The sun-kissed days of June and the start of Manchester United’s pre-season feel like an awful long time ago right now.
Optimism was in the air then and it would go through a successful summer transfer window. On the pitch, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was telling players the evolution of his side was going to see a transition from 4-2-3-1 to a more proactive 4-3-3.
By the end of November, Solskjaer had been sacked, having never had enough faith in his midfielders to start a game with a 4-3-3.
United haven’t improved much since Solskjaer departed and the 2-2 draw with Aston Villa on Saturday left them marooned in seventh. Throwing away a two-goal lead at Villa Park was the latest ignominy in their season, but that game might at least have given them a template moving forward.
The early weeks of Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager haven’t provided the bounce United would have wanted and they’ve been characterised by an attempt to find a formation to suit the players within the squad. Having started with his preferred 4-2-2-2 shape, Rangnick returned to the 4-2-3-1 system the players are more comfortable with for the FA Cup tie with Aston Villa last week.
But for the game in the Midlands it was finally a 4-3-3 for United and while the result and the second half were disappointing, there was enough encouragement for Rangnick to declare it the best performance since he took over.
For the first half-hour, United had the control the 63-year-old has been desperate to establish and they created plenty of opportunities throughout the match. Bruno Fernandes played as the left of centre No 8 and linked well with Alex Telles and Anthony Elanga, while Fred’s role to the right of him encouraged United to press at the right moments. The Brazilian played a crucial role in the second goal.
This system certainly felt more modern than Rangnick’s unusual 4-2-2-2 and it’s more likely that a new manager this summer will continue to use a 4-3-3, so there is a benefit to be had from schooling the players into this formation for the next five months.
United’s biggest issue in playing it is the lack of a holding midfielder. Nemanja Matic performed the role well in the first half but he was compromised by picking up a yellow card and the 33-year-old also tired. There was no Scott McTominay to come off the bench and the Scot has rarely been used in that role anyway. It’s telling that when McTominay and Fred play they tend to feature as a double pivot, the suggestion being neither is considered to have the right skillset to play as a lone holding midfielder.
It’s certainly not an ideal role for Fred, but it could be one McTominay is developed in. The academy graduate is a versatile player, having played as a striker coming through the ranks at United and a centre back for Scotland. There’s no reason he can’t become a viable option as a holding midfielder.
United’s priority – in January and in the summer – should be to sign players who can play this system, however, and that means a world-class defensive midfielder. Manchester City and Liverpool both play a similar midfield shape, with one holding player and two more advanced, but in Rodri and Fabinho they have two of their best defensive midfielders in the Premier League.
Matic may once have been in that discussion, but those times have passed and if United are to persevere with a 4-3-3 then an elite holding midfielder has to arrive by the summer transfer window at the latest.
Sticking with the 4-3-3 gives United a template for squad management and the kind of transfers they need. Beyond strengthening in midfield there is still a weakness at right-back. Aaron Wan-Bissaka lacks the attacking quality at the moment while Diogo Dalot can get forward well, he had a difficult game defensively on Saturday.
A long-term approach to playing a 4-3-3 should suit United’s variety of wingers and inside forwards, but they will need a succession plan for Cristiano Ronaldo. It will mean the end for any dreams of a Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani partnership and with the Uruguayan leaving this summer, United would need another striker to either compete with or succeed Ronaldo.
Having a settled formation would certainly help any new manager coming in as well. While Rangnick has always had a lot of faith in his 4-2-2-2 system, it hasn’t worked for this group of players and is so distinctive it is providing little long-term value if he moves upstairs this summer.
By switching to a 4-3-3 United are mirroring the kind of system played by most elite clubs. That is where they not only aspire to be, but should be. They might not have the perfect personnel for it at the moment but it should provide focus as to the type of players required to come in.