the other effectively claimed an assist.
United kept clean sheets against Chelsea and City last season with the steady duo of Maguire and Lindelof in a back three but never faced a whippersnapper like Mbappe. Chelsea have enhanced their attack with Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner and have Christian Pulisic back for Saturday’s meeting at Old Trafford. Tuanzebe, with five days to recover, has to be a starting contender with or without Maguire, whatever the formation.
A back three worked for Mourinho.