THE 3-4-1-2 system used by Manchester United has not always been the success it was against Paris-St Germain on Tuesday.
Chelsea visit Old Trafford this evening, three months after pulling apart United in their FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, although manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s problems seemed to be rooted more in individual errors and selection issues that day than any particular systemic flaws.
David de Gea had a nightmare, Nemanja Matic looked immobile in midfield and Marcus Rashford was isolated up front with Daniel James next to him as Chelsea won 3-1.
By contrast, United had got the better of Chelsea employing that formation in their two previous meetings and, while statistics do not always convey the whole picture, a pattern has emerged that shows Solskjaer’s side to be far more effective in high-profile fixtures with a back three than a back four. There is an added bounce when Paul Pogba – omitted in Paris – does not start.
Between that first PSG victory in March last year and this week’s triumphant return to the French capital, United won just four of 13 ‘big’ matches (defined as domestic games against the Big Six, all Champions League ties and last season’s Europa League semi-final against Sevilla) in which they started with a back four. That is a 31 per cent win ratio. They conceded 24 goals at an average of 1.84 per game.
Yet the win ratio jumps to 50 per cent with a back three in 10 big matches over the same period. They scored marginally fewer using the system but the difference defensively is pronounced – 1.1 goals per game conceded on average.
Factor in Pogba and an even clearer picture emerges. United’s 4-0 win over Chelsea at the start of last season remains the only big game of eight the club have won in this 20-month time frame in which the midfielder has started, seven of which involved a back four. Eighteen goals were shipped, just eight scored and there were five defeats.
Without Pogba starting, United have won eight and drawn two of 15 big games, scoring 20 goals and conceding 17. Playing a back three without him in the team, there were five wins and a draw from nine games. Even the best wins with a back four came without Pogba: the 2-1 wins over Spurs and Manchester City in December last year and PSG first time around.
To Pogba’s credit, he did well when introduced in the 67th minute on Tuesday and Solskjaer reverted to a back four, but perhaps there is more value in using him as an impact substitute.
Scott McTominay and Fred have offered a doggedness and level of discipline Pogba has seldom shown.
In the hole behind two split strikers, Bruno Fernandes not only has the vision and passing range to rival Pogba, he closes down space quicker, his shooting is better and he offers leadership.
United’s 6-1 capitulation to Tottenham was notable for the absence of protection a flimsy, disjointed midfield containing Pogba, Fernandes and Matic gave a sloppy, hesitant back four. Collective flaws were compounded by individual errors and there was good reason why Solskjaer told his players he would not be playing that team again. It was interesting to hear the manager suggesting he might overhaul the way the side prepares for games at Old Trafford after winning just six of their past
12 there. Solskjaer’s 3-4-1-2 may prove less effective against opponents who sit deep.
Yet, in the bigger games, it plays to some of United’s strengths, not least their pace on the break, and masks more of their weaknesses, certainly defensively.
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