Manchester United tactical change can help unleash dream midfield – Tyrone Marshall

When Diogo Dalot sat in the bowels of Old Trafford late on Wednesday night and talked us through the role he had played for Manchester United against Villarreal you could almost have been listening to a Manchester City full-back under Pep Guardiola.

Dalot confirmed he had played as a full-back-cum-midfielder against the La Liga side, often eschewing the chance to overlap and offer width. Instead, he would tuck in next to Scott McTominay, while Victor Lindelof, Raphael Varane and Alex Telles would form a back three.

The theoretical benefits to that role are threefold really. Firstly, it allowed Paul Pogba to play a much more advanced midfield role than usual when he’s played alongside Fred or Scott McTominay. The Frenchman was United’s most advanced attacker on a few occasions in the first half, not something you’d ever say about Fred or McTominay when they play together.

By freeing Pogba but using Dalot in midfield it should protect against counter-attacks, which is a significant reason Pep Guardiola has regularly used Joao Cancelo or Aleks Zinchenko in a defensive midfield role, while also offering greater control when you have the ball.

In reality, United were still countered on too easily by Villarreal and they didn’t see enough of the ball to really control the play. In his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had complained that United had attacked too quickly against Aston Villa on Saturday and there were shades of that again on Wednesday.

United didn’t slow the game down enough to produce combinations, instead, it was a case of taking the fastest route to goal, but that failed to hurt Villarreal for the first hour. United might have benefited from a greater monopoly of the ball and slowing the game down to produce that combination play that can drag a disciplined defence out of position.

While the system – which when United set-up from Villarreal goal attacks and on those rare occasions they did have control looked something like a 3-2-4-1 – wasn’t a resounding success, it’s worth considering there would have been very little time to work on it at Carrington.

The real fascination now is whether this was a one-off or if it’s something Solskjaer intends to develop further. It would need the game plan to alter more. City get the benefit from it because they have a bigger share of possession and Guardiola actively discourages from his players from attacking too quickly, he wants the game slowed down and the attacks developed through passes.

Against Villarreal United’s share of possession was 56%, which is why we probably didn’t see enough of Dalot playing infield in open play. When he did take up those positions he would regularly be called back into the back four by Lindelof and getting your position right when playing both roles is something that takes time.

But the biggest plus for United using a system like this would be the freedom it would give to Pogba, who would no longer be shackled by so many defensive responsibilities in a more rigid 4-2-3-1.

When United have the ball it would allow them to attack with a front five of, for example, Jadon Sancho, Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Cristiano Ronaldo.

This is an example of how the 4-2-3-1 could turn into a 3-2-4-1 in possession. Here, Shaw is used as midfielder, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Varane as the back three. There would still be opportunities for Shaw to provide width, but generally, the role would be to give United more control and more protection.

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It would take time to master and it could well be that Solskjaer only ever intended to try and mix it up to counter a specific threat from Villarreal, who as we saw played with a swagger at Old Trafford.

But the United boss said earlier this season that he had looked at ways of freeing up one of the two anchoring midfielders to go forward, when answering a question specifically about Donny van de Beek.

“He can definitely play as one of the two. We’ve looked at ways of getting one of the two going forward, as Scott is also very good at, Paul is good at, Donny is good at,” said Solskjaer.

“It depends who you’ve got in front of you as well, when you’ve got players who create space for you and Donny has been unfortunate.”

Using a full-back in midfield could be the most effective way of getting that second holding midfielder to play a more attacking role. It might be the solution to unlocking the potential in United’s midfield.

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