Switch to back three could earn United crucial win over Spurs... again

Manchester United’s clash with Tottenham this weekend is crucial in the chase for the top four.

Arsenal are in the box seat and United cannot afford to lose any more ground if they want to qualify for next season’s Champions League via the Premier League.

Momentum needs to be restored after the 4-1 derby humbling and built ahead of the vital Champions League second leg against Atletico Madrid.

We have looked at three reasons a switch to a back three could be the key to a crucial victory over Antonio Conte’s side.

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Rangnick said he was mulling it over

In January, Ralf Rangnick said he was considering a switch to a back three on a more lasting basis once he gets enough central defenders available.

The German altered his shape mid-game against Wolves in January and said: “Well, I think most teams have their system in England and they stick to it.

“But there are also teams who switch from a back three to a back four, or from a back four to a back three.

“Or – like Bayern Munich, for example, or [RB] Leipzig, who also did it last season with Julien Nagelsmann – even if they play defensively in a back four, they try to rotate within this system, this formation, to a little bit of an asymmetric back three.”

Raphael Varane has returned to training, so Rangnick could play the Frenchman, captain Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof together on Saturday, with Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot suited to wing-back roles.

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The squad are reportedly open to it

In February, it was reported that the squad had expressed a wish to go with a 3-5-2, which would get Edinson Cavani into the team alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Given the form of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho, as well as the fact that Cavani is unlikely to be fit to start the game, perhaps a 3-4-3 would be more apt this weekend.

But that would match Antonio Conte’s side up well, although it would leave conundrums over how to fit all four of the central midfielders who started the Manchester derby into the squad.

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It worked in October

United went into the reverse fixture this season on the back of a high-profile thrashing at the hands of Liverpool.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s response was to reach for a three-man defensive system to counteract Nuno Espirito Santo’s formation.

The result was a 3-0 win, which earned Solskjaer a stay of execution and Rangnick could desperately do with a similar result this weekend.

Spurs are a different animal now under Antonio Conte, but they still use a wing-back system and given United’s struggles to deal with that challenge against Wolves, it really might be wise to match them up from the start.

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Sam Preston is an NCTJ gold standard news and sports journalist who studied with the Press Association. He also has a 2:1 law with French law degree from the University of Birmingham, which included a year studying at Bordeaux Montaigne University. He is an FA Level 1 football coach who appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show in 2018 and has also written digital football content and match-day programme pieces for Colchester United, Mansfield Town and Stockport County.