Only a mere eight days ago, Manchester United found themselves on the end of a 0-5 annihilation at Old Trafford at the hands of fierce rivals Liverpool; Mohamed Salah became the first player in Premier League history to score a hat-trick at the Theatre of Dreams, with the Merseyside outfit claiming their biggest victory over the Reds in years.
The sacking of the manager seemed inevitable, with the majority of United fans agreeing that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had taken the team as far as he could, and that no manager could survive a humiliation like the one suffered against Liverpool.
Just eight days later, following a victory over Spurs in a 5-3-2 system, Solskjaer has breathing space and, to add to his satisfaction, the managerial favorite to take his job is all but set to join Spurs following the sacking of Nuno Espírito Santo today- that man being Antonio Conte.
Zinedine Zidane taking over from the current Norwegian boss is something that has appealed to many fans, but with the Frenchman rumoured to not want the role mid-season, Solskjaer seems safe for the foreseeable future, with a lack of quality options available if he was to be relieved of his duties in the Old Trafford hot seat. The question then surfaces- is the 5-3-2 the way forward for Ole and United?Embed from Getty Images
Prior to kick-off on Saturday, when the team was announced, many supporters knew exactly what to expect from the Reds at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. A five-man defence lined up with the protection of 2 holding midfielders in Scott McTominay and Fred ahead of them.
Edison Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo were paired together for the first time this season, with Bruno Fernandes tucking in behind them in a 5-3-2 formation. It was inevitable that the team were going to be a compact defensive unit that got behind the ball when Spurs were in possession, who were able to rely on the quality up-front to secure the win.
Lo and behold, that was the scenario that played out; United got a rare clean sheet on the board, and Ronaldo and Cavani showed their class to put United 2 ahead, with Marcus Rashford coming off the bench to make it 3 in 4 games since his return to full fitness. Unlike the previous match, there was a real sense of unity amongst the team, with the players bouncing back as they do so often.
Despite the impressive result, many fans have been left with conflicted emotions regarding the way in which the team went about the victory. United clocked up only 42% possession at the weekend, managing only 4 shots on target in what was hardly a vintage performance. Just the 1 corner for the away side is further evidence that the style of play was far from scintillating against a team that- in reality- the Reds manager should probably be taking the game to and imposing his own style of play on, in that United’s quality of player was greater to that of Spurs’.
Moreover, fans have seen that the team are capable of a victory in this manner before. To be truthful, some of Solskjaer’s finest moments in his managerial tenure have come with a 5-3-2 formation, such as the 2-0 triumph over Manchester City when McTominay beat Edison from 40 yards, or when Rashford fired in a sensational knuckleball freekick at Stamford Bridge in a Carabao Cup win in 2019.Embed from Getty Images
Pundits and fans alike are now pondering over whether or not there is any sustainability and longevity in this system. There are a few factors to consider, such as the utility of the squad, the opposition in the near future, and, most importantly to many Reds fans, the relatability to the ‘United Way’ that senior figures within the club continuously preach about.
It could credibly be said that, if Solskjaer continues to use the formation that was adopted at weekend, it is weak on his end, having set the standard with a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of his time as manager; it would appear as an admission of failure if he moves towards the 5-3-2 from here on.
In regard to the utility of the current set of players, it has to be said that a 5-3-2 system diminishes the playing time of many of the players in need of it most. The club shed a whopping £73m on Jadon Sancho in the Summer, yet the Englishman is yet to register a single goal involvement for the club many a week later. Sancho is a winger by nature, so it seems strange to start playing in a system that cannot accommodate wingers whatsoever that alienate a man in need of playing time and confidence.
Some wingers, like Rashford, are able to operate as part of the (2) in a 5-3-2, but Sancho simply isn’t that man. Away from Sancho, Solskjaer still has to delegate playing time to Ronaldo, Cavani, Rashford, Martial and youngster Amad Diallo in just 2 spaces in that system. The midfield further proves an issue, with Lingard, Mata, van de Beek, Matic and Pogba all going to struggle to play with the manager’s reliance on his trusty trio of ‘McFred’ and Fernandes.
However, to give some credit to the 5-2-3 system, defenders in the squad are more likely to flourish. In saying that, though, fans won’t be overly ecstatic with defensive solidity if the goals aren’t flowing at the opposite end.
When considering the opposition that United are set to face, the 5-3-2 may prove both clever and stupid at the same time. Although it would not be popular, it does actually make some sense to go with 5 defenders against Manchester City and Chelsea (2 of the next 5 games), similar to how the manager has set the team up before in recent seasons. However, against Atalanta, Watford and Villarreal (the other 3 of the next 5 games), going with such a pragmatic system seems inept on the face of it; United have much better player quality than those teams and should be imposing an attacking style on them.
Paramount to any other conversation to many of the Old Trafford faithful, though, is whether or not the 5-3-2 represents the historical traditions of Manchester United Football Club. To put it plain and simple, the answer is no. Keeping it tight at the back and nicking games through individual quality has been seen in the past on sporadic occasions under great United managers, but it has never been a consistent style of play in the club’s glory years.
Fans have been blessed in generations gone by to see attacking football worthy of winning league titles, and the 5-2-3 formation with pragmatic ball progression is not related to that whatsoever. Plus, and this is something that will quickly be forgotten because of Conte’s appointment at Spurs, would it not have made sense to replace Solskjaer with Conte if the plan was to start playing with a defensive 5? After all, the Italian is the best in the business when it comes to that sort of style.Embed from Getty Images
Despite all the reasons why a 5-3-2 is not the one to go forward with, one could play devil’s advocate and argue whether it is wrong to change a winning formula. Albeit, it has only been the 1 game against a poor Tottenham team, but should the manager switch things up if it has worked?
The defenders are bound to relish with this way of playing, and in a campaign where United have racked up only 2 clean sheets in 14 games so far, would it not be better to focus on clean sheets and build a foundation from there?
Perhaps this perspective is one to consider for supporters, as it is likely to be the perspective of the under-pressure manager.
It will be interesting to see how United line up in the next few weeks, as always. Whether or not Solskjaer is brave enough to return to a 4-2-3-1 and risk defensive fragility remains to be seen, with the 5-3-2 bound to earn United a fair few clean sheets along the way.
As has been discussed, the 5-3-2 does not flatter United’s current players or the club traditions that fans have come to know and love in the past, but it does help the team build a defensive foundation that they have lacked so far this season.
United face Atalanta on Tuesday, which is another must-win game for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on his road to redemption in the hearts of Manchester United fans.