A long awaited team performance, Manchester United beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 away from home on Saturday. In stark contrast to recent games, especially the thrashings taken against Leicester City and Liverpool in recent weeks, it was a strong showing for the whole 90 minutes – which has been incredibly rare this season.
Arguably, the only other time we’ve seen such a performance this season was against Leeds United in the first Premier League game. The difference however, with this game compared to all the others the Red Devils have played this season, was the system. A much needed change to the usual 4-2-3-1, the five at the back worked wonders and the way it suited the players on the pitch showed.
A back five made things much easier for struggling duo Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. A similar system to the one played by England against Italy and Germany in the Euros, both looked more comfortable and more at home in this formation – especially with the composed class of Raphael Varane returning to slot in between Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
Aaron Wan Bissaka, while many suggested didn’t suit the wing-back role, was also impressive. He was solid defensively as always, but he also provided a threat on the attack, with a nice cross or two and some good linkup play with the forwards and the midfielders. Similar to Alex Telles on Luke Shaw’s side, there is an argument for Diogo Dalot to step in for certain games in this role, as it requires less defensive responsibility – but as long as Wan-Bissaka keeps performing like that he should keep his place.
The midfield three of Fred, Scott Mctominay and Bruno Fernandes were industrious all game. Mctominay and Fred were defensively superb, with the former arguably producing a man of the match performance in a slightly more adventurous role than usual. Fernandes was his usual hard working self. Although given the role of tracking back further than in the usual system, he was still able to produce a fantastic cross to Cristiano Ronaldo for the first goal, and looked just as creative a threat as always.
There is possibly an opportunity for the out of favour Donny Van De Beek to get more chances in this system, as the extra defender means less defensive solidity is required in the midfield – but we’ll see in the coming weeks.
The strike partnership of Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani was lethal. Combining for the second goal, they were like “Two peas in a pod” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after the game. Cavani suited Ronaldo to a tee – chasing down every ball while allowing Ronaldo to focus on scoring goals. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood could easily slot into this system next to either of them, or each other, and we saw how Rashford was able to score off the bench.
The change of system allowed every player to play well; and while the likes of Sancho may see decreased game time as a result of the change, it is for the better of the team. Not every performance will be as comfortable as this one, certainly not the next two games, but it does show a good sign for the coming matches.
Particularly, it showed there are ways around the pressing problem Ronaldo creates. A luxury player in many ways at this point of his career, when you use him you have to compensate for his defensive weakness and perform well as a unit out of possession.
It has taken far too long for the coaches to come up with it, but this new formation seemingly makes up for the change with Cristiano coming in, with the extra defender making it easier for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team without the ball. Although against a team that has struggled to score goals, this was United’s second clean sheet of the season which, while shocking, is a good sign of improvement from recent matches at least.
For a while Solskjaer has looked to force his team’s own style on the opposition rather than be reactive. In the 20/21 season we moved away from the back five almost entirely, in order to stick to our own plan. This made sense at the time, and while our defensive record suffered, going from 36 goals conceded in the league to 44, our goal scoring record increased from 66 goals to 73.
I feel it was a mistake to persist with this mindset in the current season however, we have far less defensive cover with Ronaldo and Solskjaer must accept that with him in the team we will never be like Manchester City or Liverpool style wise, as the forward does not suit a pressing team; but rather a team that sits in a solid shape and attacks well when the time comes, and that is what United were against Spurs.
We look forward to another huge game against Atalanta midweek – I expect the same system to be used again with perhaps one or two forced changes, given the tight fixture schedule. We can only hope for another good performance.