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Manchester United analysis: Why Erik ten Hag should switch to a back three formation

Joe Nuttall

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Manchester United analysis: Why Erik ten Hag should switch to a back three formation

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

After a pre-season which, overall, yielded positive results, Manchester United have made an abysmal start to the 2022/23 season.

An opening day 1-2 defeat against Brighton at Old Trafford, and most recently a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Brentford, see United sit bottom of the Premier League.

Currently, Erik ten Hag has set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 system, but it could be that he decides to switch to a back three to get the best out of some of his players and strengthen United’s defence.

Should Ten Hag decide to switch to a back three, there are two different ways United could set up. The first would be in a 3-4-3 system, and the second would be as a 3-5-2. Here is a look at how United could set up and how it would affect some players.

The Centre-Backs

The make up of the three central defenders would be important to United. When in possession, they may well have the opportunity to carry the ball forward at times, so it is vital to have defenders who are good on the ball, in order to maximise this.

It seems like it would be safe to assume that Lisandro Martinez and Harry Maguire would start as two of the three centre-backs.

Lisandro Martinez is one of several new arrivals at United this summer (Alamy)
Lisandro Martinez is one of several new arrivals at United this summer (Alamy)

Martinez has come under scrutiny since he joined United, mainly because of his height. However, having an extra centre-back on the pitch would help cover for him from set-pieces, and so far he hasn’t really been dominated in the air by an attacker.

Martinez is a progressive player and averages 7.16 progressive passes and 5.89 progressive carries per 90 minutes. He ranks in the 99th and 96th percentile for each of these respectively.

Having such good ball-playing ability means Martinez would be a crucial part of United’s play when in possession. With the ability to play passes through the lines and bring the ball forward himself, he would be able to start attacks from a deep position, and even join them himself if the chance arises.

Maguire would also thrive in this system. It would potentially suit Maguire better to start on the right-hand side. This is because he would have more opportunity to carry the ball forward, something which he is particularly good at.

He averages 3.44 progressive carries per 90 minutes in the league, amongst Europe’s top five leagues. This ranks him in the 80th percentile.

As we have seen in the past for England, Maguire is excellent in a back three, especially when he can carry the ball forward, and we could see a similar situation at United.

Their other partner would most likely be Raphael Varane, who, if he can stay fit this season, will be one of United’s most crucial players. Varane is also good when it comes to progressive carries, averaging 3.19 per 90 minutes. His excellent aerial presence also adds another key factor to United’s defence.

raphael varane
raphael varane

Other options to play as one of the three centre-backs include Eric Bailly, and Victor Lindelof, who has been unavailable for the first two games of the season due to an injury.

United certainly have a few options as to who could play in the back three, but Maguire, Varane and Martinez seem like at present they could be the best trio to go with.

The Central Midfielders

Another interesting factor would be who plays in midfield. If United were to play a 3-4-3, then the two central midfielders would need to be hard-working, energetic players who can play line-breaking passes to the forwards.

Out of possession, it may be the case at times that both wingbacks and both wingers drop deeper to provide extra support for the two central midfielders. This is important if, for example, United are playing against a three-player midfield.

With just two midfielders, they would be constantly outnumbered and would need to work much harder. Having the wingers drop back at times would make the midfield more compact and creates a better balance when out of possession.

Should United play a 3-4-1-2, the attacking midfielder would be able to drop back and create a more balanced midfield. However, in possession they would be able to get further forward and influence the game from further up the pitch.

This is certainly a role Bruno Fernandes would excel in, provided he can stay disciplined and retain possession well, such as he did in pre-season. Christian Eriksen would also be excellent in this role, although he may well be able to influence the game more from deeper in midfield. Donny van de Beek is another player who could play in this more advanced role.

Christian Eriksen against Brighton in the Premier League. (Alamy)
Christian Eriksen against Brighton in the Premier League. (Alamy)

United have several options for midfield, but there are some who seem especially suitable. Right now, Eriksen is one of United’s most important players. His creativity is something that will be vital to Ten Hag in years to come, and he is one of the most gifted passers of a football in the world.

In possession, Eriksen would be able to get on the ball both deeper in midfield and between the lines, and constantly be able to play those line-breaking passes for the forward players to run onto. He would also be able to get into shooting range and test the keeper from distance.

James Garner is another option for United. He saw plenty of success when playing in the midfield of a back-three system at Nottingham Forest last season. He is a hard-working, disciplined midfielder who is good on the ball and is a tough tackler. He was one of the best midfielders in the Championship last season. However, Garner is currently linked with a permanent move away from United.

Other options for United include Fred, Scott McTominay and Donny van de Beek. All three of these players would offer something different in this system and are all certainly options to consider. They are all good options to play in midfield and Van de Beek is also an excellent option to play further ahead as a No.10.


United certainly need to strengthen in midfield, especially if Garner leaves. Recruiting another midfielder, be it Casemiro, Frenkie de Jong or someone else certainly needs to be high on United’s transfer priority list.

The Attackers

United are potentially better suited to playing a 3-4-3, with two wingers and a number nine, rather than playing multiple number nines. This is because, at the time of writing, United don’t have a lot of depth up front, and they have some great options out wide who should be used to the maximum.

Having a front three of, for example, Jadon Sancho on the right-hand side, Marcus Rashford on the left-hand side, and Anthony Martial up front would give United’s attack some good balance in this system. The wingers would also need to stay disciplined and help out defensively if needed.

Like how Tottenham’s attackers set up in their 3-4-3 system under Antonio Conte, United would have an inverted winger in Marcus Rashford, who would be able to cut inside and make runs in behind. Having a player like Eriksen behind him will make this more consistent and hopefully more profitable.

Jadon Sancho would be able to keep width on the right, stretching the opposition and looking to run at defenders and take them on. He would also be able to link up with the wingback such as Diogo Dalot, and the striker, moving the ball quickly and progressively.

This certainly plays to Sancho’s strengths. By stretching the defence, he may also get a lot of opportunities to attack huge areas of space in front of him.

Anthony Martial showed during pre-season just how exceptional his link-up play with those around him is. This would be crucial to this system, as he will have the chance to drop slightly deeper and find one of the wingbacks, who would be pushed further on and quite wide, or one of the wingers, including the left-winger, who would be inverted.

Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes against Crystal Palace in pre-season. (Alamy)
Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes against Crystal Palace in pre-season. (Alamy)

Martial is also a clinical finisher and could make late runs into the box to meet a cross or score a rebound. He works hard off the ball and is an intelligent striker. Martial would work well in this system.

United have some excellent alternative options to play these positions. Bruno Fernandes would potentially make a good alternative to Martial, playing in a role like one he has in the past.

Alejandro Garnacho is a direct player who would work as the inverted winger. Still only 18-years-old, Garnacho is an exciting prospect who could see success cutting in from the left-hand side. Anthony Elanga is another player who could play on either side. He is another excellent prospect who works hard every time he plays for United.

The one man not mentioned yet is Cristiano Ronaldo. There is still a lot of speculation surrounding his future at United. If he stays, he could work well playing with a strike partner, be it Martial or another player.

It will be fascinating to see whether Erik ten Hag does switch to a back three. Certainly, there are ways it will play to the strengths of different players. Adding a third centre-back will, at the very least, add to the defensive numbers and hopefully make United more solid at the back.

Switching to a back three after a whole pre-season playing a different system may be risky but could certainly pay off. If Ten Hag does make the switch, it will be a huge test first up for United, with Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford now only days away.

Joe Nuttall
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