The Manchester derby is upon us once again this weekend, and the red half of town would probably want to face anyone else on the planet else right now.
A goalless draw against Crystal Palace in midweek means it’s three 0-0 draws in a row for Man Utd, and just four wins in their last 11 games in all competitions. They have slid from top of the Premier League to 14 points behind Sunday’s opponents Manchester City.
Just three wins from their last ten league fixtures has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side score 19 goals, with nine of those coming against Southampton in one game.
The defensive numbers aren’t horrific – United have kept five clean sheets and shipped eight goals in that time – but the nature of the goals conceded as well as the performances of the team as a whole have seen United dragged back from a title challenge to the top four race.
Going forward, United have struggled too, with their strikers out of form and the wingers proving inconsistent as usual. Bruno Fernandes’ hot hand has gone cold and their more creative central players such as Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Donny van de Beek have suffered with injuries.
With Man City having won 21 in a row and going a club-record 28 games unbeaten, Solskjaer can’t rely on the system he’s been using in recent weeks to get him a result in this game.
They’ve not been solid enough defensively, not been nearly good enough going forward and aren’t clinical enough to take the small number of chances they are creating.
Despite the three consecutive clean sheets recently, those games need to be looked at in depth. The Real Sociedad tie was dead and buried from the first leg, and it’s worth remembering the Spanish side missed a first half penalty in that game.
Against Chelsea, neither team committed to attacking their opponent greatly, but it was the Blues who had the best chances of the game with David De Gea denying Hakim Ziyech from close range. United then had just one shot on target at Selhurst Park, and it was Palace who seemed more likely to break the deadlock despite the possession the Reds had.
The likelihood of United being able to keep out a City side who have scored the most goals in the Premier League this season is low with their current setup, but the chances of scoring against the best defence in the league is even lower based on current form.
The Reds need to change something for this game to get a result and their best bet may look negative on paper, but could help them at the opposite end of the pitch just as much.
When United beat City in the Premier League last season in the final game with fans, they did it with a three at the back formation. When they beat Paris Saint-Germain earlier this season, they did it with a three at the back formation. You see where I’m going here?
In the big games so far this season, other than the defeat to Arsenal in November, United have gone with four at the back and two holding midfielders. It’s done them no good in terms of results, with no wins and several 0-0 draws. But a 0-0 draw isn’t enough anymore. United need to win.
Adding an extra defender may not seem like the most logical answer to that, but hear me out for a second.
Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been very good going forward since the turn of the year, with Shaw registering more assists than any defender in the league in 2021. Wan-Bissaka has improved in the final third despite his obvious technical flaws, and defensively they’ve still been great too.
United’s most in-form position currently is probably at centre-back, with all three of Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in great form.
So why not play the three of them together in the centre and allow the full-backs to push forward more?
You can keep your midfield base for added security, but it also allows Scott McTominay to utilise his new found goal threat too.
In attack, you can allow freedom. Fernandes is at his best when roaming across the final third while Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood can play together as a front two, splitting into wide positions to run in behind or overload the wide positions. Edinson Cavani would be another option to occupy central defenders and allow Fernandes and Rashford to cause havoc.
It’s not a guarantee that it would earn them a result, but it would at least show an intent to change their fortunes – take a leaf out of the book of Thomas Tuchel’s by adding an extra defender to make your team more attacking.