After the second international break of the season, Manchester United have inflicted another serious injury problem ahead of a tough streak of games.
It has been confirmed that French center-back Raphael Varane was injured in the French Nations League victory over Spain and will be absent for a few weeks due to the injury.
This means that The Red Devils’ center-back situation has continued to deteriorate as captain Harry Maguire is already on the sidelines due to an injury sustained against Aston Villa.
Could manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mess the formula with a five-man chain against Leicester City as Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly are the only two remaining center-backs for United?
Midfield and defensive problems
If you could describe Manchester United’s current squad record in two words, you wouldn’t be wrong to call them “top heavy”.
United are in a unique position of being the only team in last season’s top eight players in the Premier League without a distinguished recognized defensive midfielder.
Scott McTominay and Fred’s dual pivot point offers several merits; Having a couple of mobile screeners who can win the ball in midfield to protect the back four is something any team that wants to be solid defensively would want. But when that pivot dribbles past in midfield and is overtaken (like when Everton equalized in the last game against United), then something is fundamentally wrong.
Additionally, the problem becomes worse when neither player is well versed in ball development.
While Fred will not be available for the Leicester game due to his return from international service, McTominay will be fit for the start. Currently, however, he is unable to be the only water carrier on a team and this could be exposed against Leicester if Solskjaer chooses to use a back four with him as the sole holder.
This could lead to a recall for veteran Nemanja Matic, who, unlike Fred and McTominay, is much more comfortable on the ball and breaks the pressure lines with a concise pass. What the 33-year-old lacks now is the agility to be a full-blown defensive midfielder as he is unable to fill the gaps that are constantly being created by fast-breaking teams in the Premier League.
Leicester has a number of fast-paced players, including re-energized Jamie Vardy, notorious for breaking behind teams and terrorizing the defense at his pace.
This begs the question – how could an already fragile defense counter this?
Is a chain of five within reach?
While Solskjaer may ultimately choose to stick with a back four and trust that his team is solid and can simply score more goals than they concede (which is possible given the arsenal they have upfront), he can also pursue an approach that is not alien to it: a chain of five.
Solskjaer has used a five-a-side chain in previous games and it has worked brilliantly, with one of the best performances in that system being used at Old Trafford just before the pandemic against Manchester City.
But if he did, who would play where?
Well there are a number of options.
First, he could use McTominay as an auxiliary center-back – a position he has played on the Scottish national team. Second, Luke Shaw or Aaron Wan-Bissaka could fall back into the back three while either Alex Telles or Diogo Dalot move into the full-back position to provide a more offensive presence. Or thirdly, he could play Matic as an auxiliary central defender, which is the least likely on this path.
Let’s look at the two most realistic ones on paper:
Of the two most realistic scenarios, if United opted to line up in a five-man chain, they could easily use a two-forward system or sacrifice the natural positioning of 10 and allow a lower midfielder to hike more.
United used two striker systems to great effect when Solskjaer took over as interim manager, beating Cardiff City 5-1 in his first game and then beating Paris Saint-Germain 4-4-2 in one of the major European comebacks.
In reality, the team’s attack system, whether using wingers or a two-man assault squad, can be raised and moved to the other line-up so that is not a problem.
The problem is how best to counter your opponent and then create a team that can be solid while threatening forward.
By comparison, Chelsea have typically used a five-man chain with a full-back and a quick center-back since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival and this has worked to great effect.
Whatever Solskjaer does will undoubtedly lead to controversy and if his team doesn’t get the result and performance some fans are looking for, there will likely be pressure and demand for his removal regardless of injury or outcome.