Is formation vs talent the key to United short-term success?

Manchester United’s defeat at Bournemouth coincided with a return to a flat back four.

The 4-2-3-1 formation has provided little success this season, compared to the improved results when United have lined up with three central defenders.

Why the change?

When United are selecting a 3-4-1-2 formation, it is really hard to fit all three of Dan James, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in.

The only possible way is to select James as a wing-back, which United have not done so far.

Against Liverpool, Partizan and Chelsea, one of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial began the game on the bench.


As soon as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided he wanted to pick all three of James, Rashford and Martial against Bournemouth, this dictated a return to a back four.

The extra central defender is gained by dropping an attacker.

Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Addition by subtraction

With United struggling for goals, it sounds totally counter intuitive to drop one of our best attackers.

United should be a more dangerous team with all three of Rashford, Martial and James on the pitch.

But this is a flawed United team and squad, particularly in midfield, where our options are weak.

Adding an extra defender, Marcos Rojo or Axel Tuanzebe when fit, gives United an even stronger base at the back.

This enables the full-backs to get forward more effectively and for two strikers to operate as a two up top, rather than a lone frontman supported by two wide attackers.

The strengthened defence also helps out Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield, leaving them with a little less work to do.

Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Who misses out?

This is the hardest part of United’s conundrum. Dan James does not deserve to be dropped, even though there is an argument to rest him for the odd game here and there.

Both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have proved their qualities and have strong cases to be starting.

While it is not easy, if United prioritise a successful system over individuals, these are decisions which need to be made.

James, Martial and Rashford are key for United and there is a need to rotate.

Without many strong back-up options, rotation could work to United’s benefit rather than picking all three twice a week until one gets injured.

If United do want to persist with all three, then they must prove it works. It might be that in this case the formation is more important to the team than fitting in the best individuals.

Long term, United need better options and that means a stronger midfield. In the short-term, sacrificing one of the team’s best three attackers could be key to a revival.

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